fig. 1
Hamza disarming a Byzantine princess

The Department of Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria, in recent years has acquired three important Indian paintings and a related drawing belonging to the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r.1556–1605). These works span the full period of Akbar’s active patronage, from his extraordinarily ambitious commissioning of the monumental Hamza-nama in the early 1560s through to the second imperial copy of his own biography, the Akbar-nama, in production around 1604–5. Each of the paintings is in the form of a single folio separated from a major illustrated manuscript of the Akbar period, namely the Hamza-nama, the Victoria and Albert Museum Akbar-nama, and the Chester Beatty Akbar-nama, which is, in fact, shared between that library and the British Museum. Substantial sections of the two copies of the Akbar-nama survive, though in each lacunae are frequent. Of the Hamza-nama it is estimated that less than one-tenth of the original 1400 paintings are extant.1P. Chandra, The Tuti-nama of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Akademische Druck-u. Vertagsanstalt, Graz, 1976, p. 63. The extant paintings have been published by G. Egger, Hamza-nama, 3 vols, Akademische Druck-u. Vertagsanstalt, Graz, 1976. Produced over forty years of Akbar’s fifty-four year reign, these works provide an insight into the stylistic dynamics of imperial painting at the Mughal court in the latter half of the 16th century. 

The principal patron, the emperor himself, inherited the throne at the age of thirteen in 1556 and, by 1600, had expanded and consolidated his precarious inheritance into the greatest empire seen in South Asia since the Guptas, a millenium earlier. The interests and preoccupations of early Mughal painting are closely identifiable with those of their imperial patron. They are reflections of both the richly cosmopolitan court which he cultivated and maintained and of his direct involvement as director of artistic activities and as principal critic. Abu’l Fazl records that the emperor directed that many books be illustrated, ‘His Majesty having indicated the scenes to be painted’.2Α’in-i Akbari, in P. Chandra, op. cit., p. 184. His description of the procedures followed at the court atelier reveal an extraordinary degree of patron involvement in the very processes of the art production. In addition he outlines clearly the criteria employed in making qualitative judgments of the works themselves: 

Each week the several superintendents and clerks submit before the king the work done by each artist, and His Majesty gives a reward and increases the monthly salaries according to the excellence displayed. His Majesty looks deeply into the matter of raw materials and set a high value on the quality of production. As a result, colouring has gained a new beauty, and finish a new clarity … Delicacy of work, clarity of line, and boldness of execution, as well as other fine qualities, have reached perfection, and inanimate objects appear to come alive.3ibid., pp. 182–83. 

Abu’l-Fazl finds no higher praise for the quality of work of the artists assembled at Akbar’s direction than to state that: ‘a fine match has been created to the world-renowned unique art of Bihzad and the magic making of the Europeans’.4ibid. Bihzad (d.1536–37) was the most esteemed 16th-century painter of the Islamic world, and through his influence at the court of Shah Tahmasp at Tabriz was known to the artists of the Mughal court. See R. Ettinghausen, Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 1, Luzac & Co., London, 1960, pp. 1211–14. 

The qualities praised in association with the paintings of Bihzad were those of delicacy and clarity. Sixteenth-century Islamic court painting is distinguished for its extreme refinement and fidelity, and an over-riding preoccupation with surface embellishment. The contribution of European art, known principally through engravings of Christian subjects distributed by evangelising Jesuits, was that of naturalism, to animate the figures and introduce atmospheric qualities into the landscape. 

Each of the four works to be discussed have historical subjects: a legendary epic-romance in the Hamza-nama and contemporary historical events in the Akbar-nama folios. Together they demonstrate the Mughal preoccupation with history as an aspect of political legitimisation. The Islamic tradition upon which Akbar drew had a strongly developed tradition of history writing. The Mughal histories commissioned by Akbar were written in the court language, Persian, and followed the Islamic historiographic tradition in its narrative chronicle style. The official and private accounts which survive from Akbar’s reign provide one of the most richly documented dynastic histories seen through contemporary eyes. For the study of early Mughal painting these writings, especially the official chronicle, the Akbar-nama, are of central importance. These writings provide not only passing reference to the activities of the artists and the appreciation of their works, but serve, in most instances, as the textual source for the paintings themselves. 

Akbari painting is principally illustrative, concerned with recording and describing events. These may be historic, legendary, religious, or indeed contemporary, in the instance of an album of portraits of courtiers which Akbar directed be prepared.5The existence of this album, now lost, is noted by Abu’l-Fazl. He praised it, for ‘the dead have gained a new life, and the living an eternity’ – A’in-i Akbari, in P. Chandra, op. cit., p. 184. Akbar’s intellectual interests lay in the enjoyment of history and in religious enquiry and debate.6See E. Wellesz, Akbar’s Religious Thought Reflected in Mogul Painting, Allen & Unwin, London, 1952. Copies of famous books, lavishly illustrated and sumptuously bound, were prepared for the imperial library. Where important texts did not exist in Persian, Akbar directed members of his court to undertake translations. Akbar was not the first Muslim ruler to initiate the translation of Sanskrit texts, but under his direction this interest in important literary and theological texts of the Hindu world flourished.7The pre-Mughal Afghan rulers of Delhi, mostly notably Sultan Sikander Lodi (r.1489–1517), had some Sanskrit texts translated. See S. A. Riszvi, Religious and Intellectual History of the Muslims in Akbar’s Reign, Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1975, p. 204. A translation bureau, the Maktab-Khana, was established at Fathpur-Sikri expressly for this purpose. Many of the key Hindu texts, including the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Yogvasishtha, were translated, along with Arab texts relating to folklore and astronomy and, later, Latin and Portuguese works of Christian theology. Many of these translations were richly illustrated and bound by the imperial atelier and workshop at Akbar’s direction (see Appendix).8See the Appendix for a list of the major illustrated manuscripts of the Akbar period and the location of the finest extant copies. 

