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08 August 2022

Stories of the Prophets: an illustrated Persian manuscript by Nishapuri

Fig.1. Noah's ark
Fig. 1. Nuh (Noah) in the ark (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 19v)
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Tales of the prophets (Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʼ) form a popular literary genre based on stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. Since accounts of the prophets’ lives were often very sketchy in the Qurʼan itself, stories about them drew heavily on Jewish, Christian and above all on oral literature for details. Famous collections in Arabic, are Kitāb arāʾis al-majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ by the 10th to 11th century writer al‐Thaʻlabi (the British Library has one of the oldest copies of this manuscript, Or 1494 dated Jumada I, AH 513/1119) and al-Kisaʼi (active c. 1100). Another well-known collection from Central Asia was composed in Eastern Turkish Chagatai at the beginning of the 14th century by Nasir ibn Burhan Rabghuzi (see BL Add MS 7851 for a 15th century copy).

In Persian, one of the best-known and most illustrated collections was written by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim Nishapuri. The British Library copy, Add. MS 18576, is one of fourteen known illustrated copies, all produced in Safavid Iran towards the end of the sixteenth century. It contains thirteen illustrations and was probably made up from two different manuscripts – copied in at least two different hands. Consisting of only 165 folios out of an original 229, it lacks the introductory frontispiece, a double spread illustration which typically might have depicted Solomon and Sheba on facing pages. Luckily the double-page finispiece (Fig. 2) is preserved at the end showing the presentation of the manuscript and a young prince reading while a banquet is being prepared.

Fig.2a. Finispiece Fig.2b. Finispiece
Fig. 2. Finispiece showing books being read and presented while a banquet is being prepared (British Library, Add MS 18576, ff. 164v-165r)
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Many of the stories are common to the Bible and the Qurʼan. The first to be illustrated is the expulsion of Adam and Hava (Eve) from Paradise (Fig. 3). In this version of the story, Iblis (Satan) colluded with a peacock and a serpent (here depicted as a dragon) to tempt Adam and Hava to eat the forbidden fruit. After they had eaten, they lost their clothes, all their possessions and they were driven out. Despite their banishment, they still kept their prophetic status, represented here by the fiery haloes around their heads.

The next illustration (Fig. 4) tells the story of Adams’s sons Qabil (Cain) and Habil (Abel). In both the Bible and the Qurʼan, Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy when God rejected his sacrifice in favour of his brother’s. Not knowing what to do with a dead body — as this was the first time someone had died — he wandered around with his brother strapped to his back until God sent two crows, one of which killed the other and then demonstrated how to bury it in the ground.

Fig.3. Adam is expelled from Paradise Fig.4. The story of Cain and Able
Fig. 3. Left. Adam is expelled from Paradise (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 11r)
Fig. 4. Right. A crow is sent to demonstrate to Qabil (Cain) how to bury his murdered brother Habil (Abel) (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 15v)
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Another familiar story, equally well-known in both biblical and Qur’anic traditions, features Nuh (Noah) in his ark (Fig. 1). His ship is a simple flat-bottomed ship, guided by paddles at front and back, while in the foreground a drowning figure calls for help from the rooftops. Note Noah’s halo signifying his prophetic status and the ship’s flag quoting sura 61, verse 13 of the Qurʼan:‘Help from Allah and a victory near at hand. And give good news to the faithful.’

Fig.5. Flag detail
Fig. 5. Detail from Noah’s ark

The story of Ibrahim’s sacrifice (Fig. 6) is one of the most frequently illustrated Qurʼanic stories. In the Bible, it is Abraham’s son Isaac who is saved from sacrifice by God offering a ram to take his place. In Islamic tradition it was Ismaʻil who was the intended victim. When Ibrahim tried to cut his son’s throat, the knife turned upside down in his hand, folded in two, and would not cut. When Ibrahim tried again, he heard a voice from Heaven telling him to look up and he saw the archangel Jibra’il descending with a ram in his arms to act as a substitute.

Equally popular is the story of Yusuf (Joseph) who features in thirteen different episodes in the Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’ (Fig. 7). Put on sale to the highest bidder at a slave-market in Egpyt, he was purchased by the Egyptian ʻAziz (Potiphar in the Bible), or in a more romantic version, by his wife Zulaykha. Here, however, we see an addition to the story in which an old woman, standing with a group of would-be buyers with their money-bags, offers in vain her only possession, a ball of yarn.

Fig.6. Ibrahim's sacrifice Fig.7. Yusuf at the slave market
Fig. 6. Jibra’il (Gabriel) brings a ram to Ibrahim (Abraham) about to sacrifice his son (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 33v)
Fig. 7. An old woman bids for Yusuf (Joseph) at the slave-market in Egypt (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 44r)
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Two further stories, both well-known in Qurʼanic and biblical traditions are the tales of Yunus (Jonah) and the big fish (Fig. 8) and of the misfortunes of Ayyub (Job, Fig. 9). Yunus repented and prayed to Allah from inside the fish, while Ayyub remained faithful despite losing everything and suffering dreadful diseases.

Fig.8. Jonah and the whale Fig.9. Job's afflictions
Fig. 8. Yunus (Jonah) coming out of the belly of the fish (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 87r)
Fig. 9. Ayyub (Job) recovering from his afflictions, brought clothing and food by Jibra’il and his wife (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 91r)
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Other illustrations in this manuscript:

  • The people of ʻAd are punished by a whirlwind (f. 22v)
  • Dawud (David) fighting Jalut (Goliath) and his people (f. 95r)
  • Zu’l-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great) builds a wall to keep out the people of Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog) (f. 118r)
  • Zakariya (Zacharias) is told about the future birth of Yahya (John the Baptist).[1] (f. 128v)
  • ʻAli, watched by the Prophet Muhammad, attacks the Jews at the fortress of Khaybar (f. 158r)

An additional striking feature of our manuscript is the beautifully preserved original Safavid binding (Fig. 10), typical of the period with its use of block-stamped gold and doublures with gilt fretwork over blue, red, green and black grounds.

Fig.10a. Outer binding Fig.10b. Doublure
Fig. 10. Left. Outer gilt block-stamped cover. Right. Doublure with filigree work over blue, red, green and black grounds (British Library, Add MS 18576)
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Unfortunately little is known of the former history of this beautiful copy. It was acquired from Sothebey’s on 13 March 1851, described, according to the sale catalogue[2]  as “The property of a gentleman leaving England,” one of a collection of books “connected with the fine arts.”

 

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
Ccownwork

 

Further reading

Digital version of Add. MS 18576

Milstein, Rachel, Karin Rührdanz and Barbara Schmitz, Stories of the Prophets: Illustrated Manuscripts of Qiṣas al-Anbiyā. Costa Mesa, Calif: Mazda Publishers, 1999

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[1] Or possibly ‘The destruction of Sodom’ (Milstein, p.197).
[2] British Library, Sothebys SC (1) 1851: sale 12-13 March 1851: Acquired for £3.16.- by the booksellers Thomas and William Boone.

06 June 2022

Satyajit Ray's visit to the India Office Library to conduct archival research for Shatranj ke Khilari or 'The Chess Players' in 1976

This guest blog post is by Sarbajit Mitra, a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), who is working on his thesis: Cultures of Consumption: Popular Responses to Intoxicants in Colonial Bengal.

The celebrated Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray visited the India Office Library (now part of the British Library) in 1976 to consult original 19th century Murshidabad and Lucknow paintings that would influence the set and costume design of his first Hindi language film Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players), which was released the following year. Ray adapted his film from a short story by the noted Hindi writer Munshi Premchand (1880-1936). The story focused on two Awadhi noblemen addicted to the game of chess while totally oblivious to the political situation taking place that year of 1856, when the East India Company took over the administration of the province of Awadh by deposing the provincial King of Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887). The novel though just had one line that gave a sense of the historical background of the period while the two men continued their game.  In the script, Ray added a parallel narrative which looked at the  transfer of power to the Company from the perspective of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and Sir James Outram (1803-1863), the then English resident at Lucknow . The film, thus, demanded painstaking research not just to be truthful to historical facts, but also for authentically recreating the period on screen. Ray, who was always known for his keen eye to details, devoted almost an entire year to research and in writing the script. Alongside referring to available primary accounts, Ray needed to find visual references from the period. The search for the appropriate visual references took Ray to different archives and repositories, including the India Office Library in London. This blog post will discuss the specific works of art that Ray consulted and ultimately influenced the set and costume design of Shatranj ke Khilari.

The Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata, based in the filmmakers’ former residence, holds his extensive archives and shooting notebooks, the later is available on open access. Ray used handmade exercise books with distinct red cover, popularly referred to as Kheror Khata (traditionally used by the account-keepers in Bengal) for keeping his notes. Ray’s Kheror Khatas are invaluable resources providing step by step information on how he conceived and gave shape to his ideas before they were translated on the screen. The research notes, early drafts, even the shooting schedule for Shatranj ke Khilari can be found in the Kheror Khata for the film, spread across two volumes.

Kheror Khata-Cover
Kheror Khata- Title Page
Satyajit Ray's notebook for Shatranj ke Khilari , 1977. Cover and inside flyleaf. Image courtesy of Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata and available through the National Digital Library of India

Andrew Robinson, Ray’s biographer, highlighted the formidable difficulties Ray faced while writing the script. Ray needed to comprehend the relationship between Britain and Awadh in the century leading up to the Annexation and hence produced a ten-minute prologue at the start of the film with still shots of contemporary documents, photographs and paintings.[1]  In order to achieve historical accuracy, Ray needed to consult contemporary visual material. Ray first consulted the European and British oil paintings in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata to understand the portrayal of key political figures. Ray featured Tilly Kettle’s portrait of Nawab Shuja ud-Daula of Awadh with his four sons and General Barker and the artist Robert Home’s portrait of Gazi-ud din Haidar in his prologue.

