Crossing Borders/Breaking Boundaries
The Arts of India, 1556-1658
June 23 - July 1, 2008
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Unit of Study:            Fiction-Short Story; Portfolio Design

Lesson Title:              Legendary Love Stories in Mughal India -Portfolios

Discipline:                 ESOL 4
Grade Level:             9th – 12th Grades

Author:                      Kathleen Murphy

County:                      Prince George’s County, MD

Time Period:              Five classes



The South and Central Asian ESL students in my high school classes see little representation of themselves in the literature selections we usually read, so to include them in our literary attention (especially during the concurrent seasons of Ramadan and Divali) I‘ve sought selections from their cultures that would interest all. High school students- even 15-year old boys- love romantic dramas like “Romeo and Juliet.” A trot through the 16th-century libraries of Northern India turns up three romantic gems from Hindu, Arab and Mughal arts that can be presented in a 5-7 hour unit. They show universal symbols, character types and themes. The era’s two artistic legacies- Muraqqa manuscripts and the Taj Mahal – took inspiration from these love stories that cross class lines. The three of them can work well in American classrooms, especially in ESOL, literature and writing classrooms, where portfolios will be developed.


Three lasting love stories enjoyed wide renown in the Mughal era. Two are from folk tradition: “The Ramayana” is the epic from ancient India traditionally told through dance, and “Majnun Leila” is a tale recorded by the Persian poet Nizami in 12th century but originating in either Arabia or the Caucasus. The third love story - of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, both entombed in the Taj Mahal - is historical. The three stories follow similar character, plot, thematic patterns.

Because the Mughals prized books, they commissioned the writing and illustration of numerous classics as well as non-fiction court reports and family portrayals. Surely the highly educated rulers of the day knew the legends that they and their predecessors illustrated, so It’s plausible that the Shah Jahan and his wife were inspired by the lovers of earlier legend.

To launch this unit, a teacher needs to outline the region’s geography and history, available in any high school world history book. She should note that the region is a crossroads of several civilizations: Indian, Turkic, Persian, to name the few with most direct impact. The art of the Mughal book illustration- Muraqqa’- also should be presented visually and explained as elegant scrap books often patched together with borders that sometimes comment on the central panels. The era prized the book partly because of the Islamic culture’s regard for the book, beginning with the Quran, and partly because the Mughal culture had long been nomadic and therefore created moveable art.


  • LCD projector and computer with internet or equivalent.
  • Three pieces of construction paper for each student, either 11x 14 or 8-1/2 x 11.
  • A manila folder or pocket folder with page fasteners.
  • Wrapping paper of various designs for scrap-book borders and cover.
  • Binding string, scissors, glue sticks, hole puncher, pencils, markers, gel pens, calligraphy pens.


1. 2008 Summer Institute, Crossing Borders, Breaking Boundaries, UMCP, Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies, various presenters and websites. See
Three or more folio pages showing the Mughal manuscript illustrations, including one on each story.

2. Muraqqa catalogue’, Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Art Services International 2008 (Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian museum exhibit, 2008)
Majnun in the Wilderness, Late Shah Jahan Album, India, 1640-1650;
Mumtaz Majal & Shah Jahan (still under search);
Shah Jahan portraits, Late Shah Jahan Album;
Rama and Sita, Akbarnama, Salimnama, India 1602.

3. Laila and Majnun at School: Page from manuscript of Laila and Majnun of Nizami (Afghanistan, Herat).

Three story books that tell the three stories:

4. “The Story of Rama,” Indian Children’s Favorite Stories, Rosemarie Somaiah & Ranjan Somaiah. Tuttle Publishing, 2006. North Clarendon, VT

5. The Adventures of Rama, Milo Beach. Freer Gallery Publishing, 1983. Washington, DC.

6. Taj Mahal, Caroline Arnold & Madeleine Comora, Rahul Bhughan (illus.). Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 2007. Minneapolis, MN.

7. Still under search, Majnun Leila storybook in English

8. The Silk Route, 7,000 Miles of History, John S. Major & Stephen Fieser. Harper Collins, 1995.

9. Timelines of the Persian and Mughal empires from the Metropolitan museum in N.Y. - timeline

10. Map of Asia from any atlas, preferably historic atlas.

11. “When the Moguls Ruled,” National Geographic, Vol. 167,
No. 4, April, 1985, p. 467. Mike Edwards, Roland Michaud.
     Books on region for circulating library (extended learning):

12. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, Suzanne Fischer Staples. Knopf Random House Books, 1989

13. Under the Persimmon Tree, Suzanne Fischer Staples. Square Fish Books, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005

14. Ghandi

Standards/ Learner Outcomes:

(Fine Arts) (2.0) Historical, Cultural, and Social Context: Students will demonstrate an understanding of visual arts as a basic aspect of history and human experience by analyzing three muraqqa illustrations that depict characters or scenes in three different love stories known in the Mughal era.

(Content-ELL) 3: English Language Learners will read English to acquire language and comprehend, analyze, interpret, and evaluate a variety of literary and informational texts.

(Content Reading) 1.2. Students will identify connections among two or more texts.

Objectives/ Skills:

(Fine Arts) (2.1.b)  Student will compare images and forms that explore universal themes about human experiences from different times and places and create original muraqqa to demonstrate grasp.

(Content-ESL Reading) (3.5). Student will make inferences or draw conclusions and make generalizations about parallels in two or three traditional stories.

(Content-Reading) 1.2.4. Students will make connections between different texts and illustrations by comparing scenes and recreating a portfolio that applies Muraqqa style to personal interests.

Vocabulary (Use dictionary to include parts of speech, word parts, etymology):

calligraphy, caste, Divali, dome, folio, Hindu, Islamic, legend, longing, manuscript, minaret, mourn, Mughal, muraqqa, Muslim, nomadic, portfolio, scene, shah, tomb.


