Myth Takes ‘Mad’ Turn

Inconspicuously displayed in “Overlapping Realms: Arts of the Islamic World and India 900-1900,” the six paintings and three books that make up the sub-section called “On the Path of Madness: Representations of Majnun in Persian, Turkish, and Indian Painting” are more important in Islamic literature than their small number implies.

This new exhibit is organized by Mary McWilliams, the Calderwood curator of Islamic and later Indian art, and Sunil Sharma, a senior lecturer at Boston University, and will be on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum until Feb. 10, 2008.

Rather than relaying the famous tale of ill-fated lovers Layla and Majnun in its entirety, “On the Path of Madness” focuses exclusively on Majnun, portraying him as he was understood in three countries—with differing degrees of clarity.

The exhibit seems to derive more meaning from its historical and literary value from its artistic one.

The Persian, Indian, and Turkish interpretations of “Layla and Majnun” all agree on the general outline of the story: “driven mad” with love by the sight of a woman named Layla, the poet Qays expresses his longing in verse. Later known as Majnun—or “driven mad”—Qays is forbidden to wed Layla. Although technically married to another, Layla remains faithful to Majnun. Layla’s husband soon dies, but the lovers’ union is broken by Layla’s own death. Majnun himself dies after hearing of Layla’s fate.

Two examples of Indian art, the paintings “Tormented Lovers” and “Majnun with Gazelle,” portray Majnun as an archetype of religious piety. While these two paintings come from different time periods, Majnun appears gaunt and modest throughout, symbolizing his unearthliness and piety.

With its bold colors and broad brush strokes, the 18th-century painting “Tormented Lovers” adopts the artistic style of its contemporaries, but maintains an attention to detail and a religious interpretation consistent with older versions of the tale: Majnun’s imminent beheading suggests both submission to God and “loss of reason,” according to an accompanying plaque.

The painting calls for the story to be read metaphorically.

“Majnun with Gazelle” portrays a modestly dressed Majnun engrossed in the Koran, suggesting that students concentrate on their religious studies. Expanding on that point, the text behind Majnun urges students to be wise.

In contrast, Majnun appears princely in his golden robe with blue details and decorated white turban in “Layla Visiting Majnun,” a Turkish rendition of the tale. Behind a setting of fluffy blue waves and birds carrying intertwining blue branches, this Majnun is too decadent to be pious. Instead, the painting emphasizes the story’s literary elements, underscoring the meeting’s fantastical nature and foreshadowing the couple’s sad fate.

In the center of the six paintings on display are three tea-colored, yet brightly illustrated “Layla and Majnun” books, two of which are Persian. The most compelling part of the collection, the books attest to the value of the exhibit as living history.

“Layla and Majnun Embracing Surrounded by Wild Animals” is a 16th century Iranian folio that features a bold orange illustration of the lovers and artfully arranged text spanning across the book’s center. Colorful as any children’s book today, another book’s illustration, “Majnun Visits the Ka’aba,” features Majnun, hands extended, approaching an uncovered, white Ka’aba. Looking at this early 19th century folio from Iran, it’s easy to imagine the excitement an original reader must have felt when flipping through the pages for the first time.

Overall, the exhibit is a good sample of a famous tale in Islamic society. Unfortunately, it is overshadowed by the large collection of silver pots and blue tiles on display in the room. Although these artifacts might extend the viewer’s interest in Islamic culture, “On the Path of Madness” is worth seeing for its literary and historical value alone. Some may even be inspired to read “Layla and Majnun,” which is available at Widener library.

—Staff writer Alina Voronov can be reached at