The Khamsa (Quintet) of the Indian poet Amir Khusrau Dihlavi localizes its model, the Khamsa of Nizami, by rooting several of the stories in an Indian idiom. Likewise, the illustrations made for Akbar’s (r. 1556–1605) copy are set in typically Indian landscapes. Here, a Muslim pilgrim to Mecca meets a Brahman who travels to a Hindu temple by inching his way in a series of prostrations. Impressed by this religious zeal, the Muslim removes his own shoes and continues on his way barefoot.
Two Folios from the Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi (nos. 13.228.29 and .33) Among the many splendid manuscripts produced during the 1590s in the court workshops of Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) was an illustrated version of the Khamsa (Quintet) of the medieval sufi poet Amir Khusrau Dihlavi. Twenty-nine illustrated folios, several inscribed by leading court artists of the period, are now shared between the Metropolitan Museum and the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; the bulk of the text block and the painted lacquer binding are also in Baltimore. The flawless nasta‘liq calligraphy is by the hand of Muhammad Husain Kashmiri, whom Akbar titled Zarin Qalam (Golden Pen) and who wrote out the text at the rate of sixteen and a half lines per day. The luxurious illustrations, some signed, are surrounded by richly decorated borders, with figures, plants, animals, and birds outlined in gold. While modeled on the Khamsa of Nizami (d. 1209) and thus paying homage to the Persian master’s classic text, Amir Khusrau’s quintet thoroughly localizes the form by rooting several of the stories in an Indian idiom. This illustration (13.228.29), taken from the Matla‘ al-anwar (Rising of the Luminaries ) section, depicts one such tale, that of a meeting between a Muslim pilgrim and a Brahman devotee. Here, the pilgrim, on his way to Mecca, meets the prostrate Brahman, clad in a simple white dhoti (draped garment) and traveling to a Hindu temple inch by inch along the ground. When asked the reason for his actions, the Brahman replies that he has turned his heart into a symbolic foot on which he makes his way to his idol. Impressed by this religious zeal, the Muslim removes his own shoes and continues his pilgrimage barefoot. In the hands of the Mughal master Basawan, the subject is executed with the virtuosity of a painter in his prime. From the multilayered landscape setting, filled with observed and imagined vignettes, to the convincing manner (despite the unusual pose) in which the tensed toes of the Brahman are drawn, Basawan’s skill in rendering both composition and detail is manifest. His interest in Europeanizing elements can be seen in the modeling of the tree, the depiction of the architecture, and the Portuguese-style figures in the distance. The palette of pale, melting colors is another hallmark. Taken from the Hasht bihisht (Eight Paradises) section of Amir Khusrau’s Khamsa, the painting by Basawan’s son Manohar (no. 13.228.33) illustrates a variation on the well-known allegorical tale of the Persian hero Bahram Gur, who makes a nighttime visit to a garden pavilion where he is entertained by a lovely fairy princess and her attendants. The couple are shown here resting against a brocade bolster rendered in two shades of gold, while, all around, winged creatures play musical instruments and present platters of delicacies. In the starry sky above, a figure covered in delicate feathers descends bearing a golden tray, and in the foreground, outside the garden walls, the prince’s attendants slumber beside a wakeful horse. Manohar, a far greater conservative than his father, imbues the scene with all the traditional sweetness of the Indo-Persian tradition while retaining the formal reason of Mughal painting. The poetic, blooming night garden, enchanting fairies, and carefully observed waterwheel combine to create a Mughal vision of Amir Khusrau’s celebrated mystical verses. Navina Haidar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011] Footnotes: 1. Seyller 2001, pp. 39–40, suggests that the writing must have begun in early 1596 and been completed by regnal year 42 (March 1597–March 1598). Most scholars use the colophon date (1597–98), but the total production time would be 1596–98. 2. The manuscript contains the names of twelve artists and four illuminators, with further attributions. The inscribed names are those of the painters Basawan, Narsingh, Lal, Manohar, Sanwala, Farrukh Chela, ‘Ali Quli, Dharamdas, Farrukh, Jagannath, Mukund, Miskin, Madhav, and Surdas Gujarati and of the illuminators Mansur Naqqash, Khwaja Jan Shirazi, Lutfullah Muzahhib, and Husain Naqqash. 3. Brend, Barbara. "Akbar’s Khamsah of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi: A Reconstruction of the Cycle of Illustration." Artibus Asiae 49, no. 3–4, p. 283, points out that the Brahman’s pose here may have been adapted from a standing figure, accounting for the stiffness of the knees.
The fourth maqala extols the merit of selfless devotion as a means of worship in Islam and concludes with a lesson of piety that trancends religions. A devout Muslim on the pilgrimage to Mecca meets a Hindu brahman on the road to the temple of Somnath in Gujarat, which was renowned for its wealth of idols. Seeing the brahman groved on the ground, the perplexed pilgrim asks the Hindu why he does not make his way on his feet. The brahman replies that he has proceeded in this manner for years, ever since he gave his heart to his idol. Khusraw then compares the Hindu's absolute, albeit misguided devotion to his god to the resolute flight of an arrow fired at the wrong target and exhorts his fellow Muslims, who know the correct object of faith, to advance with the same single-minded purpose.
The two pilgrims travel convergent paths toward God in Basavana's illustration of this tale. Dresses in the traditional Hindu dhoti and dupatta and adorned with a proper tilak mark of Siva's devotees, the brahman crawls forward, hands splayed and heels raised in a position whose apparent thrust belies his painstaking pace. He glances back at his upright Muslim counterpart, who carries prayer beads, a book (presumably the Koran), a pair of shoes, and a pilgrim's staff. Neither pauses for conversation, creating an impression of urgency quickened by the peripatetic figures and animals around them.
Basavana imbues every element in the painting with a physicality unequalled by any contemporary Mughal artist. He achieves this effect by foregoing precise linear patterns in favor of roughly outlined forms and richly textured surfaces and by subduing the customary brilliant palette with a range of subtle tones. Through these techniques, he imparts a palpably dusty, swelling musculature to the brahman, a heavy courseness to the Muslim's robe and cloak, and a rare organic quality to the tangled roots of the banyan tree beside the road. Even genre characters such as the snarling dog,and fowler carrying his net and camouflage screen are enlivened to an unprecedented degree. Together with the minuscule figures working the distant fields, these innovative and uniquely Indian expressions testify to the thoroughness of Basavana's assimilation from European art the principles of modeling, recession, and atmospheric perspective.
John Seyler in [Seyller 2001]
Inscription: Inscribed in Persian in nasta‘liq script:
گفت چو دل در ره بت باختم
پا برهش نیز ز دل ساختم
[He] said his heart is lost to his idol, my heart took a step on his path
Signature in Persian in nasta‘liq script at bottom left-hand corner of frame: عمل پساون
Work of Basawan
Alexander Smith Cochran, Yonkers, NY (until 1913; gifted to MMA)
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