The painting I shall examine in this work is of the Emperor Jahangir, fourth Mughal ruler, successor to Akbar The Great. In this iconic allegorical painting, the artist, Abu’l Hasan, represents Jahangir’s wealth and grandeur by depicting him shooting at a sickly figure of poverty with his royal bow. In the background, putti fly, bestowing him with his royal crown and offering aid in the form of arrows. Jahangir stands upon a globe containing a lion and lamb seated in harmony, all resting atop a fish swimming atop a great expanse of water, with another passenger engaged in reading a text. In the background, a lone putto supports a line of hanging red tassels and bells, tied to the ground at a shrine.
I argue that this painting of Jahangir reflects his wealth and political power, that it is highly symbolic as per its use of representational imagery, and that much of the imagery indicates the influence of European styles on Mughal paintings in the early 1600s and on. To provide evidences for this argument, I will be comparing this painting with another painting that is part of a series of paintings by the same artist, as well as examining the historical background of the subject, artist, and the Mughal Empire.
The fourth emperor of the Mughal Empire, Nur-al-Din Mohammad Salim, otherwise known by his royal title, Jahangir, was an impatient successor to Akbar. He staged a rebellion in order to take power quickly, but was put down immediately. The reconciliation process that ended in Jahangir’s appointment to the throne was catalyzed by the royal women, who had close ties and influence with Akbar. Jahangir did not take long to begin a process of eliminating rulers who lived on the periphery of the empire who did not agree to his supremacy. This was a tradition inherited from his father, Akbar. Jahangir was an artistic man, with a true passion for art. He was a self-titled connoisseur, who claimed he could tell the artist of any part of any painting, regardless of how minute the detail. His paintings, commissioned by talented artists, often revealed his innermost cares and wishes for himself and his empire. In accordance with his love for art and literature, he penned his own memoirs during his reign. The result was a massive work which he completed in 1624, which he called the Jahangir-nama. Unfortunately, sources relate that Jahangir was overindulgent with the goods of this world, and eventually his decline came about as a result of alcoholism and opium addiction.
Abu’l Hasan, the artist known for creating some of the emperor’s most valued and iconic work, was raised close to Jahangir in the courts as a prince. He began painting at a very early age, about twelve or thirteen according to different sources, and was much loved by Jahangir for his work. Jahangir had much to say about the rarity and elegance of his work, and even composed a grand speech to exclaim his wonder at Abu’l Hasan’s painting ability:
“On this day Abu’l Hasan, the painter, who has been honored with the title of Nadiru-z-zaman, drew the picture of my accession as the frontispiece to the Jahangir-nama, and brought it to me. As it is worthy of all praise, he receives endless favors. His work was perfect, and his picture is one of the ‘chefs d’oeuvre’ of the age. At the present time, he has no rival or equal…”
After a series of paintings was completed, Abu’l Hasan was given the royal title of Nadir-al-Zaman, the “zenith of the world”. He was affected by English painting styles, and his naturalistic style was inherited from the nascent English trends, much of which was worn as popular fashion. Some of these influences could be seen in his work depicting an infant ruler, whose expression, placement in a dark background, effects of darkness to create fullness in figure, and holding fruit can be traced directly over to similar portraiture in nascent England. Introducing English trends to both he and Jahangir was a man named Thomas Roe, who was an envoy to the emperor. It was he who oversaw the meeting between the emperor and Mercator, a highly significant event that eventually resulted in the appropriation of the ‘globe’ for the Mughal’s own representational needs.
The theme of globes in Mughal portraiture is prevalent in the early- to mid-1600s, and the tradition carries on past that period. Globes in Mughal paintings are used a unique manner. Whereas European paintings containing globes are structured so that the globes are tucked into the background, the Mughal paintings associate them almost exclusively to the subject of the painting in a direct manner, with the subject holding, stepping on, resting his feet on, or otherwise touching it. Another marked change in the usage of globes is that they are always associated with important figures, usually that of royalty. Previously, in their European usage, they could be associated with just about anyone, from mapmakers to merchants. Studying this set of changes in the usage of globes offers some insight into how the Mughals made the European globe their own. In the vein of representational imagery, the globe was used to symbolize both the Emperor’s presence in the world, being of his own people, but also a controller of that world, either dominating it by standing atop it, or holding it in his capable hands.