However, for faithfully recreating Awadhi life in the sets, Ray chose to depend more on the artworks of anonymous Indian painters. Ray initially consulted the collections at the State Museum at Lucknow, but his notes on the Kheror Khata and his correspondences with Suresh Jindal (1942- ), the producer of film, reveal that he was keen to examine the paintings held in the India Office Library. In one of the letters to Jindal, Ray writes, 'All the Lucknow photos in Sharar are pre-mutiny and all come from the India House. I have written to Pam Cullen to send a complete list of what they’ve got on Lucknow.'[2] Pam Cullen (1924- ) who was the European director at India’s National Film Development Corporation’s office in London, was a close friend of Ray and her assistance from London turned out to be of great help.

Ray initially conducted his own research while based in Calcutta. He mostly relied on William Foster’s A descriptive catalogue of the paintings, statues and framed prints in the India Office. Ray referenced eight paintings along with their accession numbers in his notebook. In 1976, Ray managed to see the paintings in London and take photographs when he briefly toured Britain “in the fall of 1976” to meet Sir Richard Attenborough (1923-2014), who was to play Sir James Outram in the film.

Notes by Ray in his own hands on IOR Records
Satyajit Ray's notebook for Shatranj ke Khilari , 1977. Notes for visit to India Office Library. Image courtesy of Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata and available through the National Digital Library of India

The first entry in Ray’s list though records a single painting ‘Asaf-ud-Daula listening to the Musicians’ with the reference number ‘Add Or 2595’. However, the reference number is allocated to a similar painting showing ‘Asaf ud-Daula celebrating the Muharram festival in Lucknow’. The later reference number in the India Office Library’s collection, Add Or 2600, instead pictures Nawab Asaf al-Daula in his palace ‘seated on a rug smoking a hookah and listening to a party of male musicians’. By looking at the portraits of Wajid Ali Shah’s ancestor Asaf ud-Daula, who ruled from 1775-97, Ray perhaps was looking for a contemporary visual reference that could be adapted to portraying the 19th century ruler Wajid Ali Shah enjoying a private musical concert in the film. Ray’s notebook also recorded the fact that these paintings were made in the Murshidabad style (of eastern Bengal) as opposed to the Lucknow or Awadhi style. It is also interesting to note that, Sir George Nugent (1757-1849), the Commander-in-Chief in India between 1811-15, acquired these two paintings whilst in India. Nugent’s wife, Maria (1771-1834) was known to be a keen collector of Company paintings, more likely to have acquired the paintings from the artist while she was in Calcutta around 1812.

Nawab Asaf al-Daula seated on a rug smoking a hookah and listening to a party of male musicians.
Nawab Asaf al-Daula seated on a rug smoking a hookah and listening to a party of male musicians. Murshidabad school, c. 1812. British Library, Add Or 2600

Ray listed another painting that featured Nawab Asaf ud-daula. The painting made by a Lucknow artist between 1830-35 shows the Nawab engaged in one of his favorite pastimes, the cockfight  (Add Or 3118). Asaf ud-daula is seen gesturing towards birds at his feet while being seated beside a European gentleman in a red coat. There are two other European gentleman present in the painting along with a number of Indian gentlemen. Rosie Llewellyn Jones speculates that one of the English gentlemen dressed in white trousers and blue jacket could be Colonel John Mordaunt, who appears in the more well-known painting by Johann Zoffany. This painting could be inspired from Zoffany’s work, it is difficult to overlook the similar hand gestures by Asaf ud-daula that one can find in either of the paintings. Ray was known to refer to an engraving of the Zoffany painting at the Victoria Memorial Hall. He perhaps realized the significance of using a cockfight sequence in the movie as a device for establishing contemporary Awadhi culture. However, the segment on cockfight in Shatranj ke Khilari involving commoners from the city, turned out to be very different than how the event was presented in the painting.

Asaf al-Daula (Nawab of Oudh) at a cock-fight with Europeans
Asaf al-Daula (Nawab of Oudh) at a cock-fight with Europeans. Lucknow, 1830-1835. British Library, Add Or 3118.

Interestingly, Ray’s notes suggest that he referred to just one painting featuring Nawab Wajid Ali Shah during his visit to the India Office Library. The painting depicting Nawab Wajid Ali Shah embracing the then Governor General of India, Lord Hardinge (1785-1856) was made by an anonymous Lucknow artist, when Hardinge was making a farewell tour of Kanpur and Lucknow before his retirement back to London, in 1848. (Add Or. 741) (Fig.6). The meeting between the two individuals took place on November 22, 1847, at the hall of the Chattar Manzil palace in Lucknow. This magnificent painting featuring multiple characters gave Ray a rough idea of how the interiors of the Awadhi palaces looked like in their heydays. The painting was also instructive on the details of costumes of the Indians as well as the Europeans. Ray perhaps picked up more from the painting than much needed details for his production team. There is a sequence almost at the end of film, where General Outram meets Wajid Ali Shah to formally inform him of the Company’s decision to take over his kingdom. At the beginning of the meeting, Wajid Ali Shah greets and embraces Outram. It is hard not to notice the striking similarity of this sequence with the painting.

Durbar scene showing Wajid 'Ali Shah (King of Oudh 1847-56) embracing the Governor-General, Lord Hardinge
Durbar scene showing Wajid 'Ali Shah (King of Oudh 1847-56) embracing the Governor-General, Lord Hardinge. Lucknow, c. 1847. British Library, Add Or 742.

Ray’s various correspondences in the pre-production phase of the film suggest that he was anxious about getting the particulars of costumes of different divisions of the East India Company’s army correct. His discussions with Jindal reveal that Ray’s efforts to find references for uniforms of the Company’s army at the Fort William in Calcutta or at the Barrackpore Cantonment were not too successful. Hence, he consulted the collections of the India Office Library and the Imperial War Museum during his brief visit to London. Ray’s entries in the notebook suggest he photographed three relevant paintings at the India Office Library. These paintings came from a single collection of ten paintings, made by a Cuttack artist around 1840.  The paintings portrayed Sepoys of the 30th (?) Madras regiment in full uniform (Add Or 3137), in light marching order (Add Or 3138) and heavy marching order (Add Or 3139). Ray also secured the assistance Andrew Mollo (1940- ), an expert on army uniforms, who had collaborated in films like Dr. Zhivago and Night of the Generals before. The costume design for the East India Company’s army in the film was eventually done on the basis of Mollo’s sketches.

Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in full dress
Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in full dress. By a Cuttack artist, c.1840 British Library, Add Or 3137.

Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in light marching order.
Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in light marching order. By a Cuttack artist, c.1840 British Library, Add Or 3138.

Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in heavy marching order
Sepoy of the 30th (?) Regiment Madras Native Infantry in heavy marching order. By a Cuttack artist, c.1840 British Library, Add Or 3139.

Shatranj ke Khilari despite generating some misgivings from certain quarters, remains one of the most faithful reconstructions of 19th Century India on the screen. Perhaps Satyajit Ray’s centenary marks an apt occasion to look back into the research that went into the film and also the film’s connection with the collections of the India Office Library.

 

[1] Andrew Robinson, Introduction in Suresh Jindal, My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj ke Khilari, (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2018)

[2] Ray was obviously referring to Abdul Haleem Sharar’s Guzastha Lucknow here. Originally published in Urdu in 1926, an English translation was published just at the moment Ray began working on Shatranj ke Khilari in 1975.

 

Further Reading:
Jindal, Suresh, My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj ke Khilari, (New Delhi, 2017)

Jones, Rosie Llewellyn, The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah 1822-1887, (London: Hurst & Co, 2014)

Jones, Rosie Llewellyn, Portraits in Princely India 1700-1947, (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2008)

 

Blog post by Sarbajit Mitra Ccownwork

@SarbajitMitra4

 

09 May 2022

From Georgian Slave to Safavid Master: Some Possible Additions to the Corpus of Siyavush Beg Gurji

Today's guest blog is jointly written by Jaimee Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate) and Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher)

Siyavush Beg Gurji (c.1536–1616), a brilliant but elusive maestro from the Safavid era, has intrigued scholars for half a decade. Initiated by Anthony Welch in findings published nearly 50 years ago, some pages from a dispersed manuscript located in private German and Danish collections help widen our understanding of this individual, and the state of the arts in Iran at the turn of the sixteenth to the seventeenth century.

Fig 1 Garshasp and Zahhak. Or 12985  f74v Fig 2 Ardavan before Ardashir  IO Islamic 966  f.  360v
Fig. 1. Garshasp seated before Zahhak while the div, Minharas, is held prisoner (Or.12985, f. 74v). Public Domain
Fig. 2. Ardavan before Ardashir (IO Islamic 966, f. 360v). Public Domain

Born in Georgia, Siyavush Beg was brought to the first Safavid capital Tabriz where he trained to become a page. Upon the relocation of the Safavid court to Qazvin in 1548, Siyavush transferred there and continued his studies of calligraphy, illustration, painting, and poetry. He worked in the royal workshops to produce manuscripts for the shah and other courtiers and enjoyed royal support from subsequent Safavid monarchs up until 1590. He contributed three paintings to a copy of the Garshaspnamah of Asadi, which was an expansion of and complement to Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (dated 1573, fig. 1). Following these, Siyavush painted sumptuous illustrations for Shah Isma’il II's (r. 1576–1577) royal copy of the same work (dated 1576–77; dispersed), and afterward fulfilled non-courtly commissions.

