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Akbar and a Dervish

'Abd al-Samad Iranian

Not on view

This study, sensitively rendered in nim qalam (half-pen) technique, a tinted drawing style probably inspired by European grisaille tonal drawing, is an early example of an independent work for the patron’s pleasure; it is not part of an integrated manuscript. The theme of a king meeting a holyman—wealth and power versus wisdom and worldly detachment—was popular in the Persian tradition and was readily taken up in Mughal India. The sage-like dervish wears an animal-skin cloak and a large rython-like horn that serves as his receptacle for alms. He gestures in supplication to the young emperor, who is seated atop a rocky outcrop covered with a shawl and rests against a chunar tree, supported by a pillow. The two appear to be in dialogue. Produced late in ‘Abd al-Samad’s long career—the artist must have been in his 80s—this work is uncharacteristically Akbari in style, suggesting that he may have worked in partnership with a younger artist or that the work was finished by such a person.

About the Artist

Abd al-Samad
Iranian, born in Shiraz ca. 1505–15, trained at the court atelier of Shah Tahmasp in Tabriz, served the Mughal emperors Humayun and Akbar, active 1530s until his death ca. 1600

Abd al-Samad was a master trained in Safavid Iran. He served under Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–76) at Tabriz and subsequently was recruited by the Mughal emperor-inexile Humayun. Along with two other eminent Iranian court painters, Miravvir and his son Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, ‘Abd al-Samad, served Humayun at his court-in-exile in Kabul from 1549, and returned with his conquering army to Delhi in 1555. Within a year, he was working for a new patron, the young adolescent emperor Akbar, and codirecting with Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, a rapidly expanding imperial atelier. He was appointed by the young Akbar as his personal tutor in the art of painting, a singular honor. He became enormously influential in the court atelier, we may assume tutoring many protégés; the renowned painter Daswanth is recorded among his pupils. ‘Abd al-Samad succeeded Mir Sayyid ‘Ali as the director of the most ambitious painting project ever undertaken in Mughal India, the production of 1,400 large paintings on cloth narrating the Iranian epic, the Hamzanama. Akbar’s biographer Abu’l Fazl tells us that under ‘Abd al-Samad’s direction, ten volumes comprising a thousand paintings were created over seven years, completing the project around 1571–72. To achieve this goal, ‘Abd al-Samad recruited artists from across India, thereby precipitating the fusion of styles witnessed in the Hamzanama, which proved to be the genesis of the Mughal style.

‘Abd al-Samad’s demonstrative gifts as an administrator led him away from the world of court ateliers. In 1577, Akbar appointed him director of the royal mint at Fatehpur Sikri, and other senior government posts followed, culminating in the governorship of the city of Multan. No other Mughal court artist made the transition to the centers of political power achieved by ‘Abd al-Samad. Nonetheless, it appears that he maintained a directorial role over the atelier for much of his career. In addition, his personal work retained a powerful allegiance to the Safavid aesthetic, most evident in the portrayal of two fighting camels, which he painted in his eighty-fifth year as a gift to his son and which was his personal homage to the doyen of Iranian painters, Bihzad (ca. 1450–1535/36). The masterly control evident in this and other identifiable works earned ‘Abd al-Samad the title Shirinqalam (Sweet Pen) from Akbar.

Akbar and a Dervish, 'Abd al-Samad (Iranian, Shiraz ca. 1505/15–ca. 1600), Opaque watercolor and ink on paper, India (Mughal court at Fatehpur-Sikri or Lahore)

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