Art/ Collection/ Art Object

"Study of a Nilgai (Blue Bull)", Folio from the Shah Jahan Album

Painting by Mansur (active ca. 1589–1626)
Mir 'Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550)
Object Name:
Album leaf
verso: ca. 1620; recto ca. 1540
Attributed to India
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
H. 15 5/16 in. (38.9 cm) W. 10 1/16 in. (25.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Rogers Fund and The Kevorkian Foundation Gift, 1955
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 463
The nilgai, though known as a blue bull, is a type of antelope found in central and northern India and eastern Pakistan. This study was painted by Mansur, probably after observing the animal in Jahangir’s (r. 1605–27) zoological garden. While great detail is lavished on the depiction of the animal, down to the distinctive swirl of hair where his neck meets his body, the background makes no reference to the nilgai’s natural habitat. As in portraits of people, a neutral or harmonious setting prevailed in Mughal animal paintings.

Four Folios from the Emperor's Album (nos., .13, .21,.4r)

This celebrated imperial Mughal album (muraqqa‘), known as the Shah Jahan, or Emperors’, Album originally consisted of fifty leaves containing paintings, illuminated pages, and calligraphy. Thirty-nine of these date from the seventeenth century, while the remaining eleven date from the early nineteenth century. Of the earlier folios, the first few were commissioned by Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–27), but it was under the patronage of his son Shah Jahan (r. 1627–58) that most of the leaves were added. The nineteenth-century folios contain copies of the earlier subjects as well as some new compositions. This album belongs to a family of related imperial albums that share similar formats and subject matter, most notably the so-called Wantage and Minto albums in British collections, particularly the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

Most of the calligraphic panels in the Shah Jahan Album were executed by the sixteenth-century Persian master Mir ‘Ali Haravi, who first practiced his art at Herat and later at Bukhara. His writing was so prized in Mughal India that it was collected, mounted in albums, and illuminated. Here (no., the illumination takes on a special character, departing from the more usual arabesque-based motifs seen in Indo-Persian ornament and moving toward a naturalism typical of Mughal painting.[1] The inclusion of natural life as part of the decoration of text pages is also seen in an earlier Mughal Gulistan of Sa‘di in the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London, which contains over two thousand bird images.[2] In the Museum’s folio, six lines of Persian poetry written out by Mir ‘Ali in nasta‘liq script are set against a burnished gold ground that contains landscape features as well as various animals and birds, including a pair of sambar deer, nilgai antelope, white goats, mynah birds, robins, starlings, egrets, and shrikes. The lyrical poetry framing the composition is by the poet Hilali Chughata’i (two couplets are in Chagatai Turkish).

Recorded observations of the emperors Babur (r. 1526–30) and Jahangir reflect the Mughal interest in the natural world; indeed, modern science has recognized the latter as having made at least two original contributions to zoology.[3] Jahangir’s remarkably acute interests in the flora and fauna of India are expressed in the sensitive natural studies produced by his leading artist, Mansur, as demonstrated in this album by the nilgai, or blue bull (no., one of several such works therein.[4] This beast may have roamed in Jahangir’s zoological garden, where Mansur, a multifaceted artist who earlier in his career had been trained in the art of illumination, would have been able to record details such as the broken horn and the whorl of hair at the base of the animal’s neck (the slightly less detailed brushwork on the body of the beast, however, may indicate the hand of an assistant). While this natural study depicts a relatively humble subject, a local animal, other works by Mansur portray more exotic creatures, including a zebra (which arrived at court as a gift in 1616), a turkey-cock (arriving in 1612), and a chameleon.[5] Although Mansur was not the only artist who addressed such natural themes, he was an acknowledged master of the genre, gaining mention in Jahangir’s memoirs and earning the title Nadir al-‘Asr, Wonder of the Age.

