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Siyavash faces Afrasiyab across the Jihun River: page from a Shahnama manuscript

Master of the Jainesque Shahnama

Not on view

The youthful prince Siyavash negotiates a peaceful accommodation of his clan’s rival king Afrasiyab. Both armies are represented in a style modeled after Iranian conventions of the period. The river divides the composition vertically and is treated in a basket-pattern design that can be traced back to Indian sculptures of the Shunga era. A narrow green band suggests a foreground space for the assembled armies, and the flat red middle ground fills the remaining space; no horizon or skyline is indicated. The aged king Afrasiyab is attended by guards bearing a parasol and fly whisk (chauri), insignia of office not seen in Iranian depictions of this subject, a confirmation of the Indian origins of this painter.

About the Artist

Master of the Jainesque Shahnama
Active 1425-40, in western India, probably Malwa

At every turn, this artist reveals his origins as one trained in the western Indian style, one closely identified with Jain and Hindu manuscript painting. That he turned these skills to the illustration of the most famous of all Islamic epic narratives, the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdawsi, was a daring and challenging move. The catalyst must have been a commission from a Muslim patron who, wishing to have an edition of this illustrated epic, sought out an accomplished local artist. The patron with such a keen interest was probably a local Sultanate ruler well versed in Persian literature, who already maintained a library containing imported Iranian illustrated manuscripts. Access to such works would have been essential to provide visual models for the Indian artist unfamiliar with either the imagery, or the conventions of Iranian painting. The specific treatment of armored soldiers with their caparisoned horses draws directly on Iranian models, as does the depiction of rocky landscapes, sky-cloud boundaries, and specific icons, such as the mythical bird Simurgh. For the more routine pictorial building blocks, the artist reverted to the tradition in which he was trained, as examples show in the stylization of trees and water, and use of the Hindu-Jain convention of a red ground, which makes no provision for spatial needs. Most compelling of all are the figures, seen routinely in three-quarter profile, in a manner closely related to the Caurapancasika style.

This manuscript, in its original condition, was bound as a single codex format volume comprising 350 pages of Persian text, 66 of which are illustrated. The artist confined all his paintings to a landscape format, never daring to fill the entire page, betraying his origins as one trained in the illustration of palm-leaf and paper manuscripts in the potli tradition. Jain Kalpasutra and Hindu Balagopalastuti manuscripts provide contemporary models.

This remarkable manuscript reflects a broader movement towards integration and cultural accommodation between occupier and occupied across Sultanate India, as foreign Muslim rulers imposed their authority over the Hindu majority. The culturally liberal approach, for which the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) is praised, has its roots in the Sultanate era, as is vividly witnessed by these paintings. Unknowingly, this artist set a series of dynamic exchanges between native Indian schools of painting in motion, and imported Iranian styles that would have profound consequences on the development of Indian painting in the century that followed.

Siyavash faces Afrasiyab across the Jihun River: page from a Shahnama manuscript, Master of the Jainesque Shahnama, Opaque watercolor and ink on paper, India, possibly Malwa

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