Navina Najat Haider, Museum Curator – Jewel in the crown

By Sunil Sethi

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is currently home to a stunning exhibition of Deccani art organised and curated by Navina Najat Haidar who takes Sunil Sethi on a special tour.

He was a middle-aged, middle-brow and possibly Midwestern American male, one of the many entering the hallowed portals of New York’s Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue, to admire its treasures. Facing him soared the enticing banner of the three month-long exhibition, “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy” that opened in late April. In a euphoric review, The New York Times‘ critic Roberta Smith had richly gilded the lily with superlatives: “beautiful, sometimes heart-rending… rife with rare works from Europe and India seldom seen together… extraordinary… magnetic…”.

Entering a dark chamber past a dramatic blow-up of a ruined Deccani archway, with a tiny bulbul sequestered high above, the wide-eyed American came upon a dazzling display of rare Golconda diamonds: outsize brilliants, of rose pink and dazzling white hue from private collections, including that of the ruling family of Qatar. Awestruck visitors clustered round each glittering stone, poised on slim wire frames.

At this moment, the wide-eyed American’s cup of good fortune ran over. He spotted my lunch date, Navina Najat Haidar, the exhibition’s organiser and curator of Islamic art at the Met, who was taking me around; his attention had wandered to a 16th century miniature titled “Peacock in a rainstorm at night“. He began to trail her with a volley of questions about peacocks and their significance in Indian art. She answered each question knowledgeably, with infinite patience and humour. By the time we finished our walk-through, a meteor’s tail had formed, hanging on her every word.

navina haider