On Jahangir’s Paintings
Mehreen Chida-Razvi in conversation with B.N. Goswamy
The paintings from the Mughal world have always been a source of aesthetic pleasure for connoisseurs of art. However, these artistic legacies left behind by the Mughal emperors are more than just things of beauty – a deeper look at them reveals to us the profound symbolism that they possess. To decode some of these imageries and give us a glimpse of the social and political messages they inherit, art historian B.N. Goswamy joined Dr Mehreen Chida-Razvi for an engrossing conversation on Jahangir’s paintings.
The conversation commenced with a comparative analysis of the work ‘Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to Kings [left]’ (1615-1618) with a painting completed during his father’s reign, ‘Akbar Presiding over Religious Discussions in the Ibadat Khana in Fatehpur Sikri [right]’ (1605). Dr Chida-Razvi quipped that by the time of Jahangir, the aesthetics of the empire depended a lot on the diverse cultural interactions which occurred at the Mughal court. Both of these works tremendously encapsulate the visual presence of the emperors during their respective reigns, but the difference in the two emerges from the representation of the emperor. The figure of Jahangir, sitting on an hourglass, is an ode to European notions of imagery in terms of its technical production, modelling, shading and employing allegory as an artistic concept. Calling it one of the “most elaborately beautiful allegorical portraits of Jahangir”, Dr Chida-Razvi claimed that such an artistic technique was not seen during Akbar’s reign.
There were other portraits of Jahangir being visualised as the emperor as well and fascinatingly, some of them were made even before he acquired the ‘Takht-i-Jahangir’ (Throne of Jahangir). Dr Chida-Razvi highlighted that in the work ‘Salim Enthroned’ (1600-1601), Jahangir was projecting himself as royalty 4-5 years prior to him officially becoming the emperor. The figure of the to-be-king occupying the throne, isolated against a blank background resulted in it being “more imperial than Akbar ever made to represent himself”.
Salim Enthroned (1600-1601)
What particularly interested me about Jahangir’s paintings is the heavy symbolism present in them, for instance, the incorporation of the halo. In the work ‘Durbar of Jahangir’ (1624-28), not only do we see the halo, which represents the divine right to rule, but there is an image of Virgin Mary above the emperor’s head. How did a Christian figure find herself at the Mughal durbar? This takes us back to the court of Akbar, where an introduction of Christian material by Jesuit missionaries took place as early as 1580. Thereafter, the tradition of European influences in Mughal imagery flourished.
Detail, Durbar of Jahangir
Another intriguing technique in Mughal paintings is using such works as political propaganda. In artworks which show Jahangir capturing cheetahs, it becomes necessary to think of these images having a political connotation, in addition to representing the rulers undertaking royal activities. Images of the hunt are fused with political imagery – they display a ruler surveying the land and controlling nature.
Professor Goswamy commented on the dazzling quality of these paintings, but also put forward a question all art historians need to think about – who was the audience for these works? Dr Chida-Razvi claimed that these were elite productions and they would have had a limited audience. She points out that “this is one of the situations where the creation of the image is almost as important as who actually sees the image”. However, they were brought out on occasion and shown to selected guests – one can imagine a Safavid ambassador at the court, being shown the painting of Jahangir embracing Shah Abbas I, the fifth Shah of Iran!
The last work discussed was ‘Jahangir Triumphing over Poverty’, which like the others also carries a deep message – Jahangir stands over a predator and prey (lion and lamb) lying together peacefully. They represent a peaceful empire and the artistic idea is Solomonic in nature, as in the Quran, Solomon is regarded as the perfect Muslim king. In an ideal kingdom Jahangir built – the lion and the lamb could stay together. This imagery was inspired by the polyglot album given to Akbar during the first Jesuit mission.
In this painting, Professor Goswamy noticed a figure riding a fish, whom he identified as the first man, Manu, atop Matysa, the fish incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. However, Dr Chida-Razvi claimed that the figure on the fish might be that of a Sufi saint who was known to travel on a fish. This point illustrated that art could be interpreted in many diverse ways – it all depends on the observer’s gaze!