Look at the Mongoloid face of Prince Salim, better known to us today as the Mughal Emperor Jehangir. There is his strong, straight nose; and there is his shrewd little mouth, drawn downwards in a curve of contemptuous amusement. His curling mustache is matched by his curling sideburn. These curls had been in fashion for generations: Jehangir’s father Akbar and grandfather Humayun had sported them too. And like his father and grandfather before him, Jehangir is a heavy drinker: look at those puffy eyes – the eyes of a prince with a constant hangover. One day, when he was in the mood to see a doctor, Jehangir was told that if he carried on in this manner, he would drop dead in a week. But that didn’t put him off drinking. Instead he ordered a special marijuana concoction called Faluha (Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador at Jehangir’s court, called it The Fumes of Bacchus). Soon the king couldn’t get a wink of sleep without a couple of hits of Faluha, and he couldn’t help having a sip to two after he was done with the sunrise pieties of Fajr.
[quote]Look at Jehangir’s puffy eyes – the eyes of a prince with a constant hangover[/quote]
And it is in this swollen-eyed, probably hungover state that Emperor Jehangir has been captured here by the court painter Bichitr, one of those rare Mughal painters (like his ustaad, Abu al-Hasan) whose name is known to us today and who makes a vivid personal appearance in this manuscript illumination, now held at a safe distance from us at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C.
The picture is like a map of misfired gaze-lines, screwed-up spatial perceptions and relations; and it shows us the view Jahangir would like to have of himself. The emperor is seated on his throne, an instantly recognizable, non-Western kind of throne, which is really just a padded elevation with a jeweled partition to suggest a separation of the ethereal from the ordinary. But see how this throne doubles as an hourglass – a very Christian allegory about the passage of time and the inevitable decomposition of material wealth, complete with Persianized cherubs (see them holding the hourglass) who are inscribing a wish for a thousand more years of Jahangir’s reign (unlike the blond cherubs of Europe, these ones have dyed dark hair).
[quote]Where the European painter would see a form revealed by light, the Indian miniaturist saw an accumulation of details[/quote]
Now look at the book Jehangir hands to the bearded Sufi who could be a hermit, a bard, or a wizard. The book is leather-bound and has gold clasps on it. Nothing of consequence is known about it other than its apparent value. In fact I am confused about whether Jehangir is receiving or presenting the book. The old man’s white beard matches his turban and tallies with our idea of the austere Sufi spirit. This man is Sheikh Hussain, the descendant and keeper of the shrine of Salim Chishti. He got lucky beyond the wildest dreams of the materialists of 17th century India. It was he who prophesied the birth of three sons to Akbar. When his prophecy came true, the sheikh profited enormously from a change of scenery: the desert around the shrine of Salim Chishti was transformed by the construction of the fabulous (and now-abandoned) city of Fatehpur Sikri. This sheikh’s daughter was then appointed as Jehangir’s foster mother, and his grandson as the governor of Bengal.
[quote]Do we not recognize the Sufi sheikh’s gesture as one of servile acceptance?[/quote]
See the gracious manner in which the sheikh spreads his ascetic’s garb: do we not recognize this as a gesture of servile acceptance from our own time? We have only to look at the crumbling roundabouts of our suburbs to recognize it, or in cheesy bestsellers like The Forty Rules of Love…
Curiously, the sheikh’s face is not lined with the wisdom of his suggested age, and under his mountain-goat’s nose is a thin-lipped mouth that stretches in a serene smile worthy of Gandalf from ‘Lord of the Rings’. His sleepy eyes know nobility when they see it.
What is most surprising to me is that technically, his beard is painted not so differently from the way a 17th century European painter would go about it: over a soft dull white under-painting are imposed small individual strands of snaking white hairs. But where the European painter would see a form revealed by light, Bichitr the miniaturist sees an accumulation of delicate details. This sensibility in an artist has a counterpart in the kind of elaborate praise reserved for the Mongol king: it is best not to question such a construct because, by its very nature, it is suspect; and anyway it will topple when compared to reality…
So entrenched is the miniaturist in the accessorizing possibility of line that it can feel sometimes like drawing with a brush. In any case it has more in common with watercolor painting than messy, splashy oil paint.