Akbar’s motivation in instigating this translation and illumination project on such a large scale was two-fold. His own intellectual curiosity manifested itself in religious debates, to which he invited Hindu, Zoroastrian and Christian theologians to debate with their Muslim counterparts, and in the translation of important texts of the non-Muslim world. At a broader level Akbar appeared concerned to promote mutual understanding and tolerance between the Muslim and Hindu members of his court and administration. Added to this was the custom of the Islamic world which attached great prestige to the maintenance of an imperial library. Akbar’s biographer, Abu’l-Fazl, in a list of the finest illustrated manuscripts commissioned for the imperial library, records the extent of this royal patronage: 

Persian books of both prose and poetry were decorated and a great many large and beautiful compositions were painted … The Chingiz-nama, the Zafar-nama, this book, the Razm-nama, the Ramayana, the Nal-Daman, the Kalila wa Dimma, the Iyar-i Danish, and other books have been illustrated …9A’in-i Akbari, in P. Chandra, op. cit., p. 184. 

Abu’l-Fazl’s citing of ‘this book’ as one of the illustrated works refers to his newly completed Akbar-nama (of which the A’in-i Akbari is Part III), the imperial copy of which is largely preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and to which the Melbourne folio Defeat of Hemu (fig. 3) appears to belong. 

Abu’l-Fazl, writing in 1597–98, reserved special praise for the paintings of the Hamza-nama: ‘The story of Hamza, put into twelve volumes, has been illustrated, and magic making masters have painted fourteen hundred astonishing pictures of as many incidents.’10ibid. 

The painting Hamza disarming a Byzantine princess (fig. 1) belongs to this unique manuscript and is the earliest Mughal painting in the Melbourne collection. The Hamza-nama paintings are exceptional on two counts, for their large scale, and for the use of a cloth rather than paper ground. The Melbourne Hamza-nama depicts the hero of the legend, Hamza, disturbed from his rest by a female intruder who has entered his tent enclosure. He is sheltered by a conical canopy richly decorated in orange, blue and gold. Subsidiary scenes of resting guards fill the space below. Flaming torches indicate a night scene. Lighting, however, remains even, the camels beyond the tent enclosure as legible as the horse in the foreground. The tree is broadly painted, its profile heavily contoured and its leaves individually articulated. The camels are painted with fine hatched strokes which gives them a lively expressiveness. The broad composition and some of its decorative elements belong to a late 15th-century Herati style. However, an attempt to introduce a dramatic element in a naturalistic style is evident. 

The identification of the subjects of many Hamza-nama folios is problematic. Familiar themes tended to be compositionally type-cast in the Persian mould. An incident set in an encampment, for example Hamza converts a queen to Islam (fig. 2), can result in a painting compositionally and dramatically difficult to distinguish from the Melbourne Hamza-nama folio. The innovative compositions occur in those subjects which are least encountered in Persian painting, and hence the least conventionalised. 

 

The atelier which Akbar inherited from his father, Humayun (d.1556), included in its ranks two of the leading Iranian painters of their generation. Mir Sayyid ‘Ali of Tabriz and ‘Abd al-Samad of Shiraz. Each was successively responsible for directing the production of an illustrated edition of the Hamza-nama. Mir ‘Ala al-Daula Qazwini’s contemporary account, the Nafa’is al-Ma’asir, indicates the importance attached to the illustration of the Hamza-nama even before the project was completed: 

It is now seven years that the Mir [Sayyid ‘Ali] has been busy in the royal bureau of books, as commanded by His Majesty, in the decoration and painting of the large compositions of the story of Amir Hamza (Qissa-i Amir Hamza), and strives to finish that wondrous book which is one of the astonishing novelties that His Majesty has conceived of …11Qazwini, Nafa’is al-Ma’asir [Riches of Glorious Traditions], in P. Chandra, op. cit., pp. 180–81.

Mir Sayyid ‘Ali supervised the completion of only the first four volumes, after which he appears to have been excused from the project in order to make his pilgrimage to Mecca: ‘At present the Mir having obtained permission to go on Haj, the task of preparing the before-mentioned book has been assigned to the matchless master Khwaja ‘Abd al-Samad, the painter from Shiraz.’12ibid. 

The project engaged the resources of the royal workshop for around fifteen years. P. Chandra makes a convincing interpretation of the literary and stylistic evidence pertaining to the dating question, and argues for a production period beginning c.1562 and concluding c.1577.13P. Chandra, op. cit., pp. 63–68. 

