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Prince Dara Shikoh Hunting Nilgais

Attributed to Payag Indian

Not on view

Prince Dara Shikoh (1615–1659), the eldest and favorite son of the emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58), is seen stalking deer in a lightly wooded landscape. Unusually informal in its representation, this depiction nonetheless belongs to a long Mughal tradition that celebrates the royal hunt in art. The hunt was seen as a royal privilege, indeed the lion or tiger hunt as a royal prerogative. Francois Bernier, who in his Travels in the Mogul Empire, 1656–1668 gave firsthand accounts of Mughal court life under Shah Jahan, recounted that a royal hunt was seen as an auspicious omen for a successful military campaign, and territorial campaigns often were conducted under the guise of a royal hunt. Set in the glow of the early evening, this composition becomes a study in light and shadow. Figures of the royal hunters emerge from the shadowy foliage, and decoy animals with crouching attendants reveal the strategy of this drive hunt in which the prey is lured toward the concealed marksman, Prince Dara Shikoh, who waits poised with his matchlock and tripod. A nearly identical treatment of this subject, depicting Jahangir, appears in the marginalia of the Gulshan Album (fol. 41) in Tehran, painted by Daulat, establishing the origin of this theme that was eagerly taken up by later Rajput painters.

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.

Prince Dara Shikoh Hunting Nilgais, Attributed to Payag (Indian, active ca. 1591–1658), Opaque watercolor on paper, India (Mughal court, probably at Lahore)

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