The Khamsa of the Indian poet Amir Khusrau includes a section on the philosopher-king Alexander the Great, who in Khusrau’s telling of his life led expeditions to China, Russia, and the Western Isles. In this copy of the Khamsa made for the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), Alexander is shown being lowered into the sea in a glass diving bell. While underwater, he will receive a visit from an angel who foretells his death.
Alexander sets sail for the western seas with an entourage that includes the philosopher Aristotle and the prophets Khizr and Elias. At one point, he orders his crew to steady the boat with anchors and to prepare a glass diving bell in which he will descend into the depths of the sea for a hundred days. He avows his complete acceptance of divine fate, swearing that "If I should emerge from this terrifying experience, my understanding of the truth of man will be the true understanding. And if there should be a calamity during these days, then before God I will be like a single grain in a hundred thousand."
Depictions of Alexander's consultations before his sea voyage and during the long journey itself far outnumber those of the king's actual descent into the unconquered submarine realm, which teems with wondrous creatures and unknown dangers summoned by his celestial guide. As expected, this minor pictoral tradition is occasioned by the position of the illustration in the text, which concludes above the painting with a description of the crew fastening ropes to the pearly glass vessel and setting it onto the water like a bubble.
Mukunda highlights the personal bravery of Alexander and the wonderment and physical strain of his crew to the virtual exclusion of the more profound and abstract religious dimension of the dramatic action. The text assigns the task of holding the ropes of the diving bell to Khizr and Elias, who are customarily distinguished by flaming aureoles. Here, however, those sacred figures are absent altogether, and their duty falls to a boatload of European figures and others dressed in various degrees of European garb. The reason for the substitution of the European figures is the prominence of the boats, which in Mughal painting are almost inevitably manned by European-inspired figures such as the oarsman and the man perched on the mast.
Because Mukunda rarely allows his figures—particularly those in three-quarter view—to shed their characteristic impassiveness, he is compelled to use formulaic gestures to convey the excitement that his figures' drowsy, unfocused eyes and somewhat bloated countenances cannot. His hand is apparent, too, in the deep landscape beyond the churning waters, which compares closely to the more miniaturized setting of folio 19a of the British Library Khamsa, especially in the distinctive perpendicular elements of the outcrops.
John Seyller in [Seyller 2001]
1. The painting is reproduced in color in Brend, Barbara. The Emperor Akbar's Khamsa of Nizami. London: The British Library, 1995, fig. 2.
Two Paintings Reflecting the Portugese Presence in Iran and India: 55.121.23 and 13.228.27.
In Iran and India, the Portugese had fairly autonomous colonies from which their commercial activities operated, which gave them an advantage over the trading concerns of other European countries. In Iran, their base was the Persian Gulf island of Hormuz, from which Indian Ocean trade was launched; in India, it was Goa, a major port on the subcontinent's west coast. The Portugese presence in these regions is reflected in the two paintings shown here, one (55.121.23) a study of a young man in Portugese-style clothing, the other (13.228.27) an illustration in which several protagonists are depicted as Portuguese.
European figures generally appear in two modes in Safavid-period painting from Iran, either in erotic scenes or in gently mocking portraits. The former became popular in the mid-seventeenth century and show men in European dress making love to women whose dress and accessories mark them as prostitutes. The latter are part of a larger group of paintings inspired by the artist Riza,who made several portraits of foreigners between the years 1625 and 1630. Paintings by Riza and other artists in his circle captured what they saw as the most characteristic aspects of European dress and behavior. Foreigners are shown wearing hats with squared crowns and wide brims, buttoned tunics with white collars and cuffs, and voluminous pants tucked into tall leather boots; they engage in what was considered a highly odd activity, doting on their pet dogs. The painting of the young man (55.121.23) does not fall easily into either category. His facial features are those of the beautiful Iranian court youths commonly depicted in the seventeenth century, unlike the broader features used to denote European ethnicity. The habit of dresing in exotic costume was not as widespread in Iran as it was in Europe, but this portrait may record a passing trend.
