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Vilaval Ragini: Folio from the Chunar Ragamala

Shaykh Husayn
Shaykh Ali
Shaykh Hatim

Not on view

This pictorial expression of a raga (melody) describes a vain woman who applies make-up, perfume, and jewelry in excess.

About the Artist

Masters of the Chunar Ragamala
The artists Shaykh Husayn, Shaykh Ali, and Shaykh Hatim, trained in Akbar’s imperial workshop under Mir Sayyid ‘Ali and ‘Abd al-Samad, active at the court in Chunar, near Varanasi, ca. 1591, and then in Bundi and Kota, Rajasthan

The joint work of these three named artists — their hands cannot be reliably distinguished
— is preserved in one remarkable illustrated manuscript, the so-called Chunar Ragamala. Thanks to the pioneering research about this manuscript by Robert Skeleton and Milo Beach, we can now understand much more fully the process of stylistic dissemination and diffusion in Mughal India. The production of this work bears witness to the complex, indeed convoluted manner in which the movement of styles, here at the instigation of a single patron, triggered totally unexpected innovations in Rajasthani paintings at the close of the sixteenth century. In summary, following the Mughal conquest of Bundi by Akbar in February 1569 and the surrender of the Rajput ruler Rao Surjan Singh (r. 1544–85), the royal household of Bundi was pardoned, and Surjan Singh distinguished himself henceforth as a loyal servant of Akbar. He was rewarded in 1575–76 with the governorship of Chunar and Kashi (near Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh), which “he beautified and ornamented,” building numerous facilities “for public benefit,” including twenty public baths. He died at Kashi, and his successor Bhoj Singh (r. 1585–
1607) retained their territories until 1591, when emperor Akbar rescinded his governorship and ordered the family to return to their ancestral lands in Bundi. Bhoj Singh rarely had been in residence, campaigning with the imperial army, and Chunar was left in the care of his son Ratan Singh. It was in all likelihood he who commissioned the Chunar Ragamala, recruiting artists trained in the Mughal court, then located at Fatehpur Sikri (capital 1569–84) or Agra. The eminent master-painter Mir Sayyid ‘Ali and Abd al-Samad are named among the trio’s teachers.

The Chunar manuscript is among the first attempts to show a Hindu theme, the musical modes expressing emotional states (ragamalas), through Mughal conventions and a vertical codex (Islamic) format. Its closest parallels are in the Chester Beatty Tutinama of around 1580 (Dublin). A lengthy inscription on the last page of the set, the Kedara Ragini, declares, “The book Ragamala has been prepared [presented] on Wednesday at noon in the locality of Chunar. The work of the pupils of Mir Sayyid Ali Nadirulumulk Humayunshahi and Khwaja Abdul-Samad Shirin-Qalam the slaves Shaykh Husayn and Shaykh Ali and Shakyh Hatim son of Shaykh Phul Chisthi. Written on the 29th of Rabi’ II of the year 999 [February 24, 1591].” This is the only reference surviving that affirms the identity of these artists. That they accompanied Ratan Singh when he was ordered to return to Bundi in 1591 seems clear from the radical transformation that court painting at Bundi underwent in the following decades, including an ambitious mural painting program in the palace. The attributions thereafter are based on internal evidence, that is, stylistic traits and iconographic solutions in the paintings of Bundi themselves.

Vilaval Ragini: Folio from the Chunar Ragamala, Shaykh Husayn, Opaque watercolor on paper, India (Chunar, Uttar Pradesh)

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