Although the Hamza-nama paintings exhibit stylistic elements from numerous regional styles of north India and the Deccan, suggesting a wide recruitment of Indian talent for this project, the surviving paintings all speak a common language of energy, vitality and action. The scenes are set midst sumptuous vegetation, dazzling tiled palaces and richly emblazoned encampments. They reveal considerable progress in moulding the disparate sources evident in such early Mughal manuscripts as the Cleveland Museum of Art Tuti-nama, c.1560–65.14P. Chandra and S. Lee, ‘A Newly Discovered Tuti-nama and the Continuity of the Indian Tradition of Manuscript Painting’, Burlington Magazine CV, 729, 1963, pp. 547–54. The active influence of Mir Sayyid ‘Ali can be seen, a unifying influence less evident in earlier works of the Mughal studio. Added to this was Akbar’s personal involvement in the activities of the studio outlined above and his known predilection for the story of Hamza. Abu’l-Fazl records that, resting after an elephant hunt in July 1564, Akbar ‘for the sake of delight and pleasure … listened for some time to Darbar Khan’s recital of the story of Amir Hamza’.15Abu’l-Fazl, The Akbar-nama of Abu’l-Fazl, 3 vols, translated by H. Beveridge, Bibliotheca Indica, Calcutta, 1903–39 (repr. Delhi, 1972–73), vol. II, pp. 343–44. That the emperor took an active role in the actual choice of subjects for illustration becomes all the more credible in the light of his demonstrated familiarity with the Romances of Hamza. The Hamza illustrations are rich in adventure, warfare and journeys to exotic places. Clearly the young emperor took great pleasure in these stories and, one suspects, identified closely with the hero of the Romances. 

Twenty years and a succession of splendid manuscripts lie between the tentative break with Persian conventions seen in the Hamza-nama and the mature Mughal style exemplified in the illustrated imperial copy of the Akbar-nama prepared in the last decade of the 16th century. In the interim a new capacity for realism and descriptive clarity had emerged. A growing awareness of European art contributed to this, as did the nature of the texts to be illustrated which called for a narrative approach. 

A taste for illustrated histories found its greatest expression in the paintings which accompanied the royal copy of Akbar’s own biography, the Akbar-nama. The first volume was presented to the emperor in 1596 and the third left incomplete after the author’s murder in 1602.16A. N. Khan, ‘An Illustrated Akbar-nama Manuscript in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London’, East and West n.s. 19, 3–4, 1969, pp. 424–29. The paintings appear to have been executed contemporaneously with the writing of the Akbar-nama, belonging stylistically to the 1590s. They were produced as joint-work, the customary practice in the early Mughal studio. The leading artist was normally responsible for conceiving and executing the composition in outline. Then accomplished hands added the colour; others specialised in portraits or animals. This practice tended to produce a uniformity of style on the one hand, and variations in quality on the other. The concordance between the artists engaged in illustrating the 1590 copy of the Akbar-nama, and those listed by Abu’l-Fazl as the leading masters of the day, is almost complete,17E. Wellesz, op. cit., p. 136. supporting the notion that this was in fact the imperial copy. 

Much of Akbar’s life was spent expanding and consolidating his empire and decisive battles feature prominently in the history of his reign. The defeat of Hemu (fig. 3) typifies the strength of the Mughal style in the late Akbari period. It retains the verticality of Persian compositions in order to accommodate the maximum amount of descriptive detail, whilst responding to the need for recession and depth. Interlocking and overlapping figures, painted in vivid flat colours, and the extensive use of gold, give the painting a heightened intensity. The green hills above the battlefield are finely hatched, giving a convincing suggestion of mass and volume. The walled city, with its gabled roofs diminishing into depth, remind us of the European contribution to Mughal painting. The composition extends beyond the borders of the picture, serving as a glimpse of a greater whole. The manner in which the composition is truncated on the right border suggests that this painting may belong to a double-page composition. This would account for the absence of the two principal actors, Akbar and his rival Hemu. Comparison with a double-page composition from the same manuscript, Victory of Azim Khan over Muhammed Hussain Mizza at Sher Khan Fuladi in Gujarat in 1572 (fig. 4), illustrates the type of group composition to which the Melbourne folio may have belonged. 

 

The defeat of Hemu depicts the battle of Panipat which occurred on 5 November 1556, the outcome of which was critical in Akbar’s struggle to establish his claim to the throne.18Two other scenes of this battle are depicted in paintings belonging to the second copy of the Akbar-nama, part II (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin): The capture of Hemu by Shankar, and Hemu brought bound before Akbar by Padarath (fig. 10). Reproduced in T. W. Arnold, Chronicle of Akbar the Great, Roxburghe Club, Oxford, 1937, pls 6 and 7. The encounter is described in detail in the Akbar-nama

Hemu, the ill-fated rode, proudly on an elephant … He made powerful onsets and performed many valorous acts, and dislodged many strenuous soldiers of the sublime army … Suddenly, in the midst of the contest, an arrow from the bended bow of Divine wrath reached Hemu’s eye.19Abu’l-Fazl, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 58–67. 