During the lull in royal patronage of manuscript production in the late-1570s through the 1580s, Siyavush and his colleagues produced manuscripts for connoisseurs not related to the rulers. As a case in point, they worked on a copy of Khvandamir’s Habib al-Siyar (Friend of Biographies) that was produced in 1579 for Mirza Abu Talib ibn Mirza ʻAla al-Dawlat, a Tajik high official at the court in Qazvin (former Homberg collection, since dispersed). Elsewhere, a Khamsah of Nizami copied in 1549 for the Safavid financial secretary Ali Khan Beg Turkman (Morgan Library ms. M.836) has illustrations attributable to Siyavush c. 1579. Although not definitively associated with his hand, loose folios in his style are elsewhere scattered in collections (Pierpont Morgan Library ms. M.386.7r) and have appeared at auction (Christie’s, 10 October 2013, lot 29). It is believed that Siyavush Beg formally retired in the 1590s and headed to Shiraz where he is believed to have added to some projects prior to his death in around 1616.

In sum, up until now Siyavush Gurji’s official output has totalled fewer than thirty illustrations over a period of seven decades. However, it is hard to believe a richly gifted artist, passionately engaged with painting under four different Safavid monarchs (Tahmasp I, Isma’il II, Muhammad Khudabanda, and ʻAbbas I), and spending almost his entire life under royal aegis could produce work for only three manuscripts. To him we might also now credit illustrations in a second Khamsah of Nizami (Topkapi Palace Library ms. R.881, circa 1590–1610); and illustrations in two copies of Qazi Ahmad’s Gulistan-i Hunar, a treatise on calligraphers and painters (one in the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, and the other formerly in the collection of Clara C. Edwards). Furthermore, a group of Shahnamah manuscripts also reflect his artistic practices and stylistic details. Although they are unsigned, their illustrations repeating compositions and figures fit comfortably in his corpus, and suggest either his own participation or perhaps that of a colleague working closely alongside him.

These Shahnamah copies sharing common circumstances of production include the following:

  • British Library IO Islamic 966, with colophon dated 1604, page size 370 x 235 mm, figs. 2, 5, 9, 11
  • Kuwait’s al-Sabah Collection, Inv. No. LNS 233, no colophon, page size 350 x 235 mm
  • Yahuda Collection of the Israel Museum (ms. 120) dated 1617
  • Newly discovered illustrations, held in private collections, from a single dispersed Shahnamah manuscript (here labelled MS Exhibit 369 B) whose illustrations, compositions, and dimensions (averaging 355 x 240 mm) closely relate to the other Shahnamah works, as well as the above-mentioned Garshaspnamah  (Fig. 1, Or. 12985, page size 348 x 235 mm)

All these works have been attributed by scholars to be of Safavid origin and contain specific elements from the workshops of Qazvin on the cusp of artistic innovations originating in Isfahan. Although lacking an artist’s signature, they are apparently prepared in the late sixteenth century, and several folios across them have identical figures and compositional layouts.

Fig 3. Siyavashs fire ordeal. Exhibit 369 B Fig 4. Siyavash fire ordeal. LNS 233  f.42 r Fig 5 Siyavash fire ordeal  IO Islamic 966  f97r
The fire ordeal of Siyavush.
Fig. 3.  Exhibit 369 B, f. 114v © the owner
Fig. 4. LNS 233, f. 42r © The al- Sabah Collection, Dar al- Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait
Fig. 5. IO Islamic 966, f. 97r, Public Domain

Figs. 3–5 depict the famous fire ordeal of the character Siyavush, where he is asked to ride through the blazing fire in order to prove his innocence against accusations levied by his step mother. Siyavush rides through the flames with his head turned back in all three images. The galloping black horse with a yak tail hanging from the neck, the decorated saddle and the whip in rider's hand, the astonished solider with his raised hands are obvious similarities. One wonders if some pouncing or stencilling techniques were applied. The common painter of these is posited to be one individual who follows a composition from Shah Tahmasp's famous Shahnamah as a model (now held in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran). However, they are simpler versions, and could have been carried out by Siyavush Beg or his colleague.

Fig 6 Tus and Giv witht the maiden lady. Exhibit 369 B Fig 7. LNS 233  f.97r
Tus and Giv and the maiden lady.
Fig. 6. Exhibit 369 B, f. 109r © the owner
Fig. 7. LNS 233 MS, f. 97r © The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait.

Other illustrations from ms. Exhibit 369 B, the British Library, and Kuwait collection have much in common. They share similar compositions, colour tones, heavily outlined backgrounds in which purple and pink towering masses of rocks at times overflow into the margins. Tadpole clouds populate golden and blue skies, dark green grounds are spotted with radiant flowers, above which short flame-like trees emerge (figs. 6-7). Old maple trees with bulky trunks brim with autumnal leaves (figs. 8-9).

Fig 8 Dying Rustam. Exhibit 369 B Fig 9 Death of Rustam  IO Islamic 966_f323v
The death of Rustam.
Fig. 8. Exhibit 369 B, f. 386v © the owner
Fig. 9. IO Islamic 966, f. 323v, Public Domain

In another famous episode of the Shahnamah, Tahmina is seen visiting Rustam's chamber in figs. 10 and 11 which again bear striking similarities. Upon close observation, the version in the private collection reveals some extraordinary features. A superbly sketched simurgh (the mythical bird of the Shahnamah) on Rustam's blanket (fig. 12) displays the artist’s genius and outstanding drawing skills (perhaps Siyavush’s), as he effectively connects the past with the present through a simple yet powerful image. In this folio as in the British Library’s copy, two towering cypress trees breach the upper margins above the richly decorated interiors with pink and lavender wall paintings. They both have elaborately detailed grounds covered in animal and foliate motifs. Cypress trees play an effective role in the images both visually and symbolically, for they are associated with the stature of heroes in classical poetry. The tree is also a symbol of immortality, eternity, grandeur, strength, and manliness. Tahmina's tryst with Rustam following her depicted arrival leads to the birth of their son Suhrab, one of the most known characters of the Shahnamah.

Fig 10. Daughter of the king of Samangan  Exhibit 369 B Fig 11. Rustam and Tahmina. IO Islamic 966_f79v
Tahmina visits Rustam.
Fig. 10. Exhibit 369 B, f. 93v © the owner
Fig. 11. IO Islamic 966, f. 79v, Public Domain

Fig 12. Close up of Simurgh
Fig. 11. Close up of Rustam's covering

There are many other parallels across these Shahnamah manuscripts that have been noted elsewhere, but it is worth exploring how their common illustrations came about. Regarding the style of Siyavush-like paintings in the British Library IO Islamic 966, Basil Robinson credits the unnamed artist as a “young Isfahani.” Isfahan became the site of the new Safavid capital in 1598 and an innovative artistic style popularized by Siyavush’s younger colleague, the artist Reza Abbasi, emerged there early on after the power shifted from Qazvin. The scholar Barbara Schmitz has since modified Robinson’s “young Isfahani” attribution to an “old Qazvini” artist working alone in a style that had by the early 1600s gone out of fashion. Whether or not it was Siyavush, this same individual executed the majority of the miniatures in this copy dated 1604. Robinson has also attributed three miniatures of the British Library’s Garshaspnamah to this same “young Isfahani” which Norah M. Titley has contested to be the work of Siyavush Beg. Aditionally, the scholars Adel T. Adamova and Manijeh Bayani have convincingly proposed Siyavush Beg as the possible illustrator of the Shahnamah copies in the British Library and Kuwait (see Ademova and Bayani, cat. 32, 459 - 486). They suggest that Siyavush set to work to illustrate the Kuwait version sometime prior to 1600, almost twenty years after he contributed to Shah Isma’il II’s Shahnamah. He would have next begun working on the British Library manuscript dated 1604. They stylistically justify their argument by noting how the artist followed conventions originating in the Qazvin school of painting. The hitherto never-before referenced paintings of MS Exhibit 369 B carry striking similarities to both the London and Kuwait manuscripts, and we can insert this new Shahnamah material and others into the trajectory delineated above.

Sometime between 1579 and 1604, the “young Isfahani”/ “old Qazvini” Siyavush Beg may have busied himself with yet another magnificent Shahnamah, that of MS Exhibit 369 B. Perhaps up until his final days, he might have contributed to the Shahnamah copy in the Israel Museum that was completed a year after his death. Though not much can be said with absolute certainty about the production of manuscript Exhibit 369 B, on stylistic grounds the illustrations appear to have been produced by Siyavush Beg or a painter working alongside him during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Their sumptuousness vouches for an expensive production affordable to a prince or an aristocrat who could employ elite artists and cover the expenses of their studio.

Our conclusions are based on stylistic comparisons and the upsurge of sub-royal patrons who were commissioning richly illustrated manuscripts in parallel or in competition with princely ateliers during the second half of the sixteenth century. Economics impact arts, and one reason for the increase in such sub-royal productions was the lack of reliable royal patronage during the reign of the feeble and almost blind Safavid Shah Muhammad Khudabanda (r.1578–1587). Another possible owner of the manuscript in question could be that of the artist producing it himself; having made other copies to sell, perhaps he enjoyed his own compositions so much that he directly duplicated them.

Within these four manuscripts, the same figures frequent compositions, clad in rich garments with delicately sketched hands and rendered movements, bulky turbans and fur collars. Animals populate compositions, especially the meticulously drawn horses and foxes with fluffy tails. There are soldiers in helmets, kings in crowns, archers, and musicians. Stylistically, the most decisive element that links all of the paintings is the near perfect sense of weight and balance by the painter. Also common is the unbroken brush movement and the use of colour that is thoroughly typical of the Qazvin palette, and the painter’s penchant for transgressing the text frame and extending images into the margins. Although he did not physically sign these works with letters comprising his name, Siyavush’s hand and influence can be identified in these illustrations and bear his hallmarks.