In Mughal India, the Portugese were accorded more respect than they were in Iran. Jesuit priests were called to the court of the emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) for serious discussions of their religious beliefs, and the establishment of the colony at Goa allowed for extended cultural exchanges with the Mughal and other regional courts. Alexander is Lowered into the Sea (13.228.27) was painted to illustrate a luxury copy of a poem by the Indian poet Amir Khusrau Dihlavi (1253–1325), of which part concerns the life of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian conqueror is shown being lowered in a glass diving bell into the sea, where he spent one hundred days as a test of his faith.
All of the figures in this painting wear dress incongruous to the fourth-century B.C. setting for the story, but while those in Indian dress come from the sixteenth-century milieu in which the painting was made,the appearance of men in Portugese dress is surprising. It has been suggested that, in Mughal minds, the strong connection between Europeans and shipping prowess explains their inclusion here and in other paintings that feature boats; indeed, most ships that appear in Mughal paintings have European crews. In the late 1590s the main European power in India was Portugal, whose might was founded on maritime strength.
Marika Sardar in [Peck 2013]
1. See the discussion in Canby, Sheila R. The Rebellious Reformer: The Drawings and Paintings of Riza-yi Abbasi of Isfahan. London: Azimuth Editions, 1996, pp. 174 and 176, fig. 9 and nos. 127 and 128.
2. Seyller, John. "Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Walters Art Museum Khamsa of Amir Khusraw of Delhi." The Journal of the Walters Art Museum 58 (2000), p. 90.
Alexander Smith Cochran, Yonkers, NY (until 1913; gifted to MMA)
University Gallery, University of Florida. "Miniatures and Small Sculptures from India," April 10, 1966–May 29, 1966, no. 75a.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Indian Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 18, 1973–April 1, 1973, no catalogue.
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. "The Arts of Islam. Masterpieces from the M.M.A.," June 15, 1981–August 8, 1981, no. 122.
Baltimore. Walters Art Museum. "Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Khamsa of Amir Khusraw of Delhi (1597/98)," June 9, 2005–September 4, 2005, no. XXIII.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Khamsa of Amir Khusraw of Delhi (1597/98)," October 14, 2005–March 12, 2006, no. XXIII.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Interwoven Globe: Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800," September 9, 2013–January 5, 2014, no. 91B.
Valentiner, William Reinhold. "The Cochran Collection of Persian Manuscripts." Museum of Metropolitan Art Bulletin, old series, vol. 8 (1913). pp. 80-86.
University Gallery, University of Florida. "April 10th thru May 29th, 1966." In Miniatures and Small Sculptures from India. 1966. no. 75a.
"Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York." In The Arts of Islam. Berlin, 1981. no. 122, pp. 288-289, ill. p. 289 (b/w).
Craven, Roy C. A Concise History of Indian Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997. ill. fig. 164.
Koch, Ebba. "Netherlandish Naturalism in Imperial Mughal Painting." Apollo vol. 152, no. 465 (2000). p. 29, ill. fig. 2 (b/w).
Seyller, John. "The Walters Art Museum Khamsa of Amir Khusraw of Delhi." In Pearls of the Parrot of India.. Baltimore, MD: Walters Art Museum, 2001. no. XXIII, pp. 90-91, ill. fig. 28 (color).
Brend, Barbara. "Illustrations to Amir Khusrau's Khamsa." In Perspectives on Persian Painting. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. pp. 198, 226-38, 48, 264.
Savage-Smith, Emilie, ed. Magic and Divination in Early Islam. The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, vol. 42. Aldershot, Hants, Great Britain; Burlington, VT, USA: Ashgate, 2004. pp. 364, 370, ill. fig. 6 (b/w).
Peck, Amelia, ed. "The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800." In Interwoven Globe. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013. no. 91B, pp. 255-256, ill. pl. 91B (color).