The Melbourne painting depicts the rival forces engaged in a vigorous combat in which the tide of battle is turning against Hemu’s forces. The painting is set in ruled margins of green, orange, gold and blue. Twenty-five lines of text appear on the reverse of the folio, written in an elegant nasta’liq script. It is inscribed on the lower margin with an attribution for the drawing (i.e. composition) to a formerly unrecorded artist, Kankar. Of the 56 artists’ names recorded in ascriptions in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 117 paintings belonging to this manuscript, the name of Kankar does not appear.20A. N. Khan, op. cit. The name of the colourist is not recorded. The folio appears, stylistically, to belong to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Akbar-nama, which spans the period from Akbar’s 5th to his 17th regnal year, c.1560–73. The Melbourne painting depicts an incident which occurred in 1556, and belongs therefore to the earlier section of this manuscript, now dispersed and largely unaccounted for. 

A second copy of the Akbar-nama was illustrated late in Akbar’s reign and is known, from library accession notices on the first folio of volume I, to have been in the imperial library during the reigns of Jahangir (1605–28) and Shah Jahan (1628–58).21G. Μ. Meredith-Owens, ‘The British Museum Manuscript of the Akbarnameh’, Burlington Magazine CIX, 767, 1967, p. 94. It is now shared between the British Museum (volume I) and the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (volume II and part of volume III). Melbourne’s The emperor Akbar receiving Sultan Adam Gakkar (figs 5 and 6)22I am indebted to Mr Robert Skelton of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, for suggesting this identification and directing me to the pertinent section of the Akbar-nama text. belongs, on stylistic and qualitative grounds, to this edition. The subject presents some difficulties in identification. Akbar is depicted as a youth, beardless and slender-waisted, but already emperor. This places the scene early in volume II of Abu’l-Fazl’s text. T. W. Arnold, in his 1936 catalogue of the Chester Beatty Akbar-nama, records a number of lacunae in the manuscript.23T. W. Arnold, The Library of A. Chester Beatty: A Catalogue of the Indian Miniatures, 3 vols, Emery Walker, London, 1936, vol. I, p. 4. An early gap in the manuscript occurs between the paintings numbered 58 and 62, corresponding to pages 91 to 114 of volume II of the Beveridge translation. The most likely identification is that of Sultan Adam Gakkar submitting to Akbar.24Abu’l-Fazl, op. cit., vol. II, p. 95. Abu’l-Fazl records that the Sultan was persuaded to pay allegiance to the young emperor by Taimur Khan Jalair, who would be the figure before Akbar, his hands clasped together in the act of addressing the emperor. Behind him the Sultan awaits introduction. A court clerk, identifiable by the pen and inkwell case secured to his waist by a waist-sash, gestures to six attendants bearing covered trays of gifts. To the right of the throne courtiers hold the royal insignia wrapped in a plain cloth and the emperor’s weapons in a sheath of floral fabric. If the identification of this subject is correct, then the Melbourne painting belongs to volume II of the Chester Beatty Akbar-nama, as illustrated folio number 59, 60 or 61 of the original manuscript. Regrettably, the painting has been trimmed from its original border and hence the pagination lost, along with any other information it may have contained relating to attribution and date of execution. It was remounted within the decorative margin of a folio from a manuscript of a Persian dictionary, the Farhang-i-Jahangiri, which was commissioned by Jahangir in 1608. 

 

The dating of this copy of the Akbar-nama was, until recently, less certain than for the first imperial copy. Neither volume II nor the surviving part of volume III, both in the Chester Beatty Library, are dated. The first volume was known to F. R. Martin in 1912,25F. R Martin, The Miniature Painting and Painters of Persia, India and Turkey from the 8th to the 18th Century, B. Quaritch, London, 1912. and came to light again in 1966 and entered the British Museum. It also contains no colophon, but a note on the margin of folio 134 verso reads: ‘In 1012, the 21st of the divine month Sha’ban in the year 47 by Khem Karan’. This corresponds to 25 January 160426R. H. Pinder-Wilson, Paintings from the Muslim Courts of India, World of Islam Festival, London, 1976, p. 52, cat. no. 49. and is the only date we have for the production of the second imperial copy. The Melbourne folio, belonging to an early section of volume II, may be dated to c.1604–5, and was thus most probably painted in Akbar’s lifetime. 

Stylistically The emperor Akbar receiving Sultan Adam Gakkar anticipates the trends evident in Mughal painting under the emperor Jahangir. It represents a shift towards refinement and harmony, aesthetically more akin to its Persian antecedents than The defeat of Hemu, which retains much of the expressive power and bold colouring newly evident in the Hamza-nama paintings. It relates closely to a folio from the 1595 manuscript of the Iskander-nama in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Farhad before Khusrau by Sanwlah (fig. 7). Both works belong to a tradition which can be traced through such early Akbari manuscripts as the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Tuti-nama of 1560–65, and the splendid Ashiqa of 1568 in the National Museum, New Delhi.27Compare P. Chandra, op. cit., pl. 35. The Iranian models were known through examples in the imperial library and from provincial Muslim painting within India, which formed part of the cultural milieu of the indigenous artists who came to work in the royal workshops. The Walters Art Gallery painting retains much of the vitality of earlier Akbari painting. Figures gesture expressively, musicians activate the space which they occupy. A deep chromatic scheme intensifies the interplay of forms in the composition. The mood of the Melbourne painting is calm, the palette cooler than in earlier Akbari paintings, with soft pastel blues and greens replacing the bolder red, yellow and orange colourings of The defeat of Hemu painting. 

