Art/ Collection/ Art Object
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"Portrait of Raja Bikramajit (Sundar Das)", Folio from the Shah Jahan Album

Artist:
Painting by Bichitr (active ca. 1610–60)
Calligrapher:
Mir 'Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550)
Object Name:
Album leaf
Date:
recto: ca. 1620; verso: ca. 1540
Geography:
Attributed to India
Medium:
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Dimensions:
15 1/4 x 10 1/8in. (38.7 x 25.7cm)
Classification:
Codices
Credit Line:
Purchase, Rogers Fund and The Kevorkian Foundation Gift, 1955
Accession Number:
55.121.10.1
Not on view
Sundar Das was a Hindu whoses ancestors had been considerable landowners. He entered the service of Prince Khurram (Shah Jahan) and in 1617 Jahangir awarded him the title of Raja Bikramajit "which among Hindus is the highest" as Jahangir wrote in his memoirs. Raja Bikramajit was a brilliant military strategist and instrumental to the success of Prince Khurram's campaigns in the Deccan. In Shah Jahan's rebellion against Jahanagir in 1623–24, Raja Bikramajit sided with the prince, and when he was killed in battle, Jahangir was unashamedly gleeful, writing "By losing him the Wretch [Shah Jahan] lost courage, as though his luck, ambition, and reason were all found up with that Hindu dog." In Bichitr's brilliant portrait, the figure positively pulses with life.
MMA 55.121.10.1v–Calligraphy.

By Amir Khusrau, God's mercy be upon him!

When with a thousand blandishments
this idol here appears,
From people everywhere a sigh
that melts the soul appears.
When I think of his stature slim,
my eyes shed ruby tears!
Where they fall on the ground, a plant
of many charms appears.
His [graceful] twiglike stature took a root
so deeply in my heart–
That though one tears it out and out,
it always reappears!
Don't be surprised when from the rain
of tears and seed of love,
From Mahmud's dust, like greenery
a new Ayaz appears!
Written by the poor [al-faqir] 'Ali,
may God cover his faults

In Persian poetry tears always resemble rubies or carnelians because they are red from the blood of the despairing lover. The beloved is often compared to a slim tree or a gracefully moving twig or branch, and Amir Khusrau (1256–1325) elaborates this concept in his usual, somewhat mannerist style.

In the last verse of this ghazal Amir Khusrau alludes to the great warrior-king Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 999–1030), the conqueror of northwestern India, who was in love with Ayaz, a Turkish officer who faithfully served him. The figure of the king becoming ''a slave of his slave" is a standard one in lyric poetry in the eastern Islamic world and was elaborated in epics during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

The surrounding lines are five verses from Jami's epic Yusuf and Zulaykha.

Annemarie Schimmel in [Welch et al. 1987]

THE GOLD PLANTS on the blue ground are more densely arranged than on the recto page (pl. 32 in this volume), and small birds, a butterfly, and cloud bands as well as the odd tuft of grass have been added. Still, the presence of leaves "moving in water" confirms that one artist was responsible for both the recto and verso borders of this folio. The middle of the upper border shows a Camponela, while the flower in the middle of the wider border of the right edge may represent a dahlia.

Marie L. Swietochowski in [Welch et al. 1987]

MMA 55.121.10.1.recto–Sundar Das, Raja Bikramajit

INSCRIBED: (on portrait in Jahangir's hand) Raja
Bikramajit; (on border in Shahjahan's hand)
"portrait of Raja Bikramajit done by Bichitr"

SUNDAR DAS of the Bandhu region in Allahabad, "whose ancestors were considerable landholders in India,"[1] began his career with the Mughals as a scribe and later majordomo in the service of Prince Khurram (Shahjahan). In 1617 he was awarded the title Raja Bikramajit, "which among Hindus is the highest,"[2] and put in charge of the administration of Gujarat when it was enfeoffed to Shahjahan. He led the Mughal army in the campaign against the Jam and Bihara in the Ran of Kutch and was instrumental in Shahjahan's capture of Kangra Fort in 1620. During Shahjahan's Deccan campaign against Malik 'Ambar in 1621 the success of Mughal strategy was due to Raja Bikramajit's military genius, although he was not nominally in charge of the campaign.

