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Nasiri Khan Directing the Siege of Qandahar, May 1631: Folio from the Windsor Padshahnama

Payag Indian

Not on view

Payag’s versatility is seen in this disturbing evocation of the horrors of war, in which mines are used to breach the fort defenses of Qandahar, near Hyderabad. Their explosive force sends billowing smoke littered with corpses into the sky. Like most artists in the employ of the Mughal ateliers, Payag probably held a commission in the imperial army. Certainly, his intimate knowledge of the machinery of Mughal warfare seen here was based on direct experience; Mughal painters were routinely sent to document campaigns, somewhat akin to modern-day war artists. The painting is startling for its European inspired theatrical use of the natural light source, which ricochets across the landscape like shrapnel. This is both a heroic and a humane image of warfare.

About the Artist

Hindu artist active at the Mughal courts in Delhi, Lahore, Allahabad, and Agra, 1595–ca. 1650; brother of Balchand

Payag entered the atelier of Akbar alongside his brother Balchand, but he was slower to mature as a painter, and it appears that he did not gain recognition and senior rank as a court painter at that time. In the 1590s, he was assigned minor roles. Then he is no longer visible as an identifiable hand until the reign of Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58), when he emerged, this time as a major figure. All Payag’s great works are associated with that reign. The commission from Shah Jahan of an equestrian portrait is a measure of his new standing at court; his astute powers of observation and facility in painting the minutiae of jewelry and weaponry enhance the grandeur of this imperial image. It is one of the great imperial portraits of Shah Jahan’s reign, commissioned soon after his accession. Payag introduced a shallow depth of field occupied by a stallion and its imperial rider, and he sprinkled it with beautifully observed wildflowers. Shah Jahan’s white jama, gold sash (patka), and jewel-encrusted weapons are rendered impeccably. As a trusted royal portrait artist, Payag had privileged access to the inner court, where he could study closely the luxury goods he portrayed with such dazzling verisimilitude. The culture through which this highly idealized portraiture was filtered employed heightened aesthetic refinement as an expression of the imperial self.

But Payag also had other dimensions to his work, which allowed him to create poetic, almost dreamlike atmospheric landscapes. He was perhaps unique in the Mughal ateliers in exploring the pictorial possibilities of a single light source, a notion learned from European chiaroscuro techniques of scientifically determined light and shade. In Prince Dara Shikoh hunting nilgais, set in the low light of an early evening hunt, a light source at upper right transforms the composition into a study in light and shadow. This technique was put to dramatic effect in one of the greatest theatrical pictures in the Padshahnama, Seige of the Fort of Qandahar, in which the confusion of battle is heightened by the use of billowing clouds of smoke pierced through by the intense glow of a setting sun. Little is known of Payag’s work from the last decade of his career, though he is associated with the Late Shah Jahan Album.

Nasiri Khan Directing the Siege of Qandahar, May 1631: Folio from the Windsor Padshahnama, Payag (Indian, active ca. 1591–1658), Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, India (Mughal court at Agra)

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