 

The fourth Akbar period work in the Melbourne collection is a coloured drawing, The emperor Akbar present at an armed combat of contending ascetics (fig. 8). The drawing has an early provenance, having belonged to an album of miniatures assembled by Colonel John Murray of the Bengal Army in the 1780s.28The album was sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 1959, and dispersed at auction in 1978. Sotheby’s Catalogue of Important Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures, 3 April 1978, lot 79. The drawing is executed in lead and ink, with a limited use of colour and gold. The quality of line, with some shading of contours, together with the high degree of finish applied particularly to the treatment of the heads, makes it unlikely that this was an underdrawing for a painting. None the less, it does demonstrate the masterly quality which underlies the finest Mughal painting. 

The curious incident depicted occurred in 1567 at a village called Thaneswar, near Delhi, a sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus, which Akbar visited en route from Lahore to his capital at Agra. A full and colourful description of the event is provided by Abu’l-Fazl. It deserves quoting at length, not only because it offers some explanation of the mystifying spectacle of holy men engaged in deadly combat, but also because this passage of the Akbar-nama text must have been the artist’s source for this composition: 

While he was encamped at Thaneswar a dispute arose among the Sanyasis which ended in bloodshed. Near that town there is a tank … Hindus from various parts of India visit it at stated times and distribute alms … There are two parties among the Sanyasis: one is called Kur, and the other Puri. A quarrel arose among these two about the place of sitting … they obtained permission to have a contest … As the Puris were few in number, His Majesty signified to some men … to assist the Puris … and sent a number of the wretches to annihilation. They came up with their Pir and head, who was called Anand Kur, and slew the miserable creature. The rest scattered.29Abu’l-Fazl, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 423–24. The identification of the two classes of militant Saiva sannyasis, or wandering ascetics, as Kur and Puri has been questioned: G. Ghurge mentions that the Puris were traditionally feuding not with the Kur but the Giris, another order within the Daswanami school of Saiva ascetics – Indian Sadhas, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1964, p. 102. 

Two other versions of this subject are known to the writer. The battle between ascetics at Thaneswar is included in an illustrated manuscript of the Timur-nama, a history of the House of Timur which traces Timur’s descendants down to the twenty-second year of Akbar’s reign. The painting appears on folio 322a of the imperial copy which was prepared in Fathpur-Sikri, at Akbar’s request, in 1584 (fig. 10).30Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library. Patna. Bihar. Noted by P. Asadullah, ‘Aspects of Mughal Society through Contemporary Paintings’, unpub. Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1980. The photograph of this painting arrived too late for a discussion to be included in the text. It contains on one folio all the elements of the episode to be seen in the double-page composition of the Akbar-nama (fig. 9): the sacred tree surrounded by a stone plinth with steps leading into a tank, groups of combatants, the equestrian figure of Akbar, a sadhu blowing a conch, trees in the middle distance and cityscape and tent encampment filling the skyline. In the double-page composition, the equestrian figure is turned to face left, and the ritual bathing scene and some other distinctive motifs have been moved to the left-hand folio. It is clear, therefore, that the Patna Timur-nama folio is the common ancestor of both the London Akbar-nama painting and the Melbourne drawing It emphasises the essential unity of the left- and right-hand folios of the London version. The implication is that the Melbourne drawing, which preserves the compositional variant of the right-hand folio, was once accompanied by a drawing depicting the remaining key elements of the episode, such as the sadhus bathing and the royal encampment. 

The third depiction of this subject is to be found in a double-page composition in the imperial copy of the Akbar-nama (fig. 9). It is drawn by Basawan, and coloured by Tara Kalan. Basawan is described in the A’in-i Akbari as having matured into the finest court artist of his day: ‘Basawan came to be uniquely excellent. Many perspicacious connoisseurs give him preference over Daswanta.’31Abu’l-Fazl, in P. Chandra, op. cit., p. 184. Similarities in detail of composition which have no textual source support the notion that the artist responsible for the Melbourne drawing had access to Basawan’s composition. This could only have been possible if he was a member of the imperial atelier, and thereby had access to the royal library. Similarities in the postures of the combatants is the most striking point of comparison. The scaling and placement of the two elephants upper-right, and the whimsical manner in which their trunks interlock, also supports this view. Basawan has chosen to depict that moment described in Abu’l-Fazl’s account when the leader of the Kur sect is struck down and his followers scatter. His agonised figure, clad in a white dhoti and set in relief against a sea of dark figures lunges backwards under the impact of a Mughal soldier’s sword. He stares, in shocked realisation of his fate, directly at the viewer, adding an extraordinary degree of realism to the painting. 

 

The Melbourne drawing is stylistically closer to the 1604 Akbar-nama than to the 1590s edition to which the Basawan composition belongs. There is less tendency to crowd the composition which, in part, is achieved by a more successful handling of space. Figures retreat into a suggested landscape rather than being tiered up the composition, remaining close to the picture plane. The mounted figure of Akbar, set in relief against a bare ground, serves as a point of stability in composition. The drawing is more legible than the 1590 painting, but this clarity is at the expense of the wondrous bedlam and din of battle which Basawan has evoked. 

