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Hidden secrets of the universe-1998-01-24

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Event - 1998-01-22
Saturday, 1998, January 24
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

While the outside may be simple, the rooms inside are crammed with exotic bibelots, orchids, oriental rugs and textiles. But then Prince Sadruddin is the younger son of Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah, Aga Khan III - the Imam, or leader of the Ismaili Shia Muslims. Their family's bloodline can be traced back to the Prophet.

"I was brought up in the Muslim religion," says the publicity-shy prince, who was 65 yesterday. "My father insisted that I learnt the Koran and encouraged me to understand the basic traditions and beliefs of Islam but without imposing any particular views. He was an overwhelming personality but open-minded and liberal."

Certainly Prince Sadruddin, whose name in Arabic means "defender of the faith", has based his life on Islamic principles - brotherhood, understanding and solidarity. Having worked for nearly 40 years for the United Nations - 12 of them as High Commissioner for Refugees - he has striven to live up to his name.

I met him at Bellerive to talk about his collection of Islamic art. Amassed over the last 45 years, the priceless paintings, drawings and manuscripts from Turkey, Iran and India, dating from the 14th century, have been lent to the British Museum for a new exhibition, Princes, Poets & Paladins.

Unostentatious, with conker-brown eyes that twinkle when he smiles, the prince is dressed in grey flannel trousers, checked shirt and tweed jacket. He appears every inch a Westerner. Yet as I sit in the château's library dominated by Sir Oswald Birley's portrait of Sadruddin's portly Persian grandmother, it only takes a small leap of the imagination to visualise the prince with his tapering fingers clad in Arab garb. Indeed, for small dinner-parties with his wife Catherine and close friends, he likes to wear a

But looking down on us from the wall, it is the imposing image of the Begum, veiled in white with a hubble-bubble by her side, that underlines her grandson's heritage. She was the grand-daughter of the Fath 'Ali Shah, the last imperial ruler of Iran from the ancient Qajar dynasty before it was overthrown by the more parvenu house of Pahlavis. For most of her life, the Begum lived in Bombay surrounded by Persian courtiers, bejewelled Ismaili dignitaries in turbans and the classical poets of the day.

When the prince was a child, she used to recite to him the great epic poems of Persia's turbulent history that she knew by heart. "I loved the musicality of them, even though I could not understand the words," he says. "She left my father a library of Persian books, mystical texts and astrological treaties,
and it was through them that I became interested in Islamic art."

In the family villa in Cap d'Antibes, he would peer in wonder at the burnished pages, the mysterious calligraphy and golden illuminations - especially at the 14th-century Mamluk Koran from which his father never tired of quoting.

Aptly enough, his first acquisition was a folio from the Mamluk Koran of the same period, bought in the early 1950s when he was a student at Harvard. "In those days, it was a neglected field so you could pick up a good page of Kufik calligraphy, an Islamic script, for less than $100."

By the 1960s and '70s orientalism was becoming fashionable again. "Many great collections surfaced," he says, "including some Louis Cartier and Rothschild material." At the time, he thought the pieces that he bought were extremely expensive - now they would fetch 10 times what he paid for them. "I never went about collecting in a systematic, didactic way. I was drawn by the beauty and the symbolism of a picture rather than the chronology or the artist. Behind each illustration, there is a hidden meaning – the struggle between good and evil, the secrets of the universe, the meaning of life and death. Interpreting each picture requires considerable knowledge and concentration. If you look at it quickly you miss most of the true dimension of the picture."

Certainly, this is a supremely contemplative art, and one where nature is acutely observed. As such, it reflects the prince's work for conservation and environmental causes, and his devotion to animalwelfare.

"This is Paradise before the Fall, where man and beast were living in harmony and nature was respected," he says, looking at his prized possession, a water-colour entitled The Court of Gayumars. From the famous 16th-century Shahnama or Book of Kings created for Shah Tahmasp, it was painted by the Safavid master, Sultan Muhamad, whose work was so exquisite that it caused fellow artists "to hang their heads in shame".

He attributes his love of nature and gardens to the time he spent with his mother in a small country-house in the mountains of Haute Savoie. His fondness for animals he shares with his wife. In a field by the château, they keep a horse that they saved from the knacker's yard. On the morning of my visit, he was awaiting delivery of a pony to keep the horse company. In all, they have nine dogs, picked up in pounds, including a Belgian Shepherd called Playboy.

Ironically, this is the epithet many people used about Sadruddin's elder half-brother, Prince Aly Khan. Best known for his amorous conquests and short second marriage to Rita Hayworth, Aly died prematurely in a car crash in 1960.

Gentle and urbane himself, the prince steers clear of the beau monde. On the subject of his brother he says, "Myths and labels hang around some people's necks, giving them a reputation that does not always correspond to reality."

For that matter, though, who is to know whether the myths and legends so exquisitely depicted in the prince's collection are strictly true? Where art is concerned the aesthetics are paramount. Preserving such treasures is a particular pleasure to the prince. "Fate uprooted my family from Iran over 130 years, ago," he says. "I liked the idea of trying to getting some things back and taking care of them."

He leads me into the room that was specially designed for his collection. Alongside 11th- and 12th-century ceramics, it is displayed in velvet-lined cabinets made from Moorish choir-stalls. Much to his sadness, the paintings - highly sensitive to light - are too delicate to be on show for long periods.
Each month he visits the bank vaults where they are held, to choose an alternative selection. To see 140 grouped together and exhibited at the British Museum is, he says, a very real excitement.

Was the quest for Islamic art also a way of delving into his origins, a search for lost roots? "My father was a great Muslim leader and my French mother was steeped in her own culture. I have a foot in the East and another in the West."

Princes, Poets and Paladins is at the British Museum until April 13.

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