With special thanks to Katja Preuss for her generous contributions & guidance, the Cambridge Shahnama Project and some wonderful friends.

Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher) and Jaimee K. Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate)
 ccownwork copy

Contact Asim: [email protected]
Contact Jaimee: Academia.edu

Further reading:

Adamova, Adel T., and Manijeh Bayani, Persian Painting: the Arts of the Book and Portraiture. Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah: The Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
Babaie, Sussan, et al., Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.
Qazi Ahmad,  Golestān-e honar, tr. Vladimir Minorsky as Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qāḍī Aḥmad, Son of Mīr-Munshī, Washington, D.C., 1959.

Robinson, B.W. “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama.” Iran 14 (1976): 1-8.
———— “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama: Additional Material.” Iran 43 (2005): 291-299.
Schmitz, Barbara. Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and paintings in The Pierpont Morgan Library. New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997.
Titley, Norah. “A Manuscript of the Garshāspnāmeh.” The British Museum Quarterly 31:1/2 (Autumn 1966): 27-32
————Persian Miniature Painting and its Influence on the Arts of Turkey and India. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
Welch, Anthony. Artists for the Shah: Late Sixteenth Century Painting at the Imperial Court of Iran. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

04 April 2022

Ariya Metteyya, the Buddha of the future

Ariya Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya), the future Buddha, is at the centre of some of the most beautiful illustrations in Thai Buddhist manuscripts. According to canonical scriptures, Ariya Metteyya is the fifth in the lineage of Buddhas (Tathāgata) of the current aeon, and successor of the 28 Buddhas of the past. Ariya means “noble”, and Metteyya is derived from the Pali word mātreyya which refers to “one's mother” and “motherloving”. The previous Buddha Gotama predicted in the Cakkavatti-sῑhanāda-sutta that Ariya Metteyya will be the Buddha of the future, following his rebirth in the human realm, renunciation of worldly life and attainment of enlightenment under a Naga tree (cobra saffron, Lat. Mesua ferrea).

The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven
The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven, illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the story of Phra Malai, central Thailand, 1875. British Library Or 6630, f. 43  Noc

The story of the future Buddha appears in another canonical source entitled Buddhavaṃsa (chronicle of Buddhas) in the Khuddaka Nikāya. It gives details of the life of Buddha Gotama and the 24 Buddhas before him, as well as Ariya Metteyya.

An extra-canonical source that mentions the future Buddha is the Mahāvaṃsa (“Great Chronicle” of Sri Lanka), attributed to the monk Mahānāma. In this text, written in the 5th or 6th century CE, it is stated that Ariya Metteyya currently resides in the Tuṣita heaven as a deity called Natha-deva awaiting rebirth in the human realm.

Another source that describes the life, meritorious acts and attainment of enlightenment of Ariya Metteyya is known under the title Anāgatavaṃsa (account of the future), a work attributed to Ashin Kassapa (1160-1230 CE).

The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right
The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right) in a folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Add MS 15347, f. 48  Noc

The above-mentioned sources brought knowledge of Ariya Metteyya from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia. In the Thai Buddhist tradition, the future Buddha is also known as Phra Sri An. Exquisite paintings of him, often lavishly decorated with gold leaf, can be found in manuscripts containing the popular legend of Phra Malai, a monk-saint who was able to travel to the Buddhist heavens and hells as a result of his accumulated merit. The story is often included, among extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka, in Thai funeral and commemoration books from the 19th century. The oldest known extant manuscript containing this legend is a palm-leaf book in Northern Thai (Lanna) Dhamma script, dating back to 1516 CE (Brereton, 1993, p. 141)

Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven
Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven to pay reverence to the celestial stupa. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Or 14115, f. 59  Noc

One episode in this legend elaborates on Phra Malai’s visit to the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he meets the god Indra (Sakka) at the celestial stupa Chulamani Chedi. While the two are conversing, myriads of devatā (deities) and finally also the future Buddha appear from another heaven, Tuṣita, to pay reverence to the stupa. Ariya Metteyya then gives Phra Malai a message about the future of mankind, and advice to make merit and to listen to recitations of the Vessantara Jātaka for those who wish to be reborn in the era of the future Buddha.

The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left)
The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left) in a folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library Or 16101, f. 51  Noc

Although most illustrated Phra Malai manuscripts include the standardised pair of paintings showing the scene at the celestial stupa, Thai artists of the 19th century used many other options to depict Ariya Metteyya. In the image above one can see the future Buddha in an elaborately decorated red aura with two deities partially hidden in clouds (right), whereas on the left side the artist decided to paint male withayathon (Pali: vijjadhara, “keepers of knowledge”, in Thai also “scholars of magic”) as flag-bearers announcing the arrival of Ariya Metteyya.

Painted in a similar manner, but with more attention to detail and in extraordinary artistic quality, are the illustrations below showing the future Buddha in a red aura with six deities (right), and two female deities as flag-bearers (left).

The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left
The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left). Folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1849. British Library Or 14838, f. 57  Noc

In the same manuscript, dated 1849, there is another - very unusual - illustration of the scene in Tāvatiṃsa heaven (shown below): as expected, on the left side is Phra Malai in conversation with Indra and another deity at the celestial stupa. However, on the right side, where normally the future Buddha appears, there is a female figure in a large red aura, floating on clouds in the sky. Like the future Buddha on the preceding folio, she is holding a lotus bud, symbol of imminent enlightenment, and she is accompanied by female deities – just in the same way Ariya Metteyya is usually depicted. We do not know if the painter aimed to express the thought that the future Buddha could be a woman, or whether they may have drawn inspiration from the idea of female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in esoteric Buddhism. Or perhaps it may have been the wish of the patrons, a mother and her two children, who commissioned this manuscript to make merit on behalf of the mother’s parents, and who expressed in the colophon their hope to attain enlightenment.

Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities
Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities. Folding book from central Thailand, 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 58  Noc

The story of Phra Malai concludes with Ariya Metteyya’s prediction of the deterioration of Buddhism and degeneration of mankind 5000 years after Buddha Gotama. This is then followed by the birth of the Buddha-to-be in an era in which the earth flourishes and humans are living meritorious lives free from suffering. The future Buddha promises to help all people to transcend saṃsāra - the cycle of birth, death and rebirth - through liberation from greed, hatred and delusion. Sometimes depictions of the blissful life in the future are included in Phra Malai manuscripts, like the example shown below where people are plucking gold jewellery from a wishing tree (left) and enjoying sweets while resting in the shade of a blossoming tree (right).

Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya
Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14115, f. 75 Noc

Indeed, the hope of encountering Ariya Metteyya is frequently mentioned in a colophon on the last folio of Thai Buddhist manuscripts. The example below shows a detail from a colophon in a folding book dated 1882, which contains extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the legend of Phra Malai. The future Buddha is mentioned twice here: once called Phra Sri An (underlined orange) and once called Phra Sri Anriya (underlined red), both times referring to Ariya Metteyya.

Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book
Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book. Central Thailand, 1882. British Library, Or 15207, f. 91 Noc

The idea of Ariya Metteyya still enjoys great popularity among Buddhists in Thailand today, not least because it is part of the Thai Buddhist concept of a perfect world. It describes an idealised future state of society with prosperity, health, happiness, justice, righteousness and peace which is symbolically expressed through images of Ariya Metteyya in temple murals and sculptures. The examples below from three different Thai manuscripts show that depictions of the future Buddha are easily recognisable because they are highly standardised, although minor variations can be visible like the size of the aura, background, the number of accompanying deities and objects held in the hand of Ariya Metteyya.

Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books
Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books, from left to right: British Library Or 6630, f. 56 (dated 1875); British Library Or 14838, f. 42 (dated 1849); British Library Or 16710, f. 39 (19th century) Noc

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork

Further reading
Aphilak Kasempholkoon, Phra Sri An (Maitreya) as a hero: A structural analysis of Phra Sri An myths in Thai society. Manusya 14/3 (2011), pp. 21-32 
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Some comments on a northern Phra Malai text dated C.S. 878 (A.D. 1516). Journal of the Siam Society 81 (1993), pp. 141-5
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995 
Saya U Chit Tin, assisted by William Pruitt, The coming Buddha Ariya Metteyya. 2nd revised ed. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992
Phramaha Inwong Issaraphani, Chantras Tapuling, Metteyya: The Concept of Ideal World in Buddhism. MCU Haripunchai Review 2/1 (2018), pp. 35–45.

22 December 2021

A farewell to Jerry! J. P. Losty (1945-2021).

One of our most active contributors and colleague, J.P. Losty (1945-2021), passed away on the 29th of September. We are heartbroken by the news and will miss Jerry for his unfaltering generosity, sense of humour and his exceptional knowledge on the collections. Our thoughts are with his wife Kate and daughters Cat and Ellie.

Jerry started his career at the British Museum in 1971, joining as the Assistant Keeper of Sanskrit in the Department of Oriental Manuscripts. From 1986, Jerry worked in the Print, Drawings and Photographs section of The British Library; first as Curator and retiring as Head of Prints, Drawings and Photographs in 2005. His exhibition Art of the Book in India (1986) brought together an encyclopedic collection of South Asian manuscripts from across the world and the accompanying catalogue is still a valuable resource for researchers.

Jerry has left us an incredible legacy at the British Library, from shaping the collection with his ambitious programme of acquisitions over a 34-year career, arranging our internal storage of the paintings in such a detailed fashion (by style and then in chronological order), and also leaving copious details in the catalogue records and articles on the breadth of the collection. Since retirement, Jerry’s impressive range of publications – more than 26 books – has opened our eyes to fresh approaches to Indian painting. His ability to write accessible articles, whether for the British Library’s Asia and Africa Blog, or his countless monographs, really demonstrates his dedication to the field and ensures that his information is as helpful to the academic scholar as for a general audience. 