The image of the emperor as controller of men’s destinies correlates closely with Abu’l-Fazl’s eulogising on the emperor as a maker of history. A political dimension was rarely absent from early Mughal painting. However, to characterise it as a propaganda art is to overlook the very limited audience for which such paintings were intended. In the first instance the imperial copies were produced for the emperor’s private enjoyment, a pleasure he may have shared with close members of his inner court, and perhaps some ladies of the imperial harem. Mughal painting began, and remained, a court art, commissioned for the private predilection of its patrons. In directing that translations be undertaken of important Hindu texts. Akbar was exercising his own intellectual curiosity. However, he was not unaware that such acts would be appreciatively viewed by Hindu members of his court, thus adding to the political cohesion of his administration. 

The personal inclinations of the emperor as patron assumed an unusual prominence in these paintings. Akbar is known to have enjoyed the pleasures of painting from an early age, receiving tuition from the Iranian painter, ‘Abd al-Samad, whilst a child in Kabul.32A rare painting from the reign of Humayun, by ‘Abd al-Samad, depicts Humayun seated in a tree platform being presented with a painting by the child Akbar (Gulistan Library, Tehran). Repro. L. Binyon et al., Persian Miniature Painting, OUP, London, 1933, pl. CIV-B.230. As a young emperor we have seen the degree of his personal involvement in the operations of the imperial atelier; his interest in the quality of the painter’s materials and direction as to the choice of subjects, the royal inspections and the reward of those artists whose work pleased him. Abu’l-Fazl’s evaluation of the leading artists of his day can be taken to reflect a general level of critical sophistication in court circles. 

The four Akbari works in the National Gallery of Victoria collection demonstrate the rich diversity of the early Mughal style and its central preoccupation with recording history as legend. As detached folios from three of the most important illustrated manuscripts of late 16th-century Mughal India, the Melbourne paintings contribute to our understanding of early Mughal painting and assist in reconstructing a more complete picture of imperial Mughal painting at the court of Akbar. 

John Guy, Assistant Curator of Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1982).

APPENDIX: Major illustrated manuscripts of the Akbar period 

I           Persian poetry and fables 

Shah-nama [Book of Kings]. The greatest poem of Persia, begun by Daqiqi (d.980 A.D.) and completed by Firdawsi in 1010 A.D. Famous illustrated copies include the Gulistan Shah-nama (Gulistan Library, Tehran), 1430, Herat; and the Houghton Shah-nama (dispersed) 1522–37, Tabriz. 

Khamsa [Five Poems/Treasures] of Nizami (1140–1203). Nizami’s style served as a model for later Persian epic poetry. Each of the five poems are illustrated independently: 

1.         Makhzan ul-asrar [Treasure House of Secrets]. 

2.         Khusran Parris u Shirin (romantic story of a Sassanian King). 

3.         Laila u Majnus (tragic love of Arab poet for a Bedouin maiden). 

4.         Iskandernama (medieval Alexander romance). 

5.         Haft paiker [Seven Images]. 

Finest imperial copy prepared 1539–43 in the atelier of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz, in the Safavid style (British Museum, London, 17 miniatures); Royal Mughal copy dated 1595 (British Museum, London, 37 miniatures and Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 5 miniatures). 

Diwan [Collected Works] of Hafiz (c.1326–90). Iran’s greatest Sufi poet. Copy prepared 1527, probably tor Prince Sam Mirza, younger brother of Shah Tahmasp. Fine Mughal copy produced at Lahore, 1588. Illustrated by Miskin (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass., 15 miniatures). 

Gulistan [Rose Garden] and Bustan [The Garden] of Sa‘di (c.1215–92) of Shiraz. The most widely illustrated of Persian poets. Most celebrated copy of Bustan by Mihzad, 1488 (National Library, Cairo). Fine Mughal copy produced at Fathpur-Sikri, dated 1581 (British Museum, London). 

Haft Awrang [Seven Thrones], Baharistan [Season of Spring] and Nafahat al-uns [Breaths of Friendship] of Jami, the last great classical poet of Iran (d.1325). In 1595 an imperial copy of Baharistan prepared in Lahore by the calligrapher Muhammad Husayn, and illustrated by sixteen leading court painters (Bodleian Library, Oxford). A copy of Nafahat al-uns prepared for Akbar in 1603 (British Museum, London). 

Hamza-nama [Story of Hamza] or Dastan-i-Amir Hamza [Romance of Hamza]. History of Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet, who became Islam’s champion, and became a figure of popular legend and romance. Probably of Persian origin, but especially popular in Mughal India. An enormous illustrated edition of 1400 paintings, it was the finest major undertaking of Akbar’s atelier, and was in production from c.1562–77 (Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 61 paintings; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 27 paintings).

Darab-nama [Tales of Darab]. A Mughal edition of the Shah-nama in the form of a series of stories by Abu Tahir. A richly illustrated copy produced at Lahore c.1580, including the painter Basawan (British Library, London, 149 miniatures). 

II          Mughal histories and biographies 

Timur-nama [History of the House of Timur]. Prepared at Akbar’s request, tracing Timur’s descendants down to the twenty-second year of Akbar’s reign. Imperial copy prepared in Fathpur-Sikri, dated 1584 (Bankipur State Library, Patna, 132 paintings). 

