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íArt & Soul
A truly rare talent
Abuíl Hasan, a painter in the court of Jahangir, was an artist gifted with deep psychological insight, observation and workmanship
B.N. Goswamy B.N. Goswamy

On this day, Abuíl Hasan, the painter, who has been honoured with the title Nadir-al Zaman, drew the picture of my accession as the frontispiece to the Jahangir Nama, and brought it to me. As it was worthy of all praise, he received endless favours. His work was perfect, and his picture is one of the chefs d'oeuvre of the age. In this era he has no equal or peer.

Jahangir, Tuzuk, II.20

The title that the Emperor conferred upon the painter can be differently translated of course - ĎRarity of the Timesí, ĎWonder of the Ageí, ĎZenith of our Timesí ó but whichever way one translates, it sits perfectly. For Abuíl Hasan was a truly rare talent: a child prodigy; someone possessed of singular skills of observation and workmanship; as an artist gifted with deep psychological insight. "His work was perfect", as the Emperor observed.

Jahangir embracing Shah Abbas. By Abu'l Hasan. Mughal, c. 1615; from the St. Petersburg Album. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Jahangir embracing Shah Abbas. By Abu'l Hasan. Mughal, c. 1615; from the St. Petersburg Album. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Neptune, Lord of the Seas. By Abu'l Hasan. Mughal (after a European original), 1603. The Goenka Collection, Mumbai
Neptune, Lord of the Seas. By Abu'l Hasan. Mughal (after a European original), 1603. The Goenka Collection, Mumbai

Crucifixion, with St. John standing (detail). Engraving, dated 1511. By Albrecht Durer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Crucifixion, with St. John standing (detail). Engraving, dated 1511. By Albrecht Durer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

St. John. Brush drawing by Abu'l Hasan. Mughal, ca.1600-01. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
St. John. Brush drawing by Abu'l Hasan. Mughal, ca.1600-01. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Son of Aqa Riza, who came to India from Iran about 1560, and took up employment in the great Mughal studio, Abuíl Hasan had shown signs of precociousness very early on. And it is to those precocious skills ó rather than to the words that one uses ó that one must turn to get a sense of his prodigious powers. Those were the days when European works, especially engravings, had started making their way to Mughal India, brought in by Jesuit priests and diplomatic personages.

Among those seems to have been a 1511 engraving by Durer showing St John standing close to the foot of the crucified figure of Christ. There are other grieving figures in the engraving, but somehow Abuíl Hasan seems to have picked only the figure of St John to copy. And this, he did in the form of a stunning brush drawing on paper which is now in a museum at Oxford.

There, in this very lightly drawn study, he stands ó St. John ó body mildly flexed, hands clasped in front at waist level, head somewhat tilted and an expression of ineffable sadness on the face. Nothing that is there in the figure Abuíl Hasan could have observed from life or been familiar with personally: the European features of the face, the curly hair, the costume with its palpable weight and folds. Nor could he have had any instruction in European technique: modelling, shading, sense of volume, and all. And yet, basing himself simply on the engraving which must have come his way, he turned out this remarkably sensitive study.

What adds enormously to oneís admiration is what the barely visible ó so rubbed it is ó inscription in Persian at the bottom of the page, which reads: "mashq-i Abuíl Hasan ibn-i Riza, murid-i Shah Salim, dar sinn-i sizadah salagi sakhta"; meaning, of course, "an exercise (in drawing) by Abuíl Hasan, son of Riza, devoted follower of Shah Salim (i.e. Jahangir), done at the age of 13 years."

Two years later, when he must have been 15, Abuíl Hasan turned out another astonishing painting, also based evidently upon a European work. It shows Neptune, Lord of the Seas, in a style that was entirely alien to the painterís own tradition. There is wild grandeur in the naked, muscular, trident-bearing figure of the Roman god, astride a mythical, horse-bodied, fish-tailed, lobster-legged mount, wading through the rough seas astir with creatures gazing at the sea-lord with fear and astonishment.

Nothing seems to have escaped Abuíl Hasanís eye in this, from the angry mane alike of the rider and horse to the tiny swooping pelican close to the god's head.

For an Indian painting, descended as it was from the artistic ancestry of Persian and Mughal painting, the work was something of a tour dí force, as much on account of the painting as of the four lines of inscription in Latin at the bottom which Abuíl Hasan seems to have copied exactly, elegant stroke by stroke, loop by loop, without knowing a word of the language or the script. And the inscription in Persian at the bottom? Once again, that this is the work ó an 'aml, not a mashq ó of Abuíl Hasan son of Riza, devout adherent of Shah Salim.

But copying European works was not the only, or even the preferred, groove in which Abuíl Hasanís talent moved: he had obvious gifts in the area, but there was more, much more, that he painted that was in consonance with his training and his wont.

The superbly finished frontispiece to the Jahangir Nama to which there is reference by the Emperor above; the moving portrait of a fragile old pilgrim standing, perilously close to the end of his life; the scene of the emperor Jahangir giving audience ójharokha darshan ó from a window of the palace placed high above everyone and everything else; the study of squirrels in a plane tree; Ďportaití of a spotted forktail bird; the Emperor Shah Jahan examining the Imperial seal: the list is long and the work truly breathtaking. But there is also a glittering painting of an imaginary meeting between two great emperors: Jahangir of India embracing Shah Abbas of Persia.

The painting is replete with symbols and is obviously allegorical: the sun and the moon forming a halo against which the heads of the twosome are limned; the winged cherubs who keep the halo aloft; the lion and the lamb under the feet of the two emperors; the globe marked by a map of the world on which they stand.

A host of poetic compositions appear on the page: celebrating the imagined Ďeventí, invoking the blessing of the Almighty upon the emperors, notes on what is observed and what is conceptual, and so on. But also a brief note in the neatest of hands: "The work of the devoted servant, Nadir-al Zaman, son of Aqa Riza".

An afterword: There is a small but deeply moving portrait of Abuíl Hasan as a young man, which has survived on the borders of a page of the famous Gulshan Album of paintings, now in Iran.

There he sits, this man of undoubted genius, utterly absorbed in his work: seated on the floor, one knee raised and supporting a wooden tablet with a sheet placed on it on which the painter is drawing, slim brush in the left hand with which he draws, the right pressing the sheet down; head bent, eyes alight, a look of complete concentration on the face.

There are the instruments of his trade lying on the ground next to him. But clearly the man appears as if he has shut the world out of his system. Nothing else than his work exists for him. At least at this moment.





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