As Jerry's extensive career can be better outlined by one of his many peers, this blog post looks at Jerry's contributions post-retirement. On retiring in May 2005, Jerry spent the initial months devoting time to his other interests such as music, travelling and spending time with his family. This respite was short lived as Jerry was invited back to the Library to guest curate The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic and wrote the accompanying publication which launched in 2008. 

Jerry looking at decorative objects to be displayed at the Ramayana exhibition in 2008. Photo credit: Janet Benoy.
Jerry looking at decorative objects to be displayed at the Ramayana exhibition in 2008. Photo credit: Janet Benoy.

After wrapping up the Ramayana project, Jerry started to focus on his research on later Mughal paintings. From 2008 through 2012, Jerry was exceptionally busy working on a range of projects. He completed his research on Mazhar Ali Khan's Panorama of Delhi and published a monograph titled Delhi 360 (Roli Books, 2012). This detailed publication cross-checked the illustrated monuments with extant buildings that were drawn in 1846 by the artist Mazhar Ali Khan from the viewpoint of the Lahore Gate at the Red Fort. Jerry also supported my first major British Library exhibition, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, giving me guidance on early Mughal manuscripts and graciously co-authored the book in a record 4 month window. Jerry also supported the South Asia section curators Marina Chellini and Leena Mitford with the ambitious Digital Re-unification of the Mewar Ramayana in 2014. In acknowledgement of his lifetime work on Indian art, Jerry was awarded the Colonel James Tod award at the Maharana of Mewar Annual Function in Udaipur in March 2016.

Jerry and Maharana of Mewar
Maharana Arvind Singh of Mewar and J.P. Losty, March 2016. Photo credit: Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation.

In terms of publications, between 2010-2021, Jerry was regularly invited to contribute to a range of exhibition catalogues including The Indian Portrait (National Portrait Gallery, 2010), Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi (Yale University Press, 2012), Masters of Indian Painting (Artibus Asiae, 2015), and Forgotten Masters (Wallace Collection, 2019). Aside from his many articles, Jerry also published the following books:

  • Sita Ram's Painted Views of India: Lord Hastings's Journey from Calcutta to the Punjab, 1814 - 15 (Roli Books, 2015)
  • Indian Paintings of the British Period in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Collection (Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad, 2016)
  • Mystical Realm of Love: Pahari Paintings from the Eva & Konrad Seitz Collection  (Francesca Galloway, 2017)
  • Indian life and people in the 19th century: Company paintings in the Tapi Collection (Roli Books, 2019)
  • Court and Courtship: Indian Miniatures in the Tapi Collection (Niyogi Books, 2020)

For the followers and readers of the Asian and African Studies Blog, Jerry was one of our key supporters from the launch of the Blog in 2012. Jerry immediately joined in and offered to contribute short articles on parts of the collection that he had continued to research during his retirement. As a fitting tribute, here is a roll call of his contributions since 2012. 

Image: Nawab ‘Abd al-Rahman of Jhajjar in his court in cool weather with his two young sons and various courtiers and attendants. By Ghulam ‘Ali Khan, dated January-February 1852. British Library, Add.Or.4681. The Search for Alexander Hadarli.
The first blog post Jerry authored was on his research on Alexander Hadarli, a European at the court of the Nawab of Jhajjar who featured in this durbar scene in 1852. Jerry's chance discovery of archival information helped him realise that this this figure was in fact the noted Urdu poet Azad who flourished in Delhi during the mid-19th century.
Image: Robert Smith, Aurangzeb’s Mosque at Varanasi, 1814.  Watercolour on paper, 19 by 35 cm.  WD2089 Disentangling the Robert Smiths
Jerry was keen to explore and understand the careers and artistic styles of the two Robert Smiths that flourished in the 19th century. This blog post looks at the works of Colonel Robert Smith (1787-1873), of the Bengal Engineers, who was the controversial architect who repaired the Qutb Minar between 1825-30 after previous damage caused by an earthquake.
Portrait of Raja Shamsher Sen of Mandi Pahari Paintings at The British Library
While the strength of the British Library's South Asian paintings collections are without doubt Mughal paintings and manuscripts, Jerry highlighted the small collection of Pahari paintings that had been acquired by the Library since the early 19th century through the present day.
Portrait of Gervase Pennington by Jivan Ram

A new portrait miniature by Jivan Ram acquired
Jerry was interested to learn more about the artist Raja Jivan Ram that the art historian and British Library (India Office) Curator Mildred Archer had documented in one of her publications. On acquiring a new portrait by Jivan Ram of the British officer Gervase Pennington in 2013, Jerry started to piece together Jivan Ram's career and stylistic use of oil on board and watercolour on ivory for both a short blog post and an article in the eBLJ: Raja Jivan Ram: A Professional Indian Portrait Painter of the Early Nineteenth Century (bl.uk)

Detail of a Mughal painting of flower studies, c. 1635
Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration
Possibly one of Jerry's most popular blog posts; this post looked at the influences for Mughal flower studies produced for Prince Dara Shikoh during the middle of the 17th century and discussed connection to Adriaen Collaert, Florilegium. 
Hanuman is brought bound before Ravana and his tail set on fire.  Ramayana, Sundara Kanda.  Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, c. 1650.  British Library, IO San 3621, f.9r Curator's perspective: accessing the Mewar Ramayana
Jerry wrote a candid article on working on the Mewar Ramayana, a 17th century manuscript that consisted of 8 volumes, 6 of which are held by the British Library. The blog post was to complement the Digital Re-unification of the Sanskrit epic with CSMVS in Mumbai.
Nayaka ko prakasa biyoga sringara, Krishna’s ‘open’ love in separation (Rasikapriya 1, 27-28).  301 x 217 mm.  Deccan, perhaps Aurangabad, 1720-30. British Library, Add.21475, f.4

For a particular album of Martha and Deccani paintings, Jerry wrote two blog posts:

 

The Takht Sri Harmandir Patna Sahib.  Inscribed: ‘N2 Gunga Govind Sing’s Temple at the confluence of the Baugrutty and Jalangi Rivers.  Augt 1820.’  WD4404, f.2.  noc Charles D'Oyly's voyage to Patna
Jerry often researched and wrote about amateur artists that worked for the East India Company, such as Charles D'Oyly who was employed by the Bengal Civil Service and was influenced by the English artist George Chinnery.
A model of a lion.   By Gangaram, 1790.  Wax, possibly dhuna, the aromatic gum of the shal tree (Shorea robusta), painted; size of wooden base: 20.5 x 9.75 x 2cm; animal 12.5cm at highest point of mane.  F872  noc

'A very ingenious person': The Maratha artist Gangaram Cintaman Tambat
On joining as Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Library in 1986, Jerry started to work on the artist Gangaram who was employed by Sir Charles Warre Malet of the Bombay Civil Service, including his detailed illustrations of rare animals in Pune. 


A lady meant to be Shaukat Begum, perhaps the great-granddaughter of Akbar II.  By Muhammad ‘Azim, Delhi, c. 1840-50.  Watercolour on ivory.  106 x 85 mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5719

Artistic Visions of the Delhi Zenana
Jerry researched the rise of portrait miniatures on ivory in 19th century Delhi. The acquisition of a set of watercolour paintings on ivory gave him the opportunity to explore a few lesser known Delhi artists and their portraits of women of the Mughal household.

A Khawtee Ghiljie in his Summer dress. By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 20.5 by 15.25 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl.  IX, opposite p. 443. Add.Or.4675

New evidence for the style of the "Fraser artist" in Delhi: Portraits of Afghans 1808-10
Jerry avidly wrote about 19th century Delhi and the so-called Fraser artist in Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire (British Library, 2012).  

Two oxen fighting.  Deccan, probably Bijapur, early 17th century.  Marbled paper, wash and gold.  100 by 130 mm (page 190 x 295 mm).  British Library J.53, 3 (detail)

Jerry wrote several blog posts on Deccani paintings including:

Detail of the Taj Mahal from Or 16805

The 'Agra Scroll': Agra in the early 19th century
After the British Library acquired s seven-metre long panoramic view of the Agra riverfront, Jerry and the eminent art historian Dr. Ebba Koch (Vienna) started their in-depth research to document the architectural views. Jerry and Ebba's full article can be read via the eBLJ: The Riverside Mansions and Tombs of Agra: New Evidence from a
Panoramic Scroll Recently Acquired by The British Library

 

Bridge of boats across the Ganga at Kanpur and Major Gilbert’s house. By Sita Ram, 1814-15.  BL Add.Or.4747


The Gilbert Artist: A Possible Pupil of Sita Ram
Jerry's last contribution for the Blog in 2019 by no means was his last article or monograph. Continuing on from his extensive research on the artist Sita Ram, Jerry wanted to delve deeper into the collection to document the connections between Sita Ram's picturesque painting style to others in the collection.

Jerry's full list of publications can be found via the British Library's Research Repository or Academia.edu. 

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

01 November 2021

Reunion of Krishna icons: A painting of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the Johnson Album

This guest blog post is by Isabella Nardi (PhD, SOAS), an art historian specializing in Indian painting.

In the group of paintings acquired and personally commissioned by Richard Johnson (1753–1807) which are now in the British Library there is an unexpected depiction, a congregation of Krishna icons attended by priests in a palace setting (see Fig. 1). The work, originating from Faizabad or Lucknow, has been dated to c. 1770–1780, a period of artistic ferment in the Mughal province of Avadh thanks to local rulers and Europeans patrons living in the area. The collector, an East India Company servant who arrived in Calcutta in 1770, served as the Head Assistant to the British Resident of Lucknow between 1780 and 1782; this is probably the time in which he assembled a wide range of Avadhi paintings revealing his interest for the traditions and customs of India (Falk and Archer 1981, 135–136). 

