The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 27, 2003
'Art and Soul

Dazzling images from Amir Hamza’s life
B. N. Goswamy

Prophet Elias rescues Prince Nur-ud-Dahr. Folio from Hamzanama. Early Mughal period
Prophet Elias rescues Prince Nur-ud-Dahr. Folio from Hamzanama. Early Mughal period (1562-1577)

SOME days ago, the elegant city of Zurich seemed suddenly to have been taken over by sorcerers and demons, fairies and sea-monsters. For, the Hamzanama show had opened at the Museum Rietberg. And everywhere you went, you were confronted with looming, superbly printed posters from which peered figures of fearsome dragons writhing in pain, of prophets walking on water with hapless princes clinging to the hems of their robes. Inside again, within the exhibition halls where the finely mounted show was on, a world of fantasy and fear, of wondrous happenings and heroic deeds, swung into view at each turn that one took. As one of the greatest productions of the Mughal workshops, and certainly among the most ambitious painting projects ever undertaken in India, the Hamzanama merited being shown in this manner: with gravity accompanied by flair, exciting the mind as much as the eye.


Recording intellectual journey of man
July 13, 2003

A dynasty of artists
June 29, 2003
Controversy dogs IIAS again
June 15, 2003
To study, conserve & restore
June 1, 2003
Images from the Mexican cultural tapestry
May 18, 2003

When cultural property is a casualty of war
May 4, 2003

North-eastern lights
April 20, 2003

The horrors of war
April 6, 2003

Masks, make-up & entertainment
March 23, 2003

The axis of Eros
March 9, 2003
Subversive and restless
March 2, 2003
Should cultural property be returned?
February 9, 2003
Art in the times of war
January 12, 2003
The world of art sales
December 29, 2002

One knows the Hamzanama – in some manner this label is a misnomer, for the text on which the paintings are based was called the Dastan-i Amir Hamza – well by now. Fourteen hundred paintings, according to near-contemporary records, were commissioned by Emperor Akbar to be painted on large sheets of cotton, ‘illustrating’ the fabulous adventures of the Amir, an uncle of Prophet Mohammad. But, in the process of developing their visual narrative, the painters of the imperial workshop – then in the process of evolving a ‘style’ that we recognise as early Mughal now – went far beyond story-telling: for they brought into being some dazzling images, glowing with jewel-like colours, astir with energy. Little wonder, therefore, that every book on Indian art features some painting or the other from this ‘manuscript’, even if every few years some new scholarly theory or the other revolving around this great pictorial enterprise comes up. Of late, however, the Hamzanama has come to be in the news because of the fine show of which it forms the centre. This show has already travelled far and wide, making its stately passage from the Sackler Art Gallery in Washington to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and then on to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, from where it has come to Zurich. At all the places that it has travelled to, the show appears to have left an impress, put together as it was by John Seyller with enormous effort – for the Hamza paintings are dispersed throughout the world – and accompanied by a detailed, thoughtfully written catalogue. Not everyone is likely to agree with all the findings or formulations in the catalogue, but the research behind the work, and the placing of the Hamzanama in its cultural and art historical context, helps bring these complex and layered paintings within the viewer’s reach.

Predictably, the show looked different at different locations. But, in Zurich, it had a flavour all its own. For around it, and in conjunction with it, were organised several other events. A lecture series apart, an imaginatively mounted Indian festival, involving so many of the other arts of India, was held in the great Rieter Park. Here, over two full, rich days, a troupe from Karnataka presented the yakshagana, young Wasif Dagar sang dhrupad, Anindo Chatterjee gave a tabla recital, and Malavika Sarukkai, now at the peak of her career, danced the Bharatanatyam. But nothing was out of place, nothing mere ‘entertainment’, since sensitising the burgeoning audience to the richness, and the many layers, of Indian culture, was the aim. One could see people being deeply moved, many of them watching some of the performances as if in a trance. Or, shall one say in Persian fashion, angusht badandan: "with the finger of wonder between their teeth". Inside, where the Hamza paintings were on view in the midst of a delicately created ambience – soft light filtering through muslin curtains, panels of handmade paper redolent of the colour and texture of red sandstone – a small tent-like structure had been set up for professional storytellers to sit, as they must have done in India long ago, and tell, in German, stories from the Hamzanama to children and adults alike. Everything was devised with a view to take the viewers towards the selfsame sense of hairat—wonder, astonishment—that runs like sap through the paintings themselves.

At the opening of the show, a surprise was in store for everyone. A young woman performer, Parvati, singing and dancing to light steps in the great Baul tradition of Bengal, appeared on stage, with some paintings, done by herself but copied from Hamza leaves, as her props. And she began to sing, soulfully, the ‘story’ that these paintings approximately illustrated: a young and handsome prince, abducted and thrown into the waters of the deep by a rejected, love-lorn demoness, eventually being rescued from drowning by Prophet Elias who appeared suddenly from nowhere. The words were hers, as were the panel-sized paintings: for the Hamza tales are not part of the traditional Baul repertoire. But, with her powerful voice, and soft modulation, she led the listeners slowly through the tale, engaging them at every step, to the point where the prince called piteously upon his preceptor to appear and save him from death by drowning. "Murshid, O murshid `85," her words rang through the air, again and again, as she finished. Suddenly, before the eyes of the listeners, that very Hamza painting, done with classical restraint, appeared to become charged with emotion.

Hairat, as I said before.

Fortuitous find

A curious fact is recorded about the group of 27 Hamzanama paintings that are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. They were found in Kashmir, as Sir C. Purdon-Clarke noted, in a humble curiosity shop located in one of the "picturesque wooden huts on the Hawa Kadal bridge across the Jhelum where some of them had been plastered to the lattice windows in order to keep away the cold."

Nowadays, you may not be able to get a Hamza painting for love or money.