Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Young Man Carried Off By A Giant Bird
Mughal, c.1590 CE
Materials and technique
Opaque watercolour, gold and ink on paper
Page 38.6 x 25.1 cm; Image 32.3 x 21.1 cm
A young man grips the feet of an enormous technicolour simurgh flying above choppy waters filled with giant turtles, fish and a crocodile which looks like a makara, the mythical sea creature with magic powers. This painting may depict the story by Bahram Gur’s Indian princess wife in the Haft Paykar of the Persian poet, Nizami. King Bahram Gur had seven wives who told him tales from their separate, coloured pavilions each day of the week. In the Indian princess’s story, the hero is dramatically rescued by holding onto the feet of a simurgh who brings him to a paradise-like land. Anthony Welch notes that the two figures in the beak of the simurgh may be the artist’s personal addition to the story (Welch and Welch 1982, p. 170). In any case the theme fits the Indian interest in adventure-romances featuring heroes who travel through (or above) strange lands and seas, as in Akbar’s Hamzanama. The painting has been attributed to Basawan, Akbar’s outstanding painter known for his sensitive observations, lush landscapes and use of perspective (Welch and Welch 1982, p. 170). In about 1635 CE the painting was mounted onto an album page decorated with magnificent gold-outlined flower paintings by the anonymous ‘Master of the Borders’ and bound in an album for Shah Jahan, Akbar’s grandson. The reverse of this page contains an Arabic prayer with Qur’anic expressions in black nasta'liq script signed by Muhammad Husayn (d. 1020 H/1611-12 CE), the master calligrapher who was honoured by Akbar (r. 1556-1605 CE) with the title, ‘Zarin Qalam’ (Golden Pen). There is a portrait of Muhammad Husayn as a teacher painted by Basawan’s son, the luminary Mughal painter Manohar. It must be one of Manohar’s earliest portraits since the artist included himself as a pupil in the composition and he looks to be no more than fifteen years old (Royal Asiatic Society; see Welch 1979, p. 179).
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