Four folio’s from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) - 1985.404.1/ 1985.405.1/ 1983.354.1/ 1982.476.3
Given the great value placed on Persianate culture in the Deccan, it is unsurprising that the Shahnama (Book of Kings), an epic relating the feats of the kings of both legendary and historical Iran, should have been illustrated in the region. Compiled by Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (ca. 940–1020) from earlier histories of the kings of Persia, the text eventually came to be represented more than any other narrative in illustrated manuscripts across the Persianate world. With the exception of a few stray folios, no other early seventeenth century Deccani copies of the Shahnama have been published. Produced in Bijapur in the early seventeenth century, this small but delightful manuscript surely once contained far more than the two dozen or so folios that have survived.
Although all the known pages from this manuscript were at some point remargined with a brittle, brown paper that has a glossy, oily look, their original main support is a very thin, high-quality, cream-colored paper, sprinkled with gold. Four columns of nasta’liq script have been inscribed on this lush surface, separated from one another by gold rules. Pages with paintings bear even more gold, since the text is surrounded by gilt cloud bands. There is no evidence, as yet, that the manuscript was produced for Bijapur’s royal family, but the abundance of expensive materials suggests its sponsor was a high-ranking member of courtly society.
The illustrations combine features familiar from Persian painting with unique traits found in Bijapuri works on paper. For example, the landscapes in which the heroes confront one another include the same red- and green-speckled trees that appear in portraits of Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II (reigned 1580–1627). Facial types and the clusters of white buildings on horizon lines further link the illustrations to other images from Bijapur. The assimilation of the Shahnama into the Bijapuri visual world is not total, however. Figures wear distinctly Persian, not Deccani, clothing, and when depicting popular episodes, the artists modeled their illustrations after the standard compositions established in sixteenth-century Persian and Central Asian copies of the Shahnama.
In the tragic illustration of "Suhrab Slain by Rustam" (1985.404.1), Rustam, his face pale and big eyes open wide, rips apart his tiger-skin garment in agony, having discovered that he has slain his son. Suhrab lies bleeding on the ground next to him. Features that derive from Deccani painting include the color palette emphasizing pink, orange, and green and the candy-colored swirling clouds in the upper right and left corners. A Deccani precedent for such polychromatic clouds is found in a manuscript of the Anvar-i Suhaili produced in Golconda in 1582. A mural depicting the same episode—among the most piercing stories of the epic—appears inside a pavilion within the garden complex of Kumatgi, ten miles east of Bijapur. The mural was probably produced during the reign of Ibrahim II, suggesting that this story may have resonated in both royal and courtly Bijapur at this time.
Unlike most known illustrated pages from this copy of the Shahnama, "The Death of Farud" (1985.405.1) depicts events that do not appear until later in the text. It shows the demise of the warrior Farud after a battle with the great Persian heroes Rustam and Bizhan. Farud’s head is in the lap of his mother, Jarira, who commits suicide soon after the death of her son. In contrast to the episode of Rustam and Suhrab, this painting bears muted emotional content. As with many illustrations from this Shahnama, the composition extends into the right margin and over the gold rules around the text block. It seems as though those in charge of the text and rules expected less expansive illustrations; however, such extensions were common in Persian and Indian manuscripts. The cluster of white palace buildings on the horizon is a visual trope that Mughal artists frequently used in the 1580s and 1590s and may have been adopted in the Deccan upon the immigration of artists such as Farrukh Husain.
At least five illustrations of the story of Bizhan and Manizhe survive from this manuscript. Among the most romantic stories in the Shahnama, it was a favorite among illustrators, and many scenes are so popular that stock compositions evolved for their depiction. The protagonists are lovers from opposing kingdoms, and in "Piran Stays the Execution of Bizhan" (1983.354.1) Bizhan is about to be killed, having been captured inside the palace of Manizhe’s father amid a dalliance with the princess. He narrowly avoids death through the intervention of the Turanian general Piran, who appears in the bottom left of the painting on horseback. As in other folios from this manuscript, a certain coarseness is evident in the faces and clothing, but the vitality of the palette and the ample use of gold give it remarkable charm.
In "Kai Khusrau Crosses the Sea" (1982.476.3), amid a Bijapuri landscape replete with speckled trees and white palaces under a golden sky, the legendary Persian king Kai Khusrau and his men sail across the sea after a fierce battle in Makran. The water was rough ("lions fought with oxen in the waves") and full of miraculous creatures ("a fish that had a leopard’s head. . . a lamb a hog’s"). This story is frequently illustrated, perhaps because artists enjoyed depicting the amazing sea creatures that Kai Khusrau and his companions encountered. No obviously mythical animals swim around the sailboat in this painting, though fish, ducks, and alligators are paired as if in a love story.
Laura Weinstein in (Haidar and Sardar 2015)
1. The only other Deccani Shahnama published to date is an abridged manuscript from about 1660–80, which was produced in Sikakol (now Srikakulam), a coastal city in present-day Andhra Pradesh (Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Ms. 23). See Leach, Linda York, "Mughal and Other Indian Paintings" from the Chester Beatty Library 1995, vol. 2, pp. 903–12.
2. In addition to the four pages without illustrations in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1982.476.4; 1983.354.2; 1985.404.2; 1985.405.2), there are illustrated and unillustrated pages in the San Diego Museum of Art (1990.437.1–4); Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Mass. (91.15.61-3); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.81.12a–b); Victoria and Albert Museum, London (IS.75-1993); Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (1990.219); Cleveland Museum of Art (2013.283.a–b); and private collections in the United States and United Kingdom.
3. As yet, no colophon has been located. The manuscript was first attributed to Bijapur on the basis of the style of its illustrations and calligraphy, which is particularly close to that of the Pem Nem now in the British Library, London (Add. 16880); McInerney, Terence "Indian Painting, 1525–1825: An Exhibition". Exh. cat. David Carritt, London. London: Artemis Group, 1982, p. 49. For an extended discussion of the Bijapuri manuscript and an appendix of known pages, see Laura Weinstein, "The Shahnama in the Deccan: A Dispersed Bijapur Shahnama of ca. 1610" In Shahnama Studies III, edited by Charles Melville and G. R. van den Berg. Leiden: Brill.
4. See, for example, fol. 61v; Guy, John, and Deborah Swallow Eds. Arts of India, 1550–1900. London: Victoria &Albert Museum. 1990, pp. 109–10, ill. no. 90. The Anvar-i Suhaili. (IS.13:116-1962).
5. This mural is discussed in Overton, Keelan "A Collector and His Portrait: Book Arts and Painting for Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II of Bijapur (r. 1580–1627)." 2011b, pp. 136–39.
6. These include Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.81.12a), San Diego Museum of Art (1990.437.3), Victoria and Albert Museum, London (IS.75-1993), and Cleveland Museum of Art (2013.283.a).
7. See Firdausi, "The Shāhnāma of Firdausi" 1909, pp. 245–46. Translated by Arthur George Warner and Edmond Warner. Vol. 4. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.