Show photo of Taj Majal and ask students to write as much as they know about it. Discuss responses. Then compare photo to storybook cover illustration, which uses Muraqqa graphic elements.

Scope and Sequence:

 Days 1, 2, 3, 4- Read stories and make original muraqqa folios of story scenes.
    *Teacher Directed-

1. Read aloud storybook of Taj Majal, with Muraqqa illustrations.
2. Discuss story and evidence of romantic devotion.
3. Make story map.
4. Disseminate non-fiction materials, such as National Geographic article. Discuss era and area of Mughal empire.
5. Show slides of manuscript pages from dynasty’s different books. Note representations of rulers, visitors and arts from different cultures, including Hindi and Arab stories.
6. Identify common graphic elements. Then present one recreated page to demonstrate options and thought process.

     *Guided Practice-

1. Ask whoever knows about “The Ramayana” to tell us about it.
2. Students read aloud the legend of Rama and Sita.
3. Discuss evidence of their romantic devotion.
4. Write class-generated story map and theme. (Use some calligraphic type face that may go in borders of page later.)
5. Show various illustrations of story scene where Sita follows Rama into forest.
6. Discuss dance performance tradition of this classic. (Students could create tableau of scene and serve as models for drawing.)
7. With class input, make small (6x9) centerpiece of one story scene, drawing with simple stick figures.
8. Make patchwork border, with mixed media, explaining options of calligraphy, portrait, still life.
9. Assemble the page pieces into Muraqqa-style manuscript page.

     *Independent Practice-
(Students may help each other with aspects of project, atelier style)

1. Students read aloud the legend of Majnun Leila.
2. Individually or in pairs, students write story maps and theme, using some calligraphic lettering.
3. Students view various illustrations of story, especially scene where lower-class Majnun exiles himself to wilderness out of heartbreak for his unattainable upper-class Leila.
4. Individuals or pairs make small centerpieces of story scene.
5. Each makes patchwork border, including their own choices of word, portrait, still-life or vignette.
6. Each assembles pieces into manuscript page.

Day 5- Portfolio Design

1. Ask what each student would include in their family album if they could take only one with them to a new country.
2. Show and explain family albums of the Mughals (as mapped out in Sackler catalogue). Describe atelier system of production.
3. Review all the graphic elements.
4. Post and tell instructions for creating portfolio cover. Review and distribute rubric and materials.


Part A. Did student coherently map or summarize the story and state a theme?
Did they illustrate the identifiable story scene with a distinctive border design in Muraqqa style?

Part B. Students and teacher may use rubric.

Muraqqa Portfolio Rubric:
Student/ Teacher        Key: 4= Creative   3= Meets Criteria    2= Attempted to meet Criteria    1= Weak Attempt

1.         /                      1. Both sides of folder are designed and labeled with full name
2.          /                     2. Decorative borders with pattern, words, portrayals
3.         /                      3. Centerpiece conveys passions, activities, significant people
4.         /                      4. Culture reflected
5.         /                       5. Various media used


Folios are assembled, each may contain anywhere from one solo story scene portrayal and theme statement or one scene from each of the three stories. The portfolio covers also may serve for other literature/writing projects.

Part A. Do you believe the love between Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal was inspired by Rama and Sita, or Majnun Leila, or both, or niether? Explain.

Part B. If you make another family album in 50 years, how do you hope it will differ from this one?


South-Central Asian ESOL students responded enthusiastically to the attention paid their cultures. (Quotes and anecdotes follow.) The small regional book collection I’ve assembled since is circulating very actively (Included in Section VIII-Resources) One caution- Teachers should be prepared to handle South-Central Asian student disenchantment with one another’s cultures due to current national hostilities. Stressing the tolerant court culture of the middle-late Mughal era and the wealth of cultural exchange helps.

Supporting Evidence and Anecdotes:

In addition to some authentic North Indian artwork (attempting to upload), which have been on display in our classroom all year, my ESOL students took an active interest in hearing more about this region. African and Latino students asked Indian and Pakistani students to teach them Urdu lettering and mendi design. One shy Indian student asked me to add a speech from Gandhi to our study of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, since I kept crediting him as an earlier model of peaceful protest. Two added novels to my personal lending library very actively circulated and drew this response from one Pakistani girl.

By Ummema Tanveer
     I have read a lot of books in my life but never finished them. The books I read so far weren’t interesting as much as “Shabanu” was. There was something in this book that you can relate to yourself, or anybody can relate to themselves. I was so into that, I can imagine in my heart I was there watching every single part of her life. The book was so interesting that I never wanted to finish reading it. Shabanu is a book about a girl who faces different challenges and she sacrifices her life for her family’s sake. The book also inspired me to read more books. For example, I read four books in the last three months.

Some responses to their closure activity about the portfolio designs follow:

Prompt: If you make a family album or portfolio in 50 years, how do you hope it will differ from the current one?


      I hope my portfolio in the future will show my wisdom that I have gained with the years.-Lucy (Nicaragua)

    It will be different because now I am kind of playful, naughty and talking too much. So my (future) album won’t be as colorful as it is now. When I’m 50, I will be mature and not doing any mischief. Another difference is my parents won’t be in it (but) my children will be.- Ummema (Pakistan)

     It will be in an old-fashion way, different from the modern. It will show a lot of jobs and money. It will be about sharing with other people.- Anthony (Nigeria)

     If I make a family album when I’m 50, years old, it wil look very different from now. I include pictures from black and white. I include 50-year-old designs. I include cultural pictures, so my grandchildren and children know about 50 year-old cultures and people. – Mahek (India)

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Sponsored by
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