The dining room is Doris Duke’s (1912–93) interpretation of an Islamic-style tent. At certain times and in certain places, tents were a key component of Islamic palatial architecture, particularly when rulers and their administrators lived itinerant lifestyles based on seasonal migration and/or warfare. For example, the Mongols who conquered Iran in the thirteenth century spent winters in Mesopotamia (Baghdad) and summers in northwestern Iran at palaces like Takht-i Suleyman; their descendants, the Mughal emperors of India, migrated between cities such as Lahore, Delhi and Agra; and Ottoman rulers, particularly of the sixteenth century, were regularly on the move due to constant military engagement. Islamic royal tents were known to have been particularly luxurious, and their “walls” showcased a range of textiles in various media such as cotton, silk and gold, and techniques like embroidery, applique and brocade. Individual tent panels often featured arches (83.13a-b), which, placed side by side, would create transitory versions of the permanent arcades found in buildings.
In the early 1960s, Duke decided to transform her aquatic-inspired dining room, featuring shell-motif furniture and built-in aquaria, into an interior with a more “Islamic” feel. In order to enclose the room in a tent, 453 yards of striped blue fabric were custom-made in India and then draped from the ceiling and walls. The south and west “walls” of the tent were further embellished with two types of appliqués. The first group consisted of five nineteenth-century Egyptian appliqués in the Mamluk Revival style, which may have once been part of a tent (see an example recently at auction). The second group included two nineteenth-century Indian appliqués with designs echoing jalis, a form well-known to Duke from her 1935 India commission. Depending on Duke’s preferences, the south and west fabric walls could be rolled up or lowered; the former affording an unobstructed view of the ocean and Diamond Head, the latter resulting in a dark, intimate space. For the north wall, Duke recreated an Ottoman-style fireplace with adjacent side niches, in which she displayed medieval Persian ceramics, particularly those in the lajvardina technique (48.408). For the adjacent east wall, a custom-made Iranian mosaic panel (48.407) previously located on the façade of the stairway leading to the games area was moved indoors.
Like the tents of the imperial Islamic world, the dining room at Shangri La is a palatial space filled with rich furnishings. The most luxurious element is a Baccarat chandelier (47.134) made for export to India (notice the red and green color scheme) and once in the collection of the Salar Jung, the prime minister of Hyderabad. The low-lying table below is comprised of a Hawaiian-made tabletop resting on four cast copper alloy Indian legs. Today, its surface displays a range of Islamic artworks used for routine daily activities such as lighting a room, washing one’s hands, serving food, or pouring water. These vessels exemplify an important tradition in Islamic art: the elevation of functional domestic objects to exquisite works of art. The surfaces of some are covered with calligraphy (Greek: beautiful writing) that “speaks” to their beauty or function. The gilded inscriptions on a Qajar Iranian ewer (52.8) read, “This ewer is completely full of gold and jewels; It is worthy of the presences of the grandees of the country,” while those on a Safavid Iranian candlestick (54.100) are borrowed from a well-known Persian poem about a moth being attracted to a flame, like a lover to the beloved. Marks of ownership further convey the high esteem once afforded to objects. A late nineteenth-century Ottoman silver tureen (57.218a–b), for example, bears the name of a noble lady. Finally, an aquamanile in the form of a cat (48.183) demonstrates how the sculpting and painting of living beings was, at certain times and in certain places, very common in Islamic art. Incense burners, flasks, containers, and lamps were often made in the forms of birds and animals (see additional examples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The dining room as it appears today was completed in the mid-1960s. Concurrently, Duke formalized one of her greatest cultural legacies: the second codicil to her will, which stipulated the creation of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in order “to promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern Art and Culture.” Duke’s interest in tents and tented spaces therefore culminated in the creation of her explicit mandate for the future study and appreciation of Islamic art within her home.