Portrait of the Elephant 'Alam Kaman
The famous elephant immortalized here fell into the hands of the army led by Prince Khurram, the future Shah Jahan (r. 1627–58), during the Mughal campaign to annex the maharana of Mewar’s territories. Along with seventeen other elephants from Mewar, ‘Alam Kaman was presented to Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–27) on March 21, 1614, during the celebration marking the commencement of the ninth year of his reign. In his memoirs, the emperor makes mention of his pleasure: "On the second day of the New Year, knowing it propitious for a ride, I mounted [‘Alam Kaman] and scattered about much money."
Another portrait of ‘Alam Kaman in the National Museum, New Delhi, depicts him on cloth, with a number of his calves. The more informal presentation suggests an earlier date in the Jahangir period, although the practice of identifying the subject with an inscription between its legs, characteristic of Shah Jahan–period elephant portraits, is already in place. An image of the royal elephant Mahabir Deb is similar in pose and layout to this work and bears an inscription comparable in style and formula, which has been attributed to Shah Jahan, and on the basis of which this inscription, in its gold cartouche, is also believed to be by the emperor’s hand.
The present portrait conveys the monumentality of the animal both in the contrasting size of its rider and in the sober coloring of its dark body. The face and trunk are sensitively handled, and particular attention is paid to the luxurious trappings, which are typical on formal portraits of royal elephants; here, they include medallion- and leaf-shaped pendentives, a jeweled headdress, tusk bands, and a bell on a heavy chain of long, closely set links affixed around the elephant’s middle. Bichitr is best known for his portraits of human royals dating to the 1630s, but he also captured animal likenesses on paper. Among his works from that period is one showing Prince Dara Shikuh on an albino elephant.
Elephants were among the most prized possession of the Mughal, Deccani, and Rajput courts and were central to Indian culture. While portraits of individual elephants were known from the period of Akbar (r. 1556–1605), it was under Shah Jahan’s patronage that a formula for elephant portraits was established, in which the beast, sometimes shown with rider, dominates the composition, filling the picture space, and in which an accompanying inscription gives its name, its value, and, occasionally, how it was acquired. These images may have served as a visual inventory of the elephant stables, but their production also falls into the broader Mughal practice of meticulously recording the treasures of the court. The enduring popularity of the genre is demonstrated by the rich range of elephant portraits that continued to be produced in the post-Mughal period in almost every major Indian painting tradition.
Navina Haidar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Jahangir. The Tuzuk-I Jahangiri. Translated by Alexander Rogers and edited by Henry Beveridge. London, 1909–14, vol. 1, p. 260; Jahangir. The Jahangirnama: Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India. Translated, edited, and annotated by Wheeler M. Thackston. Washington, D.C., New York, and Oxford, 1999.pp. 156–57.
2. The Art of Mughal India: Paintings and Precious Objects. Exhibition, The Asia House Gallery, New York. Catalogue by Stuart C[ary] Welch. New York, 1963, p. 36.
3. Das, Asok Kumar. “The Elephant in Mughal Painting.” In Flora and Fauna in Mughal Art, edited by Som Prakash Verma, pp. 36–54. Mumbai, 1999 discusses this subject and also illustrates the National Museum’s portrait of ‘Alam Kaman ( p. 46, fig. 10).
4. Indian Drawing. Exhibition, Hayward Gallery, London, and other English venues. Catalogue by Howard Hodgkin and Terence McInerney. London, 1983, fig. 17.
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. 101–2, for a discussion of Bichitr.
6. Ibid., fig. 33.
7. Indian Paintings and Drawings from the Collection of Howard Hodgkin. Exhibition, British Museum, London; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Museum Rietberg Zürich; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Catalogue by Andrew Topsfield and Milo Cleveland Beach. New York and London, 1991, p. 36 n. 4, for a list of related important imperial Mughal elephants; 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, p. 105 n. 4.
8. Sotheby’s New York, September 20, 2005, p. 88, lot 101, attributed to Mihr Chand or Bahadur Singh at Lucknow, ca. 1770, shows an elephant wearing very similar jewelry