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A Troupe of Travelling Actors Performing a Drama

Attributed to Mir Kalan Khan

Not on view

About the Artist

Mir Kalan Khan
Active at the court of Muhammad Shah in Delhi and for Shuja’ al-Dawla, Nawab of Awadh, ca. 1730–ca. 1770

One might characterize the style of Mir Kalan Khan as eccentric or mannerist. Although the painter was a contemporary of Chitarman II, he developed an entirely individual style, devoid of influence from the dominant style of the day, that of the court of Muhammad Shah at Delhi. Mir Kalan Khan was a master of expansive panoramas and of tonality that occasionally verges on the strident, even loud, owing to his daring use of color. He also produced works in a soft palette that closely approximates the appearance of watercolors. Most notable among these are depictions of saints and mystics living in isolation, a particularly popular subject. Another series is extremely fascinating due to the use of unusual light sources; saints are shown at a fire, for example, or in moonlight, and each scene is carefully illuminated from multiple light sources.

Mir Kalan Khan worked at a time when the political situation in northern India was highly unstable. Following the capture and sacking of Delhi by the Persian ruler Nadir Shah in 1739, there was further internal unrest. Yet it was possibly the very uncertainty of the times that led the painter to explore such a broad range of subjects and techniques over the course of his career.

The artist’s earliest signed and dated work is typical in two respects. It depicts a night scene, and it attests to his interest in the rendering of varied sources of light. The subject matter is simple, but Mir Kalan Khan created a complex spatial structure that extends far into the distance. Tents and villages are painted only cursorily in white, even at the upper edge of the picture. The light cast by the lamp belonging to the hunter dressed in a skirt of leaves may be rendered scientifically; the effect is wholly credible, with subtle modeling. This painting was made in Delhi, but Mir Kalan Khan also produced another series elsewhere, for Shuja’ al-Dawla, Nawab of Awadh. In view of the tense political situation in the mid-eighteenth century, it is not surprising that painters moved away from Delhi to newly emerging centers of power, principally in the eastern provinces, where they maintained their own ateliers and courted the favor of the local aristocracy. Instead of the relatively coherent styles preferred in the extensive illustration projects commissioned by the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mughal emperors, this phase of Indian painting presents a period of great diversity that is most apparent if one compares the works of Chitarman II with those of Mir Kalan Khan. While the former operated with a subdued and consistent color palette, the latter experimented with a variety of color schemes and compositional patterns.

A Troupe of Travelling Actors Performing a Drama, Attributed to Mir Kalan Khan (active ca. 1730–75), Opaque watercolor, silver and gold on paper, India (Mughal court at Oudh [Lucknow or Faizabad])

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