Srinathji surrounded by svarups
Fig. 1. Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji. Mughal, Faizabad or Lucknow, 1770–80. British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4. 280 x 209 mm; page 287 x 216 mm. Noc

Titled Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji, the painting has been rightly identified as pertaining to the Vallabha Sampradaya’s cult (Losty and Roy, pp. 180–182). For anyone familiar with this devotional sect, this depiction is a surprising presence in the album for at least two reasons: first, it is a rare representation of a real event, the Festival of the Seven Svarups (Saptasvarūpotsava), which took place in 1739 in the Shri Nathji temple of Nathdwara in Rajasthan. Secondly, this Avadhi painting is found outside the geographical sphere of influence and patronage of the sampradaya which, at that time, covered the land of Braj, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and it was slowly expanding to the Deccan.

To better understand this painting, it is necessary to first introduce the Vallabha Sampradaya and its famous congregations of Krishna icons. This will be accomplished through a detailed iconographic analysis of a representative depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). This digression will allow to acquire the necessary information to examine and contextualize the work in the Johnson Album. The Avadhi painting will also be put into conversation with two earlier depictions; whereas established scholarship in the field will locate it within the cosmopolitan culture of circulation and pictorial exchanges in northern India at the time.

The Vallabha Sampradaya is a krishnaite devotional sect – also known as the Puṣṭi Mārg (Path of Grace) – which was founded by Vallabhacharya (1479–1531) in northern India in the sixteenth century. This religious community, subsequently headed by Vallabhacharya’s son, Vitthalnath (1515–1585), had its headquarter in the land of Braj, around the area of Mathura, where it received support from the Mughal Emperors. The descendants of the two founding fathers decided to slowly shift to Rajasthan and Gujarat in search of new patronage hence forming a complex web of temples which map the region’s religious landscape to this day. This influential network is not only formed by hereditary priests – who claim descent from Vallabhacharya and Vitthalnath – but also by the treasured icons in their possession, the svarups (svarūp-s), which are traditionally nine. The nine svarups are considered self-manifested icons which miraculously appeared to Vallabhacharya or one of his disciples and they are therefore deemed to be different from a common man-made statue (murti). The first svarup to manifest itself to Vallabhacharya on Mount Govardhan is Shri Nathji which, in 1672, was installed in a newly built temple in Nathdwara which became the sect’s main headquarter. 

Among the peculiar characteristics of the Vallabha Sampradaya are its sumptuous temple rituals and visual culture. Well-known are the famous temple hangings or pichhwais (pichvāī-s), which are elaborate textiles, painted or embroidered, used as backdrops in opulent performances (see Skelton 1973; Ambalal 1995). One of their most important festivals is the reunion of the sect’s most sacred icons, the svarups, in the Shri Nathji temple. This congregation, known as the Festival of the Seven Svarups, appears in several Rajasthani paintings especially from the mid-1820s. Despite its numerous depictions, this festival has been celebrated only on rare occasions, that is in 1739 and 1822. This is because of the problems encountered in organizing such enormous undertakings, including the logistic problems involving the transportation of the svarups from one temple to another, the occasional tensions between high priests on matters of power and prestige, and the periodic political unrests that punctuated the area of Rajasthan and its neighboring regions. A celebration of the festival took place also in post-Independence India, in 1966, after a lengthy legal battle over the administration of the temple. Its video coverage can be accessed on YouTube.

Available visual evidence suggests that the imagery of the Festival of the Seven Svarups is indelibly associated to the celebration of 1822 which has an established and easily recognizable iconography as confirmed by a comparison of its numerous depictions that survive in private collections and museums (Nardi 2017, 223). Most of these works flourished from the mid-nineteenth century when the Nathdwara painting tradition was in full swing thanks to the patronage of temple priests and devotees. For a critical analysis of earlier depictions of the festival, such as the Avadhi painting in the Johnson Album, we first need to understand its traditional visual formula which originated in its sectarian milieu.

A notable example, which portrays the event in every single detail, is in the collection of LACMA (see Fig. 2). The work positions the viewer’s gaze directly in the sanctum of the Shri Nathji temple, offering an intimate glimpse of the svarups which wouldn’t be possible in real life. On either side of the icons are the temple priests who are involved in various ritual tasks, including the arrangement of a special food offering in front of the icons. This includes baskets of sweetmeats, vessels containing milk products and, in the foreground, a big mountain of rice (annakūṭa or mountain of food).

LAMCA ma-142207-WEB
Fig. 2. Commemorative portrait of Damodarji II (1797-1826) performing the ceremony of the offering of food to the seven images (Sapta Svarup ka Utsava) in 1822. Rajasthan, Nathdwara, circa 1822-1850. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. 304 x 247 mm; page 330 x 250 mm. LACMA, AC1999.127.41. Noc

The svarups are meticulously portrayed following their iconographic features, such as emblems (flute, ball of butter) and female companions, so that they can be precisely identified by devotees. The icons are depicted in two colours to indicate the materials in which they are made, that is blue for black stone or wood, and golden yellow for metal. This important and tacit rule indicates that their depiction is an actual likeness of the svarups

For the sake of completeness the icons are identified below (Fig. 3), starting from the top level, from left to right:

Detail 1
Fig. 3. Icons on the upper level of the altar. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

  • Madanmohanji, a metal statue of Krishna playing the flute accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
  • Dvarkadhishji (also Dvarkanathji), a rectangular shaped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kankroli, Rajasthan.
  • Shri Nathji, a black marble statue of Krishna with the left arm raised to hold up Mount Govardhan. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
  • Mathureshji, a round-topped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kota, Rajasthan.
  • Gokulchandramaji, a wooden statue of Krishna playing the flute. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
  • A metal statue of Krishna playing the flute known as Madanmohan. This is not one of the sacred svarups, it replaces the absent Balkrishnaji (present location Surat, Gujarat), which did not participate to the festival due to a long-standing dispute (Peabody 2003, 75–78).

On the lower level, from left to right (Fig. 4):

Detail 2
Fig. 4. Icons on the lower level of the altar. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

  • Gokulnathji, a metal statue of Krishna with four arms accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Gokul, Uttar Pradesh.
  • Navnitpriyaji, a metal statue of baby Krishna holding a ball of butter. Its present location is in the Shri Nathji temple premise, Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
  • Vitthalnathji, a metal statue of Krishna accompanied by Rukmini. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.

A quick count of the sculptures will yield a total of nine, that is the nine svarups. This tally, however, may be confusing given the name of the festival. The Festival of the Seven Svarups takes this denomination from the seven icons that reside outside the main Shri Nathji temple, which houses both Shri Nathji and Navnitpriyaji. These seven deities are those that have to be carried to such location by their hereditary priests.  

Apart from the meticulous depiction of the icons, representations of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822 are distinguishable for other recurring elements, such as the presence of Dauji II (1797–1826) and of a specific pichhwai. Dauji II, or Damodarji II, is the only recognizable portrait on the upper left of the LACMA painting. He was the officiating priest and organizer of the imposing event of 1822 for which he commissioned a special pichhwai. This is the black textile hanging in the background, right behind the svarups, featuring on either side a tree-of-life design embroidered in gold and pearls (Fig. 5). As Amit Ambalal explains (p. 67), this particular pichhwai was commissioned by Dauji after his mother and other priests donated some of their jewels to the temple on the occasion of the festival. This magnificent ritual hanging, whose whereabouts are unknown, is part of the canonical iconography of the 1822 festival and its fame was such that it was also praised in poetic compositions of the time (Taylor 1997, 83). 

Detail 3
Fig. 5. Detail of the special pichhwai, or temple hanging, commissioned by Dauji for the celebrations of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

Unlike the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822, depictions of the 1739 celebrations remain exceptional not only for their paucity but also for their variety of pictorial styles, diverging visual elements, and unexpected provenance. To date, there are very few known depictions of this event including drawings, paintings on paper, and murals dating from the eighteenth century onwards. For the scope of this analysis, we will consider the very few eighteenth century paintings on paper that have come down to us, which are only three. Interestingly, none of them was produced in the pilgrimage center of Nathdwara, denoting a circulation of visual information about the festival as well as an interest in documenting it beyond regional and devotional circles.

The first two depictions, published elsewhere, date from the time of the celebration itself: the first is a painting from Udaipur dated to c. 1739 in the collection of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery (Doshi 1995, 78); the second, in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, is a work from Aurangabad dated to c. 1740 and inscribed to Muttam, formerly known as the Jaipur Painter (Seyller and Mittal 2018, cat. no. 44). Both works can be related to the network of the Vallabha Sampradaya devotees, which included kings and merchants. The painting from Udaipur was probably commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh II (r. 1734–1751), a patron and follower of the sect whose haloed portrait appears with other members of the royal family standing next to the congregation of icons. The example from the Deccan, on the other hand, can be associated with the community of merchants and bankers that started to settled in the area from 1729 (Shah 2015, 43–44).

The third painting in chronological order is the one in the Johnson Album which – after this lengthy but necessary digression – can be examined from a more informed perspective. The first observation that can be made is that, unlike its two predecessors, this work cannot be related to an established religious network of the Vallabha Sampradaya. In fact, its assessment indicates that its anonymous painter and its commissioner were not familiar with the sect’s ritualistic formalities, liturgical textiles, and iconography of the svarups because the work displays a number of notable imprecisions which wouldn’t be welcomed by a follower of the sampradaya. For example, a missing iconographic element is the pichhwai which has been replaced by a palatial setting, a typical background of Faizabad and Lucknow painting at the time (see Fig. 6).