Bichitr has managed to direct Sheikh Hussain’s gaze convincingly at Jehangir ‘s face. This is the only plausible spatial relationship between two figures in this picture. Jehangir simply looks on, with an amiable formality, at something hovering right above the Sufi’s turban.
Extending toward us, in the receding space of perspective as was practiced at the time in European painting, is an Ottoman Sultan, followed by King James I of England and the artist himself. The Sultan is no one in particular. He is Bichitr’s version of the hook-nosed European idea of a Turk, no doubt studied from one of those 16th century engravings with Orientalist physiognomies (they were congruous with impossible romantic notions of heathen cruelty and harems and perversions). The Ottoman Sultan has been pasted on so he can be ignored by the larger-than-life Mughal Emperor. Apparently, every time the khutba at the Ka’aba in Mecca was read in the Ottoman Sultan’s name (because he owned it), it stuck a little dagger in the Mughal Emperor’s heart. (Akbar had even sent some letters of introduction to Constantinople but they were ignored…)
The Sultan’s gesture with his joined hands as a supplicant is overshadowed by the fluffy plumes in the hat of King James I. He has been replicated earnestly from an original British miniature painting (they had miniature painting too, but mainly in portraits; you can look at miniature portraits of nobles and anonymous Romeos from the Shakespearean period). The English king is shown here as a lewd-eyed, limp-wristed parody of himself (his hand is actually meant to be fumbling for the jeweled hilt of his sword). At this point in time, however, it is true that there was little concern in Asia for the pale king of far-off England. The presents he had sent with his ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, to the peacock throne fell far short of amazing (unimpressed by the paltry European pearls, Jehangir frankly asked for their liqueurs).
[quote]The Ottoman Sultan has been pasted on so he can be ignored by the Mughal Emperor[/quote]
King James is the only one who looks out at us from the painting; and this is a special position, as though he alone is inviting us to look deeper into the allegory. But that is probably something we have come to feel now, long after Europe’s triumph over Asia has occurred. Bichitr just copied the English king’s pose from the European pictures that were at his disposal. A 17th century European master may have used an adventurous innovation by neutralizing such a prominent stare. But in Europe the concern was to make Christian stories as real as possible for the illiterate subjects of the church, and painters were trained to make such innovations. The more subtle hints about social positions had to be maneuvered within the constrains of actual spatial perspective.
This Indian picture is a selective (and often random) mix of cultural sensibility, allegorical requirement and the actual registrations of the mind’s eye. It was intended to be part of a book that would be seen by princes only. Or it would be gifted to a visiting or distant ruler. In that respect it has more in common with an informative jewel.
Let us finally turn to the artist himself. Bichitr has shown himself as the smallest figure in the painting, and the one closest to us, something that is at odds with the perspective he has painstakingly applied to the rounded throne. (By the logic of space, the figure closest to us should be the largest.) But he has once again abandoned the rules of perspective when painting the architectural and vegetal motifs of the European carpet.
Is this because it would be harder to draw an intricate carpet foreshortened? Is it because the beauty of the carpet as an object would be lost to the world as our eyes see it? Or is it because this tradition of flatness was just too entrenched in the practice of Indian miniature painting, and it would be insolent to break it?
The artist’s selective commitment to perspective, however, is applied perfectly to the miniature painting he holds in his own hand. It shows an elephant and two horses, both gifts from Jehangir. Bichitr shows himself in the same mustard tunic in deep prostration. He expresses his humility among such personages with his smallness but also his gratitude: he is very, very grateful to the man with the drunken eyes and the golden halo behind his head, a halo that is both sun and moon, a veritable center of the universe.
In a sense, this selective realism is free from the shackles of Europe’s faithfulness to “reality”, the resemblance to something that can be touched. In my imagination, though this picture is sensual, it cannot be touched; it exists on a different plane. It is less subtle but more complicated than European painting, whose straight way of looking at reality has something to do, I suspect, with the enormous conquests it was just about to inflict on the rest of the world. But this idea of freedom from realism is not a momentous one in South Asia, where the claim for realism has never really taken root.