Grand compositions such as no., which shows a bejeweled Shah Jahan with a radiating nimbus astride a magnificent pie-bald stallion, were part of the imperial Mughal image disseminated around the world.[6] The ruler’s firm black ink inscription names the artist as Payag, further confirmed by a recently discovered artist’s signature in a minuscule inscription located on the extension of the saddle.[7] In many ways the hard-edged formality of this composition epitomizes the Shah Jahan painting style, yet demonstrated equally is Payag’s facility with royal portraiture, a somewhat rare genre for him. This crystalline imperial likeness and the layering of patterns and shapes in the area of the saddlecloth stand in contrast to the artist’s use of smoky landscapes, dark tones, and washy colors in the Padshahnama (Royal Library, Windsor).[8] Of note is the subtle radiance around the point of the emperor’s spear. Also appearing in folios of that royal manuscript is the emperor’s same piebald steed.[9] This particular formula of Shah Jahan in equestrian mode proved to have lasting popularity, judging from the number of later copies made, including one in the Emperors’ Album itself.[10]

A shamsa (sun or sunburst in Arabic) traditionally opened or closed imperial Mughal albums. Worked in bright color, predominantly lapis, and several tones of gold, this meticulously designed and unerringly precise radiating medallion from the Shah Jahan Album ( is enriched by painted arabesques, fantastic flowers, cloud bands, birds, and insects. The Emperors’ Album contains two such masterpieces, this one centered around the name of Shah Jahan written in an elaborate tughra (cipher) style and its companion containing the seal imprint of his successor and later owner of the album, Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). Specifically trained masters of ornament painted such illuminations. Although many Iranian prototypes for this rosette can be cited, the Mughal shamsa differs from them in its heightened three-dimensionality and warm coloring.[11] The importance of solar symbolism in many aspects of Indian and Islamic visual representation and courtly life made such radiating motifs particularly meaningful to their royal patrons.[12]

Navina Haidar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]


1. Welch 1987, pp. 124–25, no. 22.

2. The Art of the Book in India. Exhibition, British Library, Reference Division, London. Catalogue by Jeremiah P. Losty. London, 1982, p. 87, no. 58.

3. Alvi, M. A., and A. Rahman. Jahangir: The Naturalist. The National Institute of Sciences of India Monograph, 3. New Delhi, 1968, p. 5.

4. Published in Welch 1987, pp. 178–81, no. 47; Welch 1985, p. 216, no. 142; Welch 1987, p. 145, no. 111.

5. The Grand Mogul: Imperial Painting in India, 1600–1660. Exhibition, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.; Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Asia House Gallery, New York. Catalogue by Milo Cleveland Beach, with Stuart Cary Welch and Glenn D. Lowry. Williamstown, Mass., 1978., pp. 137–43, provides a list of the artist’s major works; see also
Blunt, Wilfred. “The Mughal Painters of Natural History.” The Burlington Magazine 90, no. 539 (February 1948), pp. 48–50.

6. Published in Welch 1987, pp. 202–3, no. 59.

7. A recent examination of the painting by Robert Elgood resulted in this new discovery.

8. See “The Two Worlds of Payag—Further Evidence on a Mughal Artist.” In Indian Art and Connoisseurship: Essays in Honour of Douglas
Barrett, edited by John Guy, pp. 320–41. New Delhi, 1995. for a discussion of Payag’s style.

9. King of the World: The Padshahnama, an Imperial Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. Exhibition, National Museum of India, New Delhi, and other venues. Catalogue by Milo Cleveland Beach and Ebba Koch with Wheeler [M.] Thackston. London and Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 52, no. 17, pp. 72–75, no. 29.

10. Welch 1987, p. 257, no. 86.

11. Ibid., pp. 80–81, no. 1; p. 149, no. 114; Welch 1985, pp. 236–37, no. 156.

12. Skelton, Robert. “Imperial Symbolism in Mughal Painting.” In Content and Context of Visual Arts in the Islamic World: Papers from A Colloquium in Memory of Richard Ettinghausen, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2–4 April 1980, edited by Priscilla P. Soucek, pp. 177–91. University Park, Pa., and London, 1988, pp. 181–82. verso–Nilgai

INSCRIBED (in fine nasta'liq): (at top of picture
in the artist's [?]hand) Jahangirshahi; (in
front of legs in the artist's [?] hand) "work
['amal] of the servant of the palace Nadir al'
asr [Mansur]"

