A Persian epic in Jaina style

The style, colouring, vocabulary of conventions and iconography of Persian manuscript Shahnama suggest it to be the work of a painter steeped in Indian tradition, writes B. N. Goswamy

Prince Siyavush faces Afrasiyab’s forces across a river. Illustrated folio from a Sultanate Shahnama; ca. 1450
Prince Siyavush faces Afrasiyab’s forces across a river. Illustrated folio from a Sultanate Shahnama; ca. 1450

IT was long ago that I published a Persian manuscript under the title A Jainesque Sultanate Shahnama but it all came back to me recently while preparing for a lecture to a group of botanists at Bangalore. The theme of the lecture? "To Observe; To Imagine". My attempt in it would be to draw attention — in the context of botanical drawings — to how an artist moves away from what he is able to observe with perfect clarity towards bringing his own imagination to bear upon what he sees. Several things come into play then: conventions, personal preferences, rejection of ‘ordinariness’, the desire to create a new vocabulary, and so on. How much of this will come across remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I am back in my mind with the wonderful images of that extraordinary manuscript. And they have something to do both with observation and imagination.

A few brief facts about the manuscript: It surfaced some 20 years ago. A large volume of 350 folios, in Persian, apparently incomplete, bound in undistinguished leather covers, the stitching now somewhat loose; no colophon giving date or name of patron/scribe, no illumination, no ‘unwan’ or title, no information on fly-leaves barring some partially rubbed seals of a late owner. It was easy to see that the text was that of the Shahnama, ‘The Book of Kings’, Firdausi’s celebrated work, that is the national epic of Persia. But there was no excitement in this, for the text is all too well known, and the calligraphy in the volume was not particularly elegant.

However, when we saw the illustrations, of which some 66 were spread over the folios, we knew that we were looking at a treasure, something that was going to affect our whole understanding of what was going on in the world of Indian painting in the Sultanate period, that is, before the Mughals set foot on this soil. So little was known till then of the Sultanate work in the 14th and 15th centuries, so scrappy was the information, that anything that added to one’s information about that period would have been welcome. Here, however, was something that went well beyond that, for it opened up a different vista of understanding.

We know that there were other copies of the Shahnama that had been produced in the pre-Mughal period, but they all seemed to be based upon Persian models in respect of style. Here was a Shahnama that was clearly in the hand of a painter steeped in the ‘native’ Indian tradition, most likely Jaina; perhaps even a painter who was completely unfamiliar with the Persian text and was all the time innovating as he went bravely along. Everything in it — the style, the colouring, the vocabulary of conventions, the iconography — suggested that. It might not have been easy for him, and he must naturally have worked hard towards familiarising himself with the characters and situations in the great epic: Gushtasp and Afrasiyab, Jamshed and Zuhhak, Kaikaus and Sudaba; Rustam battling with Alkus, the Turanian, or Siyavush going through the Fire Ordeal, and so on. But in the treatment of all these, and of the settings and objects, he decided almost naturally to stay within the limits of his own style, and to use its time-honoured conventions. Almost nothing is rendered as the eye sees it.

Here, in this Shahnama, broad rivers shrink into narrow channels of water made in basket-weave pattern but still alive with fish; rocks rise, as in Jaina paintings of the Kalpasutra, like bunched tendrils in flaming curlicues of different hues: slate-blue, yellow, pink, mauve; trees have yellow trunks and their crowns obey the painter to stay within strictly defined, scalloped outlines even when laden with wonderfully decorative sprays of ashoka-like leaves; animals and figures are hieratically scaled, the subsidiary characters painted far smaller than the principal personage in a scene; around the White Div whom Rustam slays inside a cave are unkempt, tiny dwarfs who dance about like dakinis or pretas that we see in Gujarati manuscripts; young women appear full-breasted, so different from the almost genderless women whom one sees in Persian-ate work. Even more astonishingly, at a couple of places, figures appear with the famous Jaina projecting eye that hangs in the air well beyond the contour of the face. Little, remarkably little, doubt is left about the matrix of style from which the wonderful illustrations of this Shahnama have emerged. In working his way through this complex heroic tale of ‘foreign’ origin, bristling with alien figures and crowded with unfamiliar situations, the painter appears to have charted for himself a new course, as it were.

It is this newness, however, that gives to the leaves of this Jainesque Shahnama the air of freshness and of released energy. There are no tired Persian-ate formulas here, no plying of imitative brushes. One gets the feeling that the characters in these episodes have not encountered these situations before, that they are not aware of the outcome of the hurtling action into which they throw themselves with such verve. The figures, though stylised, are charged with vitality, helmets and horses’ legs nudge the very margins of the leaves, and heroic events unroll with breathless `E9lan. And over all this action, rich, saturated colours, unaided by glaze or burnishing, cast a magical, incandescent glow.

It was not easy to date this manuscript or to assign it to a place or region. But, after careful thought, which involved extensive comparisons and stylistic analysis, one felt that this Shahnama could have been painted in around 1450 — long before the Mughal invasions — and somewhere in ‘middle India’, anywhere between Malwa and Gujarat. But, in suggesting this, one knows that one is in the fragile world of speculation.