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The Origin of Music: Page from a Tutinama Manuscript

Attributed to Basawan Indian

Not on view

The Iranian legend of the mythical bird the Mausiqar, which provides the seven notes that are said to comprise the origin of music, is the inspiration for this composition. The bird that serves as the musician’s muse almost goes unnoticed, while attention focuses on the vina player seated on a beautiful rug. This work aspires to invoke aesthetic pleasure (rasa), and music is deemed a means to stimulate love: “What enchantment was hidden in last night’s potion! I lost my head but [it was] not a drunken sensation.” The reworking of this painting recently has been attributed by John Seyller to the young Basawan, the Iranian painter recruited to Akbar’s atelier who became Akbar’s personal favorite. Basawan’s participation in this project was first identified by Pramod Chandra in 1976. That the Tutinama was Mughalized during the period the Hamzanama was in production is witnessed by the treatment of such signature motifs as the shield, sword, and bow, as well as the quiver hung on a tree, a device directly repeated in a number of Hamzanama paintings.

About the Artist

Active ca. 1556–1600, at the Mughal court; father of Manohar

Basawan joined Akbar’s atelier at Delhi as a young Hindu recruit and was involved in every major manuscript production throughout his emperor’s reign. Abu’l Fazl recorded that Basawan surpassed all in composition, drawing of features, distribution of colors, and portrait painting, and was even preferred by some to the “first master of the age, Daswanth.” The mature Akbar prized Basawan above all others for his gift of faithful representation and also for advancing the Mughal style. He was a pioneer in responding to and absorbing new pictorial devices from European art; naturalistic portraiture, atmospheric perspective, and a painterly approach to landscape are his hallmarks.

Basawan was already an accomplished painter in the early 1560s, when he participated in the Mughal reworking of the Tutinama manuscript. The Origin of Music demonstrates his talent for portraiture and his ability to render rocks and trees with a naturalism not seen before in subcontinental painting. In addition, Basawan was a key contributor to the monumental Hamzanama series, as a painter of portraits, rocks, and trees, and also as a master of composition. In the folio that portrays a night attack on the camp of Malik Iraj, Basawan’s hand is visible in the rock formations and the densely foliated trees, as a comparison with those motifs in his Khamsa of Amir Khusrow Dihlavi page clearly demonstrates. The composition of this Hamzanama folio has an underlying similarity to an ascribed work by Basawan in the Victoria and Albert’s Akbarnama that shows Akbar witnessing the armed combat of Hindu ascetics, made some twenty years later.

Basawan’s most lasting legacy is the response to European art that he brought to Mughal painting. His ability to grasp the pictorial possibilities of both atmospheric and linear perspective was unmatched. His paintings of the later 1590s are a revolutionary fusion of these European pictorial devices into a newly emerging post-Safavid Mughal style. The vain dervish from an imperial copy of the Baharistan dated 1595 displays Basawan’s gift for theatricality combined with an astonishing ability to capture naturalistic detail, as witnessed in every aspect of this masterpiece, from the figures in conversation to the goats and peacocks that inhabit the setting. Basawan routinely used his signature rocks and trees to create receding intercepting spaces in the European mode. Like all imperial painters of his time, he had access at the court to northern European engravings of Christian subjects and cameo-type portraits, and he drew freely on that imagery. Basawan typically placed his European-inspired figures in a visionary Mughal setting with fantastic rock formations of Iranian derivation.

The Origin of Music: Page from a Tutinama Manuscript, Attributed to Basawan (Indian, active ca. 1556–1600), Opaque watercolor and ink on paper, India (Mughal court at Delhi)

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