Saturday, March 21, 2009
Mughal Miniature Painting - An Alternative Source of HistoryArticle of the Month - July 2004
An important painting surviving almost intact from 1618 and now in the Smithsonian shows two regal personages in embrace standing atop a sheep and a lion respectively, who in turn rest blissfully on a globe. Inscriptions reveal the former to be Shah Abbas, the emperor of Persia during the period in question. The regent poised on the wild beast tamed is Jahangir, the fourth great emperor in the Mughal lineage and also the patron who commissioned this artwork.
Now, this is a strange painting because it is well known in history that these two personalities never met in actuality. Thus, this magnificent piece of Mughal art is fanciful to say the least. Can such a whimsical, ahistorical visualization act as a source of historical information? Consider the following salient features characterizing it:
1). The globe in the picture is much accurately rendered signifying that modern scientific ideas had already reached the imperial Mughal court.
2). Both kings are depicted in the traditional costumes of their respective nations. Indeed, in 1613 Jahangir had sent an embassy to Shah Abbas that had a renowned portraitist named Bishndas accompanying it. Inscriptions say that this figure of the Shah was based upon portraits made by Bishndas. Thus, the two personalities have been authentically perceived in this apparently fictional composition.
3). Jahangir has been rendered larger in stature and is shown embracing the Persian emperor in an almost condescending manner. In truth, Shah Abbas was a powerful opponent and a contestant for the city of Qandahar which guarded the Mughals' northwestern frontier and was of much strategic importance. In fact, the Persians took Qandahar in 1622, when Jahangir was too preoccupied with the rebellion of his own son Shahjahan to stop them. Unlike his illustrious father Akbar who had to fight each and every inch of his way to consolidate and expand the Mughal Empire, Jahangir inherited a comfortable and secure existence which was both shaped and influenced by his passive and comfort-loving nature and an excessive fondness for both opium and wine. Hence, unable and unwilling to take on his rival militarily, the great Mughal emperor Jahangir instead had a fantasy where the submissive king of Persia paid homage to the formers' own towering presence. Very aptly, the artwork is entitled 'Jahangir's Dream.' What greater insight can there be to the inner workings of an emperor's mind?
4). While the Persian king stands on a meek looking sheep, Jahangir has been perceived as a mighty presence, standing over a much larger lion. Significantly, the lion has nudged the sheep almost into the Mediterranean, another instance of Jahangir's wishful thinking, or was it some latent Mughal ambition flowing in his veins?
5). Nevertheless, lest the Shah take offence at the unfair treatment meted out to him (even in a dream), Jahangir has very magnanimously allowed the former to share the refulgent halo in the background, this being another pointer to his pacifist nature. This composite halo is formed of both the sun and the moon and is upheld by angels (an assertion of European influence).
Evidently this painting, borne out of the rich tradition of Mughal art, has much to say over and above what lies at its surface.