Detail 4
Fig. 6. Avadhi palace setting used – in lieu of a pichhwai – as the background the Johnson Album depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1739. Detail of British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4.

As mentioned above, the pichhwai was an important liturgical element of the celebrations and it also appears in the other two paintings from Udaipur and Aurangabad. Other incongruities can be seen in the depiction of the icons: the stelae of Dvarkadhishji (rectangular) and Mathureshji (rounded) are omitted making their identification impossible. Also the colour of two metal icons on the lower level, Navnitpriyaji and Vitthalnathji, is inaccurate: they should be golden yellow but they are painted in blue (see Fig. 7).

Detail 5
Fig. 7. The metal icons of Navnitpriyaji and Vitthalnathji mistakenly painted in blue instead of golden yellow. Detail of British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4.

These observations unquestionably demonstrate that the sphere of patronage of the painting in the Johnson Album was outside the established circles of the sect and it opens to the possibility that, rather than an acquisition, this work was actually commissioned by Richard Johnson himself. It is well known that pictorial traditions in Avadh flourished thanks to the patronage of Europeans living in the region, such as Johnson and other East India Company officials, and that their commissions included not only portraits but expanded on other themes, such as Ragamalas and Hindu mythology (Losty and Roy 2012, 153). Given Johnson’s demonstrated interest for Indian traditions, he may have wanted a representation of this important event that took place in Rajasthan in 1739 and, considering that he was stationed in Lucknow, he may have hired a leading artist trained in a courtly atelier not specifically familiar with the ritualistic formalities of the sampradaya. Perhaps, the painter was someone who moved to Avadh in the wake of Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739 whose incursion and subsequent period of chaos caused an exodus of artists, including writers, musicians, and painters, who in successive waves left the Mughal capital in search of new patronage (Pauwels 2015, 142; Losty and Roy 2012, 153).

A crucial question remains to be answered: how did an artist not familiar with the sampradaya paint a representation of the Festivals of the Seven Svarups? It is plausible that the anonymous artist may have used an unfinished or uncolored drawing of the festival which provided the basic organizational structure for his work. In fact, ateliers kept collections of paintings and drawings from other traditions from which they could reuse selected elements or take inspiration (Aitken 2015, 89). A possibility is that the artist of the Johnson Album may have used a Rajasthani painting depicting the svarups, a subject that was already popular in Kishangarh, a Rajput court known for its patronage of the Vallabha Sampradaya (Mathur 2000, 54).

A Kishangarh connection with Avadh has already been observed by Heidi Pauwels who has tracked a specific visual reference in a painting of Layla and Majnun from Lucknow (Pauwels, Plate 20). The work, dated to c. 1780, is attributed to Ghulam Reza, a master artist also known for his Ragamala paintings in the Johnson Album (Archer and Falk 1981, 170-173; Pauwels, 2015, 204). In particular, Pauwels (2015, 203-205) detects a stylistic reference in the portrayal of the haloed Layla which displays some peculiar visual characteristics from Kishangarh, such as her silhouette and her elongated eyes and nose. This visual connection is particularly relevant to further strengthen the assumption that Rajput painting was not only known but also one of the sources of inspiration for the artists working in Lucknow and Faizabad. As for the painting of the festival, rather than a stylistic citation we can detect a compositional reference in the display of the icons. Their arrangement – which follows an established formula even though some iconographic elements of the icons are not correct – is juxtaposed to a palace setting and range of colours typical of Lucknow and Faizabad in a combination of visual sources that was very frequent in Avadhi painting (Aitken 2015, 81).

Finally, it is also essential to appreciate the creative aspect of the work which denotes some artistic license. The painter added some interesting touches to the composition rejecting the hieratic and stiff postures of the svarups, a common feature of sectarian paintings. In doing so, he endowed the icons with a gentle smile and a human countenance and gave them a sinuous body slightly curved to one side. These innovations produced a graceful and lively compositional effect which remains a unique feature of this painting when compared to its two predecessors from Udaipur and Aurangabad.    

Bibliography:

Aitken, Molly Emma. “Parataxis and the Practice of Reuse, from Mughal Margins to Mīr Kalān Khān.” Archives of Asian Art, vol. 59, 2009, pp. 81–103.

Ambalal, Amit. Krishna As Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdvara. Ahmedabad: Mapin, 1995.

Doshi, Saryu (ed.). The Royal Bequest: Art Treasures of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery. Bombay: India Book House, 1995. 

Falk, Toby, and Mildred Archer. Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981.

Losty, Jeremiah P., and Malini Roy. Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire: Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library. London: British Library, 2012.

Mathur, Vijay Kumar. Marvels of Kishangarh Paintings from the Collection of the National Museum, New Delhi. Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 2000.

Nardi, Isabella. “La Miniatura come Documento Storico: Le Celebrazioni di Saptasvarupa Annakutotsava al Tempio di Śrī Nāthjī a Nathdwara nel 1822.” Annali Sezione Orientale, vol. 77, 2017, pp. 215–232.

Pal, Pratapaditya, Stephen Markel, and Janice Leoshko. Pleasure Gardens of the Mind: Indian Paintings from the Jane Greenough Green Collection. Middletown, N.J.: Grantha Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993.

Pauwels, Heidi Rika Maria. Cultural Exchange in Eighteenth-Century India Poetry and Paintings from Kishangarh. Berlin: E.B. Verlag, 2015.

Peabody, Norbert. Hindu Kingship and Polity in Precolonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Seyller, John William, and Jagdish Mittal. Deccani Paintings, Drawings, and Manuscripts in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art. Volume 1. Hyderabad: Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, 2018.

Shah, Anita B. “Devotion and Patronage: The Story of a Pushtimarg Family.” Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings, edited by Madhuvanti Ghose, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2015, pp. 42–53.

Skelton, Robert. Rajasthani Temple Hangings of the Krishna Cult from the Collection of Karl Mann, New York. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1973.

Taylor, Woodman Lyon. Visual Culture in Performative Practice: The Aesthetics, Politics and Poetics of Visuality in Liturgical Practices of the Vallabha Sampradāya Hindu Community at Kota. PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1997.

 

Isabella Nardi, PhD  ccownwork

04 October 2021

Khadija Saye’s Art and the ‘Toothbrush Tree’

The British Library exhibition ‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ (3 Dec 2020–7 Oct 2021) shows nine self-portraits by this talented and innovative Gambian–British artist. In each, she displays a particular artefact associated with Gambian culture. In this blog, Kadija Sesay, the exhibition’s external curator, explores the cultural and scientific uses of one of these objects.

The multiple properties and uses of the Salvadora persica, commonly known as ‘the toothbrush tree’, can be sourced from every aspect of the tree - the seeds, bark, stem, leaves and flowers - for food, medication and scientific purposes. Wherever it is native to a region, which is most of the African continent, South Asia and the Middle East, it has claimed a significant position within society. Its many uses seem to bestow near-magical properties on it, and it is thought to provide solutions and remedies for everyday problems and ailments.

Sothiou (Chewing-sticks/toothbrush), Khadija Saye (2017)

The botanical description of the Salvadora persica is of a large, well-branched evergreen shrub or tree, from the Salvadora species. As well as the Salvadora persica (known as Khari Jaal in India), this species includes the Salvadora oleoides (known as Meethi Jaal in India).

Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations
Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations: Encyclopédie méthodique, ou par ordre de matières par une Société de Gens de Lettres, de Savans, et d'Artistes. Botanique. Recueil de planches. Vol. 1. (Paris, 1823).  British Library, J/12215.r.1/12a. Noc

Medical and other scientific elements feed into the tradition and culture of those societies where it is found, as the health benefits of using the miswak for oral hygiene are well known. They have been used for cleaning teeth for centuries. They are cheaper than imported toothbrushes and toothpaste, and scientific studies have shown them to have antibacterial properties that maintain and enhance oral hygiene, contributing to strong teeth and healthy breath. For these practical, economic and health reasons, they have been recommended for regular use by the World Health Organization within the communities in which they grow.

In The Gambia, the longer branches of the tree carry varying spiritual meanings within African indigenous faith: they may be used to make proclamations or promises to God, to invoke the spirits of the ancestors, or to claim protection from Satan.

The shorter branches, as well as being used for toothbrushes at home, have cultural attributes specifically for women as they also symbolise, when seen in public, that they are women who are due respect. As sothiou is known to have cleansing properties, the visual symbol of a woman using it reflects on her personal cleanliness, not only with respect to her mouth and body, but in the way that she leads her life. This in turn reflects on the raising of her daughters, showing that they maintain their personal cleanliness and virginity.

Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017
Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017.
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London. © The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Clean teeth are a symbol of beauty, too. Therefore, older married women in The Gambia known as ‘Jegg’ (younger married women will be referred to as ‘small Jegg’) can be seen publicly with sothiou in their mouths when they attend high-end events and family ceremonies such as weddings. For these reasons, it is common to see women who use sothiou more than men.

The commonly known attributes of the Salvadora persica have led to further research and investigation of its properties, some of which are highlighted briefly here.

For culinary use, the fruit of the tree is an edible sweet berry which can be fermented into a drink. In East Africa, the leaves are cooked in a sauce as a vegetable dish and although bitter in taste, the shoots and leaves can be included as part of a salad.

The plant’s potential pharmaceutical and other scientific uses are many. The seeds, for example, are commonly used as a diuretic and the oil from the seeds is used to ease rheumatism. The bark and root, apart from producing antiplaque agents, are also being investigated by scientists for a number of other apparent qualities including analgesic, anticonvulsant and antibacterial properties. The stem bark, for example, is used for gastric problems.