The conceit of the globe is also highly appropriate for a play on words using the Emperor’s name. Because the Emperor’s royal title is Jahan-gir, or “Owner of the World,” it also serves as a reminder of his perceived station. This tradition is carried on with the next in the royal line, with Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan, adopting the globe in his own paintings. Again, because his name is Shah-Jahan, or “Ruler of the World,” the name association is appropriate. Further proof of the centrality of the Mughal Empire in its unique use of the globe is the de-emphasis of Europe in the projection usually depicted. Though in the painting I use in this essay, the projection of the world is less visible than in other paintings of similar import, close inspection reveals in both this painting and others that the globe is centered around Mughal India, and in some instances even labeled or pointed towards conquered lands. A further comparison with another painting in the series shall be done later in this essay.
Before continuing the examination of the themes present in this painting, the medium of the painting must be discussed. Typically in Mughal painting workshops, artists would use paper imported from Iran but later began producing their own from the 16th century onward. The paint itself was usually made from animal, vegetable and mineral sources, and tools such as brushes from animal hair. Paper was usually glued on top of one another in layers to form hard surfaces to paint on, and hardened with agate. Usually there was a freehand drawing made, or a stencil, in the case of the uncompleted Dying Inayat Khan, where a clear sketching is seen before any painting was applied to it.
Another major theme in this painting, and one of the features that stands out the most, is the depiction of poverty. A sickly old man, surrounded and colored in darkness (a feature that hints, along with the other paintings in the series, of a pre-colonial presence of color-based hierarchy) shrinking away from the presence of the ruler, shining with a halo surrounding him, and Jahangir shooting an arrow into his eyes. Several differences between the figure of poverty and the figure of wealth are present. Poverty is black, old, and emanates pestilence. The Emperor is guarded by angelic figures, water and greenery, and clothed in expensive garments, and is light-skinned. Given that Jahangir commissioned this painting to portray his ambitions, it can be assumed that his desire as an emperor was to cleanse his lands of poverty, and thereby eliminating figures that look like the old man.
It is in the study of this theme that a comparison with another painting in the series is necessary in order to fully flesh out the intentions of the artist in depicting poverty as such. The painting that I use to compare is that of Jahangir similarly firing an arrow from his royal bow into the severed head of one of his most important enemies, Malik ‘Ambar, the king of the Abyssinian Marathas. It is worth noting that this painting was likely done before the painting about poverty, indicated by the signature of Abu’l Hasan, who was called Nadir-uz-Zaman in the later painting but not in this one. In this painting, the globe is much more visible and contained in a stand, in a manner that is markedly more European.
It is interesting that Jahangir, though standing atop the globe, is still at eye level with the head of his enemy. It seems to indicate the seriousness and importance of his endeavor. The enemy here is also black, though this time by actual circumstance. Here, similarities can be established in how Jahangir envisions his enemies. In both wartime and relative peace, an enemy always exists. In the painting of Malik ‘Ambar, the cherubic putti appear to be more concerned with bestowing upon the Emperor weapons than crowning him with accomplishment. This indicates a sense of divine aid in defeating the enemy, a reassurance that divine forces are on his side.
The putti that adorn the periphery of both paintings are reminiscent of the cherubs of European Christian art, but here the artist utilizes their depictions for his own purposes, much like the way he did so with the globe. These putti are indeed European imports among the many that Abu’l Hasan gained in his study of the arts. Here they are used to endorse sovereignty.