JAHANGIR 's interest in natural history was surpassed only by his passion for hunting. The large and noble nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), or blue bull, was a favorite prey. An act revealing the least admirable side of Jahangir's character is recorded in his memoirs. His shot at a nilgai on a hunting expedition was spoiled by the sudden appearance of a groom and two bearers. Enraged, he ordered the groom killed on the spot and the bearers hamstrung and paraded through the camp on asses.[1] Fortunately these acts of extreme cruelty
seem to have been rare, and a more characteristic and humane side of Jahangir's character emerges in another nilgai hunting anecdote from his memoirs: "The story of this nilgaw was written because it is not devoid of strangeness. In the two past years, during which I had come to this same place to wander about and hunt, I had shot at him each time with a gun. As the wounds were not in a fatal place, he had not fallen, but gone off. This time again I saw that nilgaw in the hunting ground (shikargah), and the watchman recognized that in the two previous years he had gone away wounded. In short, I fired at him again three times on that day. It was in vain. I pursued him rapidly on foot for three kos, but however much I exerted myself I could not catch him. At last I made a vow that if this nilgaw fell I would have his flesh cooked, and for the soul of Khwaja Mu'inu-d-din would give it to eat to poor people. I also vowed a rnuhr and one rupee to my revered father. Soon after this the nilgaw became worn out with moving, and I ran to his head and ordered them to make it lawful [cut its throat in the name of Allah] on the spot, and having brought it to the camp I fulfilled my vow as I had proposed. They cooked the nilgaw, and expending the muhr and rupee on sweets, I assembled poor and hungry people and divided them among them in my own presence. Two or three days
afterwards I saw another nilgaw. However much I exerted myself and wished he would stand still in one place, so that I might fire at him, I could get no chance. With my gun on my shoulder I followed him till near evening until it was sunset, and despaired of killing him. Suddenly it came across my tongue, 'Khwaja, this nilgaw also is vowed to you.' My speaking and his sitting down were at one and the same moment. I fired at and hit him, and ordered him, like the first nilgaw, to be cooked and given to the poor to eat."[2]

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

LIKE THAT OF Abu'l-Hasan, Mansur's career can be traced to Akbar's reign. His talent for natural history subjects was encouraged, and his illustrations to such manuscripts as the earliest Baburnama and Akbarnama rnanuscripts include many studies from life of birds and animals.[3] A draughtsmanly artist, Mansur concentrated upon motion with brushstrokes that are never ruler-straight or even regular. His album paintings often developed over sketches done in the field. Possessed of an easy grace that enabled him to enter nature's inner worlds, he painted spirit as well as form with a stalker's awareness of animals' movement, of their habits and habitats. Each evanescent bird, animal, flower, or tree seems to have held still barely long enough for Mansur to note essences of proportion and balance. Detailed articulations of each feather or petal were attended to later in the studio, in painstakingly brushed washes and body color. Observant as a Fabre or Thoreau, he reveled in the quick, intuitive intelligence of his subjects and noted their interrelationships without the cloying sentimentality of so much natural history painting.

This unusually graceful nilgai probably roamed in Jahangir's zoological garden. As painted by Mansur, its sensitively observed fur, cartilaginous ears, velvety muzzle, and smooth horns invite stroking. So precise was the artist's observation–down to peculiarities of marking and a horn broken off at the tip–that one can imagine the animal from every angle. But scientific accuracy was not Mansur's sole concern: artful silhouetting against a dusty pink ground enhances the blueness of the fur, amplifies the animal's noble presence, and lends lyricism to a memorable image.[4]

Mansur's style and career are further discussed in the texts for pls. 41, 44, and 45 in this volume.

Stuart Cary Welch in [Welch et al. 1987]

THIS VERSO page has the margin number 25. It is similar in horizontal format, with the head at the top when the folio is held vertically, to the pictures of the hornbill and forktail (MMA fols. 14v and 15r with margin numbers 43 and 44; pls. 41 and 40 in this volume); it is thus likely that this painting belongs to an earlier portion of the same album, probably devoted to animal and bird pictures. In all three the portrait borders have a floral-scroll pattern, with flowering plants on the calligraphy side. Each design is different, however. The plants and leaves here have a strong painterly quality with an impression of lively naturalism in the plants (even if only a lily, a narcissus, and perhaps a morning glory are tentatively recognizable) and an exuberant earthy rhythm to the scroll.