Babur-nama. Babur’s (1483–1530) memoirs, written in his native Chaghata’i Turkish, were translated into Persian by Khani-i-Khanan at Akbar’s request, and presented to him on 24 November 1589 (Akbar-nama, vol. III, p. 862). In the 1590s a number of fine copies were prepared (Victoria and Albert Museum, London; National Museum, New Delhi; State Museum of Oriental Cultures, Moscow). 

Tarikh-i-Alfi [History of the World]. Begun at Akbar’s command in 1582 and was intended to have been completed by 1592, the 1000th year of the Muhammadan era. It was still being revised in 1594 and was probably never completed. Illustrated copies prepared in the 1580s. 

Jami-al-Tawarikh [History of the Mongols]. Written by a Mongol statesman, Rashid al-Din Fazdullah (d.1318). The finest illustrated copy, dated 1595, was looted from the imperial library at Delhi in 1739 by the Persian Nadir Shah, and is now deposited in the Gulistan Library, Tehran. 

Akbar-nama [History of Akbar]. Written by Akbar’s close adviser Abu’l-Fazl, at the emperor’s direction. It provides a continuing chronicle of the reign up to the year of the author’s death in 1602. Vol. 1 recounts Akbar’s ancestry, from Timur, Babur and Humayun; vols II and III give a chronological account of events in Akbar’s reign. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s illustrated copy, c.1590–1600, is generally accepted as the imperial copy (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 117 miniatures). A second, later copy, c.1604–5, is shared between the British Museum, London (vol. I, 39 miniatures) and the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (vol. II and part of vol. III. 61 miniatures). 

III         Persian translations of Indian texts 

Tuti-nama [Tales of a Parrot]. A Sanskrit text, the Sukasaptati [Seventy Tales of a Parrot], was translated into Persian around 1330 by Nakh-shahi (d.1350). Two important copies survive, the Cleveland Museum of Art copy c.1560–65 (211 miniatures), and the copy of 1580–85 in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (113 miniatures). 

Anwar i-Suhayli [Lights of Canopus]. A Persian translation of the Sanskrit text, Panchatantra, a book of fables on statecraft and polity. It was well known in Persian literature before the Mughal era. The finest Mughal copy is dated 976 A.H. (1570 A.D.) (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), and contains 27 miniatures 

lyar-i Danish [Criteria of Knowledge]. This is a new revised translation of the Panchatantra, undertaken by Abu’l-Fazl in 1588. An illustrated copy, in production at the time of Akbar’s death in 1605, is shared between the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (96 miniatures) and the Cowsaji Jehangir collection, India (52 miniatures). 

Hari-vamsa [Genealogy of Vishnu]. A Sanskrit text, closely associated with the Mahabharata but independent from it, it was translated into Persian at Akbar’s request before 1586. 

Razm-nama [Book of Wars]. The Sanskrit epic poem the Mahabharata, translated into Persian in an abridged form. The translation was commissioned by Akbar in 1582 and done under the supervision of Bada’oni The imperial copy, illustrated with 169 miniatures, was presented to the emperor in 1584, and is preserved in the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur. 

Ramayana [The Adventures of Rama], The great epic poem of Hindu literature describing the exploits of Rama, rendered into Persian during Akbar’s reign. The finest and most complete copy is in the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur. 

Jog Bashisht. A Sanskrit treatise, the Yoga-Vasishta, recounting the goals of Hindu asceticism and how they might be reached without physical separation from worldly affairs. Translated in 1597–98 at Akbar’s request. Illustrated imperial edition dated 1602 (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, 41 miniatures). 

Bahr al-Hayat. A Sanskrit text, the Amritakunda [Reservoir of Life] dealing with the theory and practise of yoga, including the 84 postures of yogis. The only known copy extant (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin) contains 21 miniatures, each depicting a meditation posture. 

IV         Persian translations of Christian texts 

Dastan i-Masih [Life of Christ, or Story of the Messiah]. Father Jerome Xavier, leader of the third Jesuit mission (which arrived at Lahore 1595) was directed to write an account of Christ’s life in Portuguese, which was translated into Persian and presented to Akbar in 1602 It is known in seventeen extant manuscripts. 

Dastan i-Ahwal i-Hawariyan [Lives of the Apostles]. A Persian translation, prepared at Akbar’s direction, and revised by Father Jerome Xavier at Jahangir’s request. Lost.   

Notes

1          P. Chandra, The Tuti-nama of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Akademische Druck-u. Vertagsanstalt, Graz, 1976, p. 63. The extant paintings have been published by G. Egger, Hamza-nama, 3 vols, Akademische Druck-u. Vertagsanstalt, Graz, 1976. 

2          Α’in-i Akbari, in P. Chandra, op. cit., p. 184. 

3          ibid., pp. 182–83. 

4          ibid. Bihzad (d.1536–37) was the most esteemed 16th-century painter of the Islamic world, and through his influence at the court of Shah Tahmasp at Tabriz was known to the artists of the Mughal court. See R. Ettinghausen, Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 1, Luzac & Co., London, 1960, pp. 1211–14. 

5          The existence of this album, now lost, is noted by Abu’l-Fazl. He praised it, for ‘the dead have gained a new life, and the living an eternity’ – A’in-i Akbari, in P. Chandra, op. cit., p. 184. 