The putti are just one set of many other living representations present in this painting. The representations of animals are possibly the largest part of this work, and each animal depicted in this work is representative of a vast sea of connotations, symbols, and spiritual significance. The first animal I shall examine is the fish that lays under the globe that Jahangir stands atop, and the rider of this fish. Usually, depictions of a man riding a fish or standing atop a fish in Islamic art is of the sage (sometimes understood as prophet, and within cult circles, as a deity) al-Khidr, The Green. Instead, the man, who is not clothed in green, and is actually wearing robes indicative of Hindu religious significance, is most likely the Manu, a title accorded to the Vedic progenitor of humanity, and the fish actually one of the avatars of Vishnu, who according to legend, saved Manu from the Great Flood. However, as Coomaraswamy asserts in his Khwaja Khadir And The Fountain Of Life, In The Tradition Of Persian And Mughal Art, it is not necessarily a matter of the figure being one or the other, but rather representative of both figures, as they are one and the same, viewed through two different traditions. He identifies that the mythology surrounding al-Khidr is perennial to multiple traditions, and is very deeply rooted in Vedic literature. This supports the theory that it is not simply that the artist of the painting chose to incorporate Hindu imagery to show the emperor’s support for Hindu law under his rule, but rather to emphasize a connection that already existed in order to reinforce those ties. Therefore, the waters on the bottom of the painting can also exist as a metaphor for what can be seen as the primordial myth of the Waters of Life.
The mystical tradition pertaining to the depicted fish also spans across the nascent Sufism of the Mughals. A Sufi saying by a master named Farid al-Din ‘Attar went:
“…placed Earth on the back of a bull, the bull on a fish, and the fish on the air.”
This is a mystical explanation of part of the creation myth, in which God mysteriously suspends the Earth in place, a phenomenon that Sufis of the time held to only be explainable through gnosis. Though the bull is not depicted in this particular painting, it is depicted in the painting of Malik ‘Ambar mentioned earlier in this essay, in the order mentioned in the saying, indicating that the presence of the fish actually serves multiple purposes for the intended audiences, while also serving as the archetypal fish of the universal mystical tradition. This explanation is likely, especially because of the emphasis of Akbar on the universality of tradition, where the Hindu and the Islamic mystical traditions share many myths and understandings of nature.
The lion and the lamb inside the globe are a highlight of the painting, an interesting and unique depiction of the predator and the prey, the Dad-o-Daam, and whereas the regal symbol of the lion is often depicted as destroying or hunting his prey, this depiction is of harmony between the two. This is allegorical for the power of the universal ruler who has the power and authority to reverse the laws of nature so that even the archetypal predator is tamed out of his nature. It also shows the reconciliatory power of the justice in the ruler’s system, where the oppressor and oppressed are brought into coexistence. This is not the only way that the imagery is used, however. The same images are also used in other paintings in the same series to show the superiority of one empire over another. The lion is used in this way to depict the areas of the Mughal Empire, and the lamb any enemies that were current.
The final piece of animal imagery that exists in this painting is that of the tassels on the line held up by the putto in the background of the image, alternating with the bells. These tassels are made of the tails of the yak, an animal considered auspicious and representative of good fortune. The use of yak’s tails in this manner can be seen on standards, and it is likely that Jahangir owned yaks in his royal zoo. It is difficult to ascertain where this tradition was inherited from, but it can be inferred that symbol of a yak’s tail was learned from the earlier Mongol traditions preceded the Mughals. The shrine-like object that the line is tied to, along with the bells, represent a real-life construction that was attached to the wall at the apartments at the Agra Fort. Jahangir had this put up in order to reassure his subjects of his openness in taking their cases of justice at any time.
Abu’l Hasan creates a painting representing the wealth and grandeur of Jahangir through the use of the conceit of the globe, the action of physically destroying poverty, themes of divine aid, and themes of justice. He demonstrates vividly the use of European imagery and styles, such as the halo, naturalistic styles, and Mercator’s’ Globe, mostly repurposed and appropriated for the Mughal’s own use. Finally, he paints a piece saturated with mythical and spiritual symbols, such as the presence of the fish that is important to both the Vedic and the Islamic traditions, and the globe atop the fish that is part of the mystical Sufi myth of creation, and therefore carries great mythological significance.
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