The use of Salvadora persica has shown that reliance on natural organisms supports the communities in which they grow, where they simultaneously become woven into local cultures and traditions. In her artwork, Khadija Saye has captured culture, history, tradition and science simply by focusing on and drawing our attention to an object which simultaneously reinforces the importance of our natural environment locally and globally. As her work so powerfully testifies, the information and knowledge that local communities carry in their family, traditions and culture should be recorded so that more research can be undertaken.

Other objects in the work of Khadija Saye were discussed in the British Library event ‘Cowries, Incense and Amulets’ on 17 May 2021.

Further reading

Basil H. Aboul-Enein, ‘The miswak (Salvadora persica L.) chewing stick: cultural implications in oral health promotion’, The Saudi Journal for Dental Research, 5, 1, (2014), 9-13.
World Health Organization, Prevention of oral diseases. WHO offset publication No. 103. Geneva: World Health Organization; 1987), p. 61.
M. Khatak, S. Khatak,1 A. A. Siddqui, N. Vasudeva, A. Aggarwal, and P. Aggarwal, ‘Salvadora persica’, Pharmacognosy Reviews 4, 8 (2010), 209–214.

Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, 'Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe' Ccownwork

 

13 September 2021

Epic Iran: Manuscripts from the Islamic era

Epic Iran display

In a recent blog I wrote about three of our Zoroastrian treasures which were part of the  Epic Iran exhibition organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. Sadly the exhibition is now over, but this second blog on the Islamic period manuscripts which we loaned can serve as a reminder for those who were lucky enough to visit, or as a visual reference for those who weren't so fortunate.

The exhibition was organised into broad themes, the first four on Iran up to the advent of Islam, the fifth section, The Book of Kings, acted as an introduction to Islamic Iran primarily through the epic Shahnamah (Book of Kings) completed by the poet Firdawsi around AD 1010.

Bahram Gur hunting with Azadah
This detail from Firdawsiʼs Shahnamah shows the Sasanian ruler Bahram Gur (Bahram V, r. 420-38) hunting with the slave girl Azadah. Iran, 1486 (BL Add MS 18188, f. 353r). Public Domain

Tracing the history of the Iranian people from the beginning up until the defeat of the Sasanian ruler Yazdegird III in 651, the Shahnamah combines myth and tradition in what is perhaps the best known work of Persian literature. Many hundreds of illustrated copies survive today dating from the Mongol period onwards. The story depicted here, in a manucript dating from the Turkman/Timurid period shows Azadah, a slave-girl who was a fine harpist, riding behind Bahram on his camel on a hunting expedition. On this occasion Bahram performed the remarkable feat of shooting two arrows into one gazelle's head,  cutting off the antlers of another and hitting a third as it raised its foot towards its ear. When Azadah expressed sympathy for the gazelles instead of praise for Bahram’s skill, he took offense, flung her to the ground, and let his camel trample her.

The sixth section, Change of Faith explored Islam in Iranian culture, the transition from Arabic to Persian and the important Iranian contribution to Islamic science.

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Pursued by a figure with a club, Adam and Eve are accompanied by the peacock and dragon who, at Satan’s instigation, had been responsible for their fall. From the Qisas al-anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) by al-Naysaburi. Shiraz, Iran, 16th century (BL Add MS 18576, f. 11r) Public Domain

There are several different collections in Arabic and Persian with the title Qisas al-anbiyaʼ, stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. One of the best-known and most illustrated is the collection composed in Persian by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi. Add MS 18576 illustrated here is one of sixteen known illustrated copies of al-Naysaburi’s compilation, all produced in Safavid Iran between 1565 and 1585. The portrayal of Adam and Eve agrees with a passage in the Qurʼan (Surah 20, verses 120-21) ʻSo the two of them ate of it, and their shameful parts revealed to them, and they took to stitching upon themselves leaves of the Garden.ʼ Their fiery haloes, however, indicate that they still had some phrophetic status.

  The constellations Aquila and Delphinus
The constellations Aquila and Delphinus from the Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars) by al-Sufi. Iran, possibly Maragha, 1260-80 (BL Or 5323. f. 28v). Public Domain

The tenth-century Iranian astronomer ʻAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903–86) is the author of several important Arabic texts on the stars and is regarded as one of the greatest Islamic scientists. His most important text, represented here, is the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabitah, based on Ptolemy's Almagest, in which he gives a full description of the classical system of constellations, observed both from the earth and from outside the celestial globe. The outlines of each constellation and the stars belonging to it are therefore drawn twice, their image mirrored in the second drawing.

Describing the rise of Persian poetry, the seventh section, Literary Excellence, was devoted to how Persian emerged as a literary language from the tenth century onwards. As a result of royal patronage poets flourished at court and workshops developed in which calligraphy, illumination and painting were practiced at the highest levels.

Collection of divans
Lyrical poems of Adib Sabir, the panegyrist of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1118-57). Tabriz, 1314 (BL IO Islamic 132, f. 49r) Public Domain

This manuscript, an anthology of poetry by Muʻizzi, Akhsikati, Adib Sabir, Qamar, Shams Tabasi and Nasir Khusraw, was very likely copied in Tabriz in the scriptorium of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din. Copied by ʻAbd al-Muʼmin al-ʻAlavi al-Kashi between Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 713 and Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 714 (February 1314–February 1315), it closely resembles other secular manuscripts prepared for Rashid al-Din during the same period. The manuscript contains altogether 53 illustrations in a simplified Mongol style, mostly depicting, as here, the poet receiving a robe of honour from Sultan Sanjar.

The Divan of Hafiz (Add MS 7759)
Facing pages of the Divan of Hafiz on Chinese paper. Possibly Herat, Afghanistan, 1451 (BL Add MS 7759, ff. 60v-61r). Public Domain

This early copy of the Divan of Hafiz (d.c.1389) was copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855 (October 1451). Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of large sheets which were painted on before being cut up. The paper is dyed various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

Prince Humay reaches Princess Humayun's castle
Humay arrives at the gate of Humayun’s castle. From Humay u Humayun  (Humay and Humayun) of Khvaju Kirmani. Baghdad, Iraq, late 14th century (BL Add MS 18113, f. 18v). Public Domain

Add MS 18113 contains three poems from the Khamsah (Five Poems) by Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?). The first, the story of the lovers Humay and Humayun, was completed in 1331 in response to a request to enchant Muslim audiences with a supposed ʻMagianʼ theme. The poems were copied by the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli ibn Ilyas al-Tabrizi al-Bavarchi in 798 (1396) at the Jalayirid capital Baghdad. The paintings most probably belonged to another copy and were added afterwards. The artist of one of them was Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din who worked under the Jalayirid sultan Uways I (r. 1356-74), who inscribed his name on an arch in an illustration on folio 45v. The manuscript stayed in royal hands at least until the Safavid era when it was refurbished for the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza (1517-49), the youngest of the four sons of Shah Ismaʻil (r. 1501-24).

The construction of the palace at Khavarnak
The building of the palace of Khavarnaq. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting attributed to the master-painter Bihzad. Herat, late 15th century (BL Or.6810, f. 154v). Public Domain

This beautiful copy of the Khamsah (Five Poems) by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami entered the Mughal Imperial Library in Akbar's reign and was regarded as one of the most treasured possessions in his collection. Its importance lies chiefly in its decoration and illustrations which include paintings by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (flourished during the reign of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara, 1469-1506). ‘The building of the palace of Khavarnaq,’ ascribed to Bihzad in a note underneath, shows the structure of the pavilion: the scaffolding, a ladder, men chipping bricks, transporting them and actually positioning them on the building.

The opening of Shah Tahmasp's Khamsah
The opening of Nizami's Makhzan al-asrar, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Tabriz or Qazvin, (BL Or.2265, ff. 2v-3r). Public Domain

Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad; Khusraw sees Shirin bathing
Left: Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Painting ascribed to Mirza ʻAli (BL Or.2265, f. 53v). Public Domain
Right: Prince Khusraw spies Shirin bathing. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin. Painting ascribed to Sultan Muhammad (BL Or.2265, f.77v). Public Domain

Or.2265, a 16th century copy of Nizami's Khamsah (Five Poems), is perhaps the most spectacular of our manuscript loans. Originally copied between 1539 and 1543 for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76), it was augmented by the addition of 14 full page illustrations by some of the most famous court artists of the mid-16th century. Further pages were inserted probably during the 17th century, and again at a later stage, perhaps when the manuscript was rebound in the early 19th century at the court of Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar (r. 1797-1834) who in 1243 (1827/28), according to a note inside, presented it to his forty-second wife Taj al-Dawlah.

The ninth section The Old and the New focussed on the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925), introducing an element of modernisation and developing new relationships with Europe.

The Iranian army defeats the Russians
Fath ʻAli Shah's heir ʻAbbas Mirza about to slay the Russian general Gazhadand with the Russian army in flight. From the Shahanshahnamah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Iran, 1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f. 387v). Public Domain

With Firdawsi's Shahnamah as a model, Fath‘Ali Shah commissioned the Shahanshahnamah (Book of the King of Kings) by the court poet Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba. Presented to the East India Company, this was one of several equally sumptuous copies given as diplomatic gifts to various European dignitaries.

Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah
Portrait of Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896), seated on a European style sofa, by Muhammad Isfahani. Iran, 1856 (BL Or.4938, f.4r). Public Domain

Although the exhibition has now closed, the published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture

Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian
CCBY

Further reading 

Most of these manuscripts have been digitised and can be explored by following the hyperlinks given above or by going to our Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts page. The following blogs also give further information:

An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani
The archaeology of a manuscript: the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
A Jewel in the Crown: A 15th century illustrated copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.6810)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece

Asian and African studies blog recent posts

Other British Library blogs

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