’Art & Soul
The imperial image
Under the discerning eye of Mughal emperor Jahangir, master painters produced great paintings, besides portryaing him as an unusual man

One knows Jahangir, the Emperor of India (1605-1627), to have been a connoisseur. Not only because he laid claim to being one in the memoir he wrote — the Tuzuk, also called the Jahangirnama — but also because under his discerning eye, master painters produced some truly great paintings: men like Abu’l Hasan and Ustad Mansur and Farrukh Beg and Bishandas. What one does not immediately realise, however, is the width of the range of work done for him or the fact that so many of these works were intended to send out a message, to project an image. Almost always, he emerges from these renderings an unusual man: now as a devoted son, now as having brought peace and justice to the world, now as a man who preferred men of God to those who possessed domain and power. There is great fascination in all this.

Emperor Jahangir looking at the portrait of his father, Akbar. Mughal, ca 1610; by Hashim and Abu’l Hasan. MuseeGuimet, Paris
Emperor Jahangir looking at the portrait of his father, Akbar. Mughal, ca 1610; by Hashim and Abu’l Hasan. MuseeGuimet, Paris
Jahangir preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings. Mughal, ca.  1615 ; by Bichitr
Jahangir preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings. Mughal, ca. 1615 ; by Bichitr
Freer/Sackler Gallery of Art, Washington

Consider, for instance, the famous painting in which he is seen, not long after he ascended the throne of India, holding in his royal hands the portrait of his great father, Akbar. There are not many portraits such as this: there certainly are images of men, or women, looking at paintings in Indian art but nothing quite like this. It is a dazzling work, highly accomplished and quite moving. What could have occasioned it, one can wonder, however? Inevitably, thoughts get directed to the texture of the relationship between the two men. That Akbar was inordinately fond of his son — he is known to have fasted and prayed and visited holy shrines, asking to be blessed with a son — is all too well-known; what is also known is the differences and the tension that slowly grew between the father and son in the later years, leading to Jahangir setting up a defiant, parallel court at Allahabad, far away from his father’s capital city. Just possibly, then, the key to ‘understanding’ this painting might lie in the fact that, once on the throne, Jahangir was completely reconciled with his late father, and remembered him with filial fondness. In his memoirs, he keeps frequently referring to Akbar, and always with great respect and affection. There is also that moving pen portrait that he painted of his father in the same work: not only describing his "august personal appearance", but adding: "In his actions and movements, he was not like the people of the world, and the glory of God manifested in him". Here, in this painting, it seems as if a quiet exchange between the father and son was taking place.

Then, among the countless paintings that Jahangir must have commissioned, there is a brilliant one in which he is seen taking aim at poverty. Clearly, the painting was meant to be seen as a statement, and the two-line inscription in Persian etched in the sky directly above the head of Jahangir, says so.

For it reads: "The auspicious portrait of His Exalted Majesty, who, with the arrow of generosity, eradicated the trace of daliddar from the world and laid anew the foundation of a world marked by justice and munificence." The word daliddar — from Sanskrit daridra — is explained in a brief note written below it in a thin hand: "In other words, the personification of poverty".

It is easy to see that the work, like some others from the reign, is rich in allegory and intriguing in the symbols it uses. For Jahangir, paintings such as this meant something very special.

In one work, one sees him sitting down for an imaginary repast with his contemporary, Shah Abbas, the ruler of Iran, even if the two monarchs had never met in life; in another, one sees him embracing the same monarch, Shah Abbas, the two standing respectively on a lion and a lamb who rest on the map of the then world drawn on a globe. It is as if a dreamlike world were being created for him.

Here the emperor stands, facing left, arms disposed so as to hold a bow at full stretch, taking aim and about to shoot an arrow at an emaciated figure, dark and bearded and unable to stand erect. This is poverty personified, as the inscription states. An arrow shot earlier has already met its mark, embedded as it is in the forehead of the poor figure, and another is about to hit. A rosy-cheeked putto, naked and winged, stands close-by holding up three more arrows for the emperor, who stands not on grassy ground but on a globe which features a lion and a lamb: power and meekness co-existing, ‘drinking from the same stream’ as it were. The globe, in turn, is supported by a bearded sanyasi-like figure, who lies full stretch on the back of a large fish, extended well beyond the ascetic’s body. References are made, most intriguingly, to Hindu mythology and almost certainly the painter had in his mind the Primal Fish, first incarnation of Vishnu, and the figure of Manu, here reading from a book, possibly a Veda. One travels back to myths of creation and to the times when life began to take form. But there is also a reference to the here and the now, for towards the top is brought in the ‘chain of justice’ — the zanjeer-e 'adal — which the emperor had installed outside his palace for the aggrieved to pull on in order to draw the emperor’s personal attention. Justice and munificence, as the inscription states, come together.

Jahangir takes an aim at poverty. Mughal, ca. 1620; possibly by Abu'lHasan
Jahangir takes an aim at poverty. Mughal, ca. 1620; possibly by Abu'lHasan
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

And then, there is the painting where one sees the Emperor preferring a sufi shaikh to kings. Above and below the painted page appear two distichs in Persian that read: "By the grace of God is he truly a king both in form and spirit: the Shah Nur-ud-din Jahangir, son of Padshah Akbar; To all appearances, even as kings and potentates stand in attendance upon him, his gaze falls, inwardly, ever upon holy dervishes."

The two Persian words, surat and maa’ni — form and spirit so to speak, but, truly, outward appearance and inner essence — so favoured in Sufi discourse are brought into the couplets with very clear intent.

It is a glittering image in every way, filled with visual references and meaningful suggestions. Here, before him, in fact beneath him, stand four men: a bearded Shaikh; a heavily turbaned Sultan; a European monarch fully dressed in regalia; and a relatively young looking man, holding up a painting in his hand to catch the emperor’s attention. The European figure is that of King James I of England; The Sultan can be identified as the Sultan of Turkey; the young Hindu in the bottom left corner is Bichitr, who painted this work. But the most important figure in this group is the bearded Shaikh who is none else than Shaikh Hussain, descendant of the revered saint, Khwaja Mu’in-ud-Din Chishti, to whose shrine in Ajmer the emperor Akbar had turned once to ask for the boon of a son. The Shaikh is important because it is upon him alone that the emperor’s gaze rests even as he offers him, as a mark of imperial favour, a beautifully bound and clasped volume. This is where the maa’ni of the couplets above resides. Setting all earthly grandeur aside, it is to the spirit that the emperor submits. The message is intended, and clear. A short passage from the emperor’s memoirs comes to mind:

"Although we have the business of kingship before us,
Every moment we more and more think on the dervishes.
If the heart of one dervish be gladdened by us
We count that to be the profit of our kingship".

Surely, there were countless other aspects to this Emperor too. But about the ones that we see in these paintings, there is something utterly riveting.