Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
A Composite Elephant And Rider
Mughal, circa 1600-40 CE
Materials and technique
Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper
38.6 x 25 cm
A royal figure riding an enormous elephant follows a guide in a wintry landscape, the season signalled by a lack of leaves on trees in the distance. The colourfully painted elephant and rider stand in stark contrast to the muted background. A lavish golden crown and flames or plumage extending from behind the rider’s head suggest that he might be a king or another royal figure. His prominence is further emphasized by the presence of the elephant, as these massive creatures were highly prized by the Mughals and valued for their strength and bravery. Most interestingly, both elephant and rider are comprised of several human and animal figures, including bearded men, lions, cows, leopards, birds, and gazelles, all rendered in an abundance of colour. Even the king’s belt is formed by a snake coiled around his waist. Depictions of composite figures, animals in particular, are not uncommon in Islamic art, and many such images come from the Mughal period. The plethora of species contained in the immense body of the elephant may stand as a metaphor for the diverse worldly elements kept in balance by the Solomon-like ruler. It has also been suggested that the illustration contains mystical undertones, with the figure on the ground, a Sufi guide painted in white, lighting the symbolic path before them (Welch and Welch 1982, p. 187). A narrow border of golden, floral vines against a deep blue background frames the painting, which has been mounted in an album assembled (along with the border) at a later date. The album folio, a marginal element at first glance, becomes an elaborate painting in its own right. Antelope, gazelles, birds and a leopard wander or sit peacefully among rocks, streams and foliage, attracting the viewer’s attention beyond the central image on the page. Margin paintings frequently appeared in Mughal albums and their prominence is suggested by the fact that the artist, Dawlat Khan, has signed his work on this folio. Such borders perhaps gave artists a chance to experiment with and demonstrate their talents in draughtsmanship, painting, and composition.
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