I was very intrigued when I chanced upon a news item that a single folio from an illustrated manuscript of the Shahnama, the national epic of Iran, was recently sold at an art auction in England for more than seven million pounds. That is a serious amount of money. I knew something about that particular Shahnama copy, having seen some images from it in published histories, and having admired these, but truly speaking, I did not know a great deal.
That it was referred to often as the Houghton Shahnama was something I definitely knew but suddenly I wanted to get close to it, well beyond the title of the painting which had fetched that price: "Faridun in the Guise of a Dragon tests his Sons".
What I learnt was fascinating, for there was in the accounts a whole history of the travels of that manuscript: who commissioned it, how it went from the original patron first to one owner, then to another, how it was dispersed, how many folios of it reached some museum/s and others which landed up in the hands of different collectors. This particular folio with the price tag I have mentioned was picked up by an anonymous buyer but the guess is that it is now in a museum of Islamic art in one of the oil-rich Sheikhdoms of the Arab world.
The bare facts of its provenance first. This Shahnama is known to have been originally commissioned by the Safavid ruler of Persia, Shah Ismail, who had attracted to his court some of the greatest artists then active in the Islamic world. Started in 1522, it was not, however, finished under that Shah, and is generally believed to have been completed under his son, Shah Tahmasp, another great patron of the arts, somewhere between 1525 and 1540. That Shah, however, made a present of this sumptuous manuscript to the Ottoman ruler of Turkey, Sultan Selim II, in 1568.
For hundreds of years, it remained in the Islamic world till the very beginning of the 20th century when it left Istanbul. The year was 1903: in that year it was sold in Paris and a great collector and bibliophile, Baron Edmund de Rothschild, picked it up. Till 1934, it remained with that baron and upon his death, it was inherited by Baron Maurice de Rothschild, who kept it with himself from 1934 to 1957. Upon his demise, it became part of his estate of great books and manuscripts which was sold: this time a celebrated American collector, Arthur A.Houghton Jr, acquired it.
To the generation of art collectors and scholars active at that time, it started becoming known as the Houghton Shahnama, the name by which I have referred to it above. Some would call it the Shah Tahmasp-Houghton Shahnama, but by and large, the name of the original patron was brought in as a matter of courtesy. The American collector’s name, already linked to the great Houghton Library at Harvard, came to stay. While with him the manuscript was ‘unbound’, so to speak, so that different folios could be shown at different locations, including the celebrated Pierpont Morgan Library, and the Grolier Club.
Later, in 1971, a number of pages went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; some landed up in other museums and private collections. Scholars pored over the pages of this ‘King’s Book of Kings’; connoisseurs savoured them, those who could not secure them — that is, if they could have afforded them — or have access to them, suffered pangs of envy. For 400 years, the prestige of this remarkable work, described as the very "apogee of Persian art", "a monumental achievement of artistic skill and patronage" had gone on rising in the eyes of the world. In the corridors of international scholarship, it was constantly being classed with the great illuminated manuscripts of medieval Europe, like the Belles Heures of Duc de Berry.
The movement of the manuscript from Iran to Turkey to Europe and then to the United States is one matter; there is also the phenomenon of the movement of the ‘peerless’ artists working on it. One has to know Persian art to get a sense of the incredible wealth of talent that was involved in the making of this manuscript.
The iconic figure of Bihzad — that great master against whose work so much of Persian art is judged — was not directly involved in this enterprise but his spirit loomed over it. The painter with whom, at least at the beginning, the manuscript is most associated is Sultan Muhammad; then there were other great names: Aqa Mirak, Dust Muhammad, Mir Musawwir, among them. There is the movement of artists from Tabriz and Shiraz to Herat, from the Turkman aesthetic to the Timurid, and so on. For fifteen years, it is believed, work went on: painters, calligraphers, illuminators, page-makers, book binders, all involved. It is stated that when, due to political considerations, the owner of this manuscript, Shah Tahmasp, had to send some of the choicest gifts to the Sultan of Turkey, those gifts arrived on the back of 34 camels, and at the very top of those gifts were not jewels or priceless carpets but a copy of the Holy Koran believed to have been scripted by the great Imam, ‘Ali, in his own hands, and "a manuscript of the Shahnama". That Shahnama, even though it is not named was, most scholars believe, the Shah Tahmasp-Houghton Shahnama.
I realise that there is not enough room left in this column to speak of the qualities of the work that made up this manuscript. It is also not easy, I am equally aware, for eyes used to Indian aesthetics to immediately enter the world of that of Persia: of that another time, perhaps.
It might be best, therefore, simply to draw attention to how one of the paintings in it — the Court of Gayumars — was described by contemporaries and later chroniclers. The work has been attributed to the master painter, Sultan Muhammad, in which he shows us the primordial ‘court’ of the first of kings, Gayumars, untouched by evil, attended upon by all kinds of people clad only in the skins of animals.
Of this painting, another master painter, Dust Muhammad, wrote in florid fashion to his patron, that "painting rises to the heights, where skies, for all their thousand-starred eyes, have yet to see the like", and added: "Lions fierce in the field of painting, as awesome tigers drawn to the arts, stung at heart by the smart of his brush, cower in hurt, overpowered by this work".
The work, with its "candle-flame composition" as one scholar put it, deserves close, very close, attention. But while one steeps oneself into it, or in another work from the same manuscript that shows Zal and the Simurgh, one should not omit to see the myriad figures of beasts and unearthly beings that the painter has hidden into the mysterious world of crystalline rocks that occupy so much of space in the folios.