THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

12 June 2017

Portraits of Dara Shikoh in the Treasures Gallery

Visitors to the Treasures Gallery at the British Library may notice that the display of Dara Shikoh album pages have changed. On exhibition are eight folios from the Dara Shikoh Album (Add.Or.3129), one of the great treasures of the Asian and African department. The album was compiled by Prince Dara Shikoh (1615–59), the eldest son and heir of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, and presented as a gift to his wife Nadira Banu Begum in 1646-47, whom he married in 1633. A new selection went into the gallery at the end of May in time for the Jaipur Literature Festival. You can find these in the Arts of the Book section near the entrance to the Magna Carta. For information on the previous display, please read our blog post on 'New Display of Dara Shikoh Album'.

The album contains seventy-four folios with sixty-eight paintings interspersed with calligraphy and gilt tooled leather covers.  Inside the album, paintings are arranged in facing pairs alternating with facing pages of calligraphy. The album features eighteen portraits of Dara Shikoh, portraits of princes and notable women of the court, holy men, and studies of natural history subjects. 

In this new display, visitors can view a set of facing portraits of Dara Shikoh as a teenager, approximately 15-18 years of age. This complementary set  features the prince standing against blossoming shrubs. He is dressed in fine white muslin garment worn over vivid coloured trousers. In both studies, he is adorned in necklaces composed of enormous pearls, jewelled bracelets and earrings. On the portrait to the right, he holds a gold tray containing two loose pearls and a red spinel.

Add Or 3129 f36 Add Or 3129 f35v
Portraits of Prince Dara Shikoh, unknown artists, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.36 and f.35v.

The second pair of portraits features women at the Mughal court. This includes an unidentified beauty of the court and a  portrait of Dara Shikoh’s elder sister Jahanara who was an influential political figure and profoundly spiritual. She wrote ‘The Confidant of Spirits’, a biography of the Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti in 1640.

Add Or 3129 f14  Add Or 3129 f 13v

[Left] A lady of the court, by an unknown artist from Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.14. [Right] Princess Jahanara aged 18, attributed to Lalchand, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1632. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.13v. 

The remaining four works on display were not intended as pairs, but are representative works from the album. This includes a study of two pigeons perched beside a portable dovecote, a pink crown imperial lily (one of eighteen floral studies in the album), a calligraphic exercise by Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri who was one of the most eminent calligraphers during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar (1555-1605), and an engraving of the Virgin and Child by either a Dutch or Italian artist from the 16th or 17th century.

Add Or 3129 f31v  Add Or 3129 f62 Add Or 3129 f40v
[Left] Two pigeons. [Right] A pink lily, artists unknown, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. Calligraphic exercise by Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri, northern India, c. 1590; flowers added, c. 1630. British Library, Add Or 3129, f. 31v, f.62, and f.40v.

For our audience and readers unfamiliar with the history of Mughal art, the European engraving pasted onto a Mughal album page may appear to be unconventional or even eccentric. In this album, the facing page too features western prints picturing St. Catherine of Sienna by Antonia Caranzano and a print of St. Margaret pasted into a Mughal album page.  Artists at the Mughal court were in fact exposed to European engravings, specifically Christian iconography, through Jesuit missionaries who visited the court of Emperor Akbar from 1580 onwards. Mughal artists were commissioned by Akbar and his son Jahangir to illustrate scenes on the life of Christ. While Mughal interpretations of Christian themes and studies of foreign visitors appear in albums, the original prints that inspired such works are more uncommon.

Add Or 3129 f42v
Engraving of the Virgin and Child by a Dutch or Italian artist, 16th or 17th century, British Library, Add Or 3129, f.42v


Further reading:

Falk, T., and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, London, 1981
Inayat Khan, The Shah Jahan Nama of ‘Inayat Khan, trans. A.R. Fuller, ed. W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990  
Losty, J.P., ‘Dating the Dara Shikoh Album: the Floral Evidence’, in Ebba Koch and Ali Anooshahr, eds., The Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan (1628-58) – New trends of research, forthcoming
Losty, J.P., and Roy, M., Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012
Losty, J.P., 'Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration', Asian and African Studies Blog, 14 March 2014.
Sims-Williams, Ursula, 'Princess Jahanara's biography of a Sufi saint', Asian and African Studies Blog, 01 February 2013.