6          See E. Wellesz, Akbar’s Religious Thought Reflected in Mogul Painting, Allen & Unwin, London, 1952. 

7          The pre-Mughal Afghan rulers of Delhi, mostly notably Sultan Sikander Lodi (r.1489–1517), had some Sanskrit texts translated. See S. A. Riszvi, Religious and Intellectual History of the Muslims in Akbar’s Reign, Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1975, p. 204. 

8          See the Appendix for a list of the major illustrated manuscripts of the Akbar period and the location of the finest extant copies. 

9          A’in-i Akbari, in P. Chandra, op. cit., p. 184. 

10         ibid. 

11         Qazwini, Nafa’is al-Ma’asir [Riches of Glorious Traditions], in P. Chandra, op. cit., pp. 180–81. 

12         ibid. 

13         P. Chandra, op. cit., pp. 63–68. 

14         P. Chandra and S. Lee, ‘A Newly Discovered Tuti-nama and the Continuity of the Indian Tradition of Manuscript Painting’, Burlington Magazine CV, 729, 1963, pp. 547–54. 

15         Abu’l-Fazl, The Akbar-nama of Abu’l-Fazl, 3 vols, translated by H. Beveridge, Bibliotheca Indica, Calcutta, 1903–39 (repr. Delhi, 1972–73), vol. II, pp. 343–44. 

16         A. N. Khan, ‘An Illustrated Akbar-nama Manuscript in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London’, East and West n.s. 19, 3–4, 1969, pp. 424–29. 

17         E. Wellesz, op. cit., p. 136. 

18         Two other scenes of this battle are depicted in paintings belonging to the second copy of the Akbar-nama, part II (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin): The capture of Hemu by Shankar, and Hemu brought bound before Akbar by Padarath (fig. 10). Reproduced in T. W. Arnold, Chronicle of Akbar the Great, Roxburghe Club, Oxford, 1937, pls 6 and 7. 

19         Abu’l-Fazl, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 58–67. 

20         A. N. Khan, op. cit. 

21         G. Μ. Meredith-Owens, ‘The British Museum Manuscript of the Akbarnameh’, Burlington Magazine CIX, 767, 1967, p. 94. 

22         I am indebted to Mr Robert Skelton of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, for suggesting this identification and directing me to the pertinent section of the Akbar-nama text. 

23         T. W. Arnold, The Library of A. Chester Beatty: A Catalogue of the Indian Miniatures, 3 vols, Emery Walker, London, 1936, vol. I, p. 4. 

24         Abu’l-Fazl, op. cit., vol. II, p. 95. 

25         F. R Martin, The Miniature Painting and Painters of Persia, India and Turkey from the 8th to the 18th Century, B. Quaritch, London, 1912. 

26         R. H. Pinder-Wilson, Paintings from the Muslim Courts of India, World of Islam Festival, London, 1976, p. 52, cat. no. 49. 

27         Compare P. Chandra, op. cit., pl. 35. 

28         The album was sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 1959, and dispersed at auction in 1978. Sotheby’s Catalogue of Important Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures, 3 April 1978, lot 79. 

29         Abu’l-Fazl, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 423–24. The identification of the two classes of militant Saiva sannyasis, or wandering ascetics, as Kur and Puri has been questioned: G. Ghurge mentions that the Puris were traditionally feuding not with the Kur but the Giris, another order within the Daswanami school of Saiva ascetics – Indian Sadhas, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1964, p. 102. 

30         Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library. Patna. Bihar. Noted by P. Asadullah, ‘Aspects of Mughal Society through Contemporary Paintings’, unpub. Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1980. The photograph of this painting arrived too late for a discussion to be included in the text. It contains on one folio all the elements of the episode to be seen in the double-page composition of the Akbar-nama (fig. 9): the sacred tree surrounded by a stone plinth with steps leading into a tank, groups of combatants, the equestrian figure of Akbar, a sadhu blowing a conch, trees in the middle distance and cityscape and tent encampment filling the skyline. In the double-page composition, the equestrian figure is turned to face left, and the ritual bathing scene and some other distinctive motifs have been moved to the left-hand folio. It is clear, therefore, that the Patna Timur-nama folio is the common ancestor of both the London Akbar-nama painting and the Melbourne drawing It emphasises the essential unity of the left- and right-hand folios of the London version. The implication is that the Melbourne drawing, which preserves the compositional variant of the right-hand folio, was once accompanied by a drawing depicting the remaining key elements of the episode, such as the sadhus bathing and the royal encampment. 

31         Abu’l-Fazl, in P. Chandra, op. cit., p. 184. 

32         A rare painting from the reign of Humayun, by ‘Abd al-Samad, depicts Humayun seated in a tree platform being presented with a painting by the child Akbar (Gulistan Library, Tehran). Repro. L. Binyon et al., Persian Miniature Painting, OUP, London, 1933, pl. CIV-B.230. 

 

fig. 1, Hamza disarming a Byzantine princess now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as A page of the Dastan-i Amir Hamza (Hamzanama).

fig. 5, The emperor Akbar receiving Sultan Adam Gakkar now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as Akbar receiving gifts from his ministers.

fig. 8, The emperor Akbar present at an armed combat of contending ascetics now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as The Mughal emperor observes battle between the Kur and Puri bands of ascetics.