In Shahjahan's rebellion against Jahangir in 1623–24, Raja Bikramajit sided with the prince and accompanied him with his Rajput forces until he was slain at the Battle of Bilochpur. Jahangir, who considered Raja Bikramajit to be Shahjahan's principal "guide to the desert of error,"[3] records his undisguised glee over the death of Sundar Das: "The next day they brought Sundar's head into my presence, and it appeared that when the musketball hit him and discharged his soul to the wardens of Hell, his body was taken for cremation to a village that was in that vicinity. Just as they were about to light the fire, a detachment appeared from afar, and fearing that they might be taken captive, they fled in every direction. The headman of that place cut off his head and took it to Khan A'zam, who was staying in his fief. The latter brought it to court. His gloomy countenance appeared just as it always had and had not yet changed at all. His ears had been cut off for the sake of the earrings he had, but it was not known by whom he had been shot. By losing him the Wretch [Shahjahan] lost courage, as though his luck, ambition and reason were all [bound up with] that Hindu dog."[4]

Wheeler M. Thackston in [Welch et al. 1987]

SO CONVINCINGLY alive is Bichitr's sharp-eyed, aquiline-nosed, finely mustached, smiling Sundar Das that it is particularly disturbing to read Jahangir's account–quoted above–of receiving the detested Brahmin Raja's severed head. Inasmuch as the miniature must have been painted between 1617, when the still-admired sitter received his title, and 1623, when he was slain, it belongs to the earliest documented stage in the great Hindu artist's development. He was already a major master, as adroit as Abu'l-Hasan to whom he may have been apprenticed and whose technical brilliance as well as sensitivity to the world of appearances he shared. During Bichitr's apprentice phase, Abu'l-Hasan probably relied upon him to carry out minor passages in his own miniatures. But Bichitr's highly polished variant of Abu'l-Hasan's style is unique and personal. One of the most logical and observant of Mughal artists, he creates forms that are architectonic and crystalline.[5] In his work each outline, wrinkle, and fold, each eyelash and fingernail, are in perfect focus, with no scumbled or sfumato passages. Further clues to his style are seen in his tendency to exaggerate buttocks and in such European elements as his delight in shadows, in trompe l'oeil reflections on glass, and in glittering highlights on jewels.

Beneath Bichitr's classic restraint, which has led some critics to disparage his work as chilly and hard, one senses intense, occasionally humorous responses to people and situations, as in Sundar Das's look of sly optimism while eliciting the emperor's favor by offering a shiny blue bauble. Like many aspiring Mughal courtiers, Sundar Das paved the road of his career with well-timed gifts. And when he gave a ruby of unrivaled color and water to Prince Parviz who passed it on to his father, Jahangir increased Sundar Das's rank and entitled him Raja Bikramajit.[6]

Bichitr painted one of the most impressive pictures in the Windsor Padshahnama: Dara-Shikoh, Shah Shuja', Aurangzeb, and Asaf Khan Received at Court (fol. 50v; Appendix, fig. 22)–with its ranks of marvelous portraits, stunning textiles and architectural detail, and delightful wall paintings of bright flowers against dead white–is unequaled in its display of the restrained grandeur of Shahjahan's court.

Bichitr's eager acceptance of challenges is also apparent in Musician, Archer, and Dhobi (V&A 27–1925), a miniature of which there is a late copy in the Kevorkian Album (pl. 98 in this volume). A virtual homage to Govardhan, it may have been commissioned by Shahjahan (or more likely by Prince Dara-Shikoh) as a contest between two great masters. The figure of the archer is "quoted" in reverse from one of Govardhan's pictures with scrupulous attention paid to such mannerisms as excessively thin fingers. Govardhan's appealingly low-keyed palette and his sensitivity to otherworldly personality, however, have been replaced by Bichitr's cerebral firmness. Flowingly relaxed facial expressions are now crisply formal, and rustic cloth worn to dusty but comfortable softness has been brightened and starched by Bichitr as though to pass muster at court.[7]

Stuart Cary Welch in [Welch et al. 1987]

THE PORTRAIT is surrounded by fragments of two ghazals by Shahi, which correspond to the fragments on pl. 33 in this volume.