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


1. Jahangir. The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri; or Memoirs of Jahangir. Trans. Alexander Rogers. Ed. Henry Beveridge. 2 vols. London, 1909–1914, I, p. 164.

2. Ibid., I, pp. 189–90.

3. Beach, Milo Cleveland. The Grand Mogul: Imperial Painting in India, 1600–1660. Williamstown, Mass., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1978, pp. 140–43, has listed most of Mansur's works, but also see Das, Asok Kumar. Mughal Painting During Jahangir's Time. Calcutta, 1978.

4· It has been pointed out by Marie L. Swietochowski that a painting of a zebra in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Welch, Stuart Cary. Imperial Mughal Painting. New York, 1978, pl. 27) has such a similar border to that of the nilgai that it must have been painted by the same artist and that the zebra and the nilgai were probably once part of the same album. For another portrait of a nilgai, unsigned but attributed to Mansur, lent by the executors of the late P. C. Maruk, see The Art of India and Pakistan: A Commemorative Catalogue of the Exhibition Held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1947–48. Ed. Leigh Ashton. London, 1950, pl. 139. recto–Calligraphy

There was in Merv a beautiful physician,
A cypress in the garden of the heart:
He did not know how many hearts he wounded,
He did not know how dangerous his eyes.
A poor afflicted one said, "Lovely is it
To be with this physician for some time,
I do not want my health to be restored,
For then the doctor would not come again!"
How many intellects, strong, full of vigor,
Have been subdued by passioned love for him!
Written by [harrarahu] the sinful slave
'Ali, may God forgive his sins!

This is a short Persian mathnavi in the mutaqarib meter. The theme of lovesickness is common in Persian and related poetry, and the beloved is often described as a physician without whom one cannot live and for whose sake one wants to be ill.

The calligraphic style is unusually soft for Mir-'Ali; perhaps the word harrarahu is used instead of the usual katabahu to mean "written as an exercise," for it certainly does not have the normal meaning of "clean copied."

Annemarie Schimmel in [Welch et al. 1987]

THE LIMITED space of the border surrounding the calligraphy gives less opportunity for virtuosity than the scrolling design on the verso border (pl. 47 in this volume) although the use of a grapevine-like leaf in both borders suggests the same hand. Not one of the plants here is easily identifiable. Of particular delight to the eye are the little plants so charmingly fitted in the irregular spaces formed by the "clouds" surrounding the calligraphy.

Marie L. Swietochowski in [Welch et al. 1987]
Signature: verso:
In Persian near forelegs: Work of the servant of the palace Mansur Nadir al-Asr. recto:
In Persian in upper left corner: Written by the sinful slave 'Ali, may God forgive his sins.

Inscription: Inscription in Persian in nasta‘liq script at top:
From the reign of Emperor Jahangir

In front of animal’s leg:
عمل بنده درگاه منصور نا در العصر
Work of the servant of the palace, Mansur, “Wonder of the Age”

Marking: verso:
Margin number '25' is inscribed in the gilt margin.
Jack S. Rofe, Scotland (in 1929; sale, Sotheby's, London,December 12, 1929, no. 143, 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. "INDIA !," September 14, 1985, no. 142.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Emperor's Album: Images of Mughal India," October 21, 1987–February 14, 1988, nos. 47 and 48.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Indian Court Painting," March 25, 1997–July 6, 1997, no. 20.

Sotheby's: Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures. London: Sotheby's, New York, 1929. no.143.

Welch, Stuart Cary. "Art and Culture 1300–1900." In India!. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985. no. 142, p. 216, ill. (color).

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. 47, pp. 178-179, ill., pl. 47 (color).

Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. pp. 144-45, ill. fig. 111 (color).

Okada, Amina. Imperial Mughal Painters: Indian Miniatures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Paris: Flammarion, 1992. pp. 220-221, ill. fig. 259 (color), verso.

Kossak, Steven M., ed. Indian Court Painting 16th–19th century. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 20, p. 48, ill. (color).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 250B, pp. 340, 358-360, ill. p. 359 (color).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. p. 158, ill. fig. 34 (color).

Alexander, David G., and Stuart W. Pyhrr. "in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Islamic Arms and Armor. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. p. 213, ill. fig. 33 (color).

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