Annemarie Schimmel in [Welch et al. 1987]

THIS RECTO PORTRAIT has the margin number 58. The border scheme of this and its facing folio is flowering plants in colors on a buff ground for the portraits and flowering plants in gold on a blue ground for the calligraphy. The painter of this folio drew tall plants with very thin stems varying in color from pale green to dark brown-green to red. The plants were delicately outlined in gold, and when gold was used for leaf veins, it was done with such subtlety as to seem a mere suggestion. The leaves also share in a variety of green shades, while the flower colors lean to purples and mauves. Occasionally his leaves have the agitated look of underwater weeds being pulled by a current. In spite of this, the border has an overall restrained elegance that is very striking. For all their impression of naturalism, the plants in the border do not on the whole lend themselves to identification with the exception of an iris in the lower right comer, possibly a snowdrop at the left edge of the outer margin second row from the bottom, with a Hypoxis above it on the right. Within the portrait area the poppy before the feet and the iris behind are very clear and accurate.

Marie L. Swietochowski in [Welch et al. 1987]

Footnotes:

1. Jahangir. The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri; or Memoirs of Jahangir. Trans. Alexander Rogers. 2 volumes. Ed. Henry Beveridge. London, 1909–1914, vol. I, p. 325; and Shahnawaz Khan, Samsam al-Dawla, and 'Abd al-Hayy. Maasiru-l-umara; Being Biographies of the Muhammadan and Hindu officers of the Timurid Sovereigns of India from 1500 to About 1780 A.D. Trans. H. Beveridge. Rev. ed. Calcutta, 1941–52., Vol. I, p. 412.

2. Jahangir, Tuzuk,(note 1) vol. I, p. 402.

3. ibid., vol. II, p. 253.

4. Jahangir Gurkani, Nur al-Din Muhammad. Jahangirnama: Tuzuk-i Jahangiri. Ed. Muhammad Hashim. Teheran, A.H. 1349/ A.D. 1970, p. 408.

5. The backgrounds of his pictures often contain boxlike clusters of buildings–unrepresented here–which bring to mind the geometry of Cezanne: see the buildings behind his portrait of Asaf Khan in the Victoria & Albert Museum (Stchoukine, Ivan. La Peinture indienne a l'epoque des Grands Moghols. Paris, 1929, pl. XXXVIII); these qualities are also clearly defined in Dara-Shikoh on a Pink Elephant (Beach, Milo Cleveland. The Grand Mogul: Imperial Painting in India, 1600–1660. Williamstown, Mass., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1978, no. 33).

6. Shahnawaz Khan, Maasir (note 1), pp. 412–19.

7. A Rustic Concert, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, 7/11; see Welch, Stuart Cary, India! Art and Culture 1300–1900. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985, cat. no. 159.

Signature: 55.121.10.1 verso:
In Persian, in lower left corner triangle: Written by the poor Ali, may God cover his faults.

Inscription: 55.121.10.1 recto:
In Persian, on the green ground, to the right of portrait (in Jahangir's hand): Raja Bikramajit.
In Persian, on the pink and gold floral border (in Shah Jahan's hand): Portrait of Raja Bikramajit. Work of Bichitr.

Marking: 55.121.10.1 recto:
Margin number '58' is inscribed in the gilt margin.
Jack S. Rofe, Scotland (in 1929; sale, Sotheby's London,December 12, 1929, to Kevorkian); [ Hagop Kevorkian, New York, from 1929]; [ Kevorkian Foundation, New York, until 1955; gift and sale to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Emperor's Album: Images of Mughal India," October 21, 1987–February 14, 1988, nos. 31 and 32.

Memoirs of Jahangir. London, 1829. p. 28.

Welch, Stuart Cary, Annemarie Schimmel, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, and Wheeler M. Thackston. The Emperors' Album: Images of Mughal India. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. no. nos. 31, 32, pp. 144-147, 150, ill., verso pl. 31 (b/w); recto pl. 32 (color).

Okada, Amina. Imperial Mughal Painters: Indian Miniatures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Paris: Flammarion, 1992. p. 166, ill. fig. 198 (b/w), recto.



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