The Malavi Ragini is evoked in a verse by the poet Narada: “The fair-hipped one has kissed his lotus-face. His brightness is as the parrot’s. . . . At eventide, intoxicated, he enters the house of the tryst with a garland in his hand. (He is) the Malava Raga King.” The prince and his lover, arms entwined and carrying garlands of scented white flowers, approach the bedchamber. The setting, including a pair of pots and vigorous sprays of foliage, deftly echoes the mood of eroticism. Color is also employed to emotive effect; flat areas of intense red, blue, and white create the picture’s energy, and human gesture generates the animation. In this series, the young Sahibdin redefined the Rajput style of the later sixteenth century that he inherited and set in place a new direction for seventeenth-century Rajasthani painting.
About the Artist
Active at Udaipur, Mewar, Rajasthan, ca. 1628–55
The artist Sahibdin (Shihab ud-Din) is known only through the inscriptions on his paintings. These are sporadic but nonetheless mark out his long career, from a Ragamala of 1628, to a Sukaraksetra Mahatmya of 1655, his last known work. His catalogue of ascribed works corresponds closely to the reign of the Mewar ruler Maharana Jagat Singh I (r. 1628–52) at Udaipur. Sahibdin appears as the heir to the style of Nasiruddin, and he may have been related. He certainly absorbed the rich palette and emotional intensity of his predecessor, along with the early Rajput approach to spatial rendering. Parallels can be drawn with the three artists responsible for the 1591 Chunar Ragamala, who achieved more complex solutions to similar pictorial problems. They are presumed to have settled in Rajasthan with the return of their patron from service in Chunar (near Varanasi) to his native Bundi, and they typify the subimperial Mughal-trained painters circulating in the courts of Rajasthan in the early seventeenth century. That Sahibdin was exposed early to the subimperial Mughal style, probably at Udaipur palace, is witnessed in a new naturalism he brought to his portraiture and a Mughalesque attention to descriptive detail, as seen in the accurate rendering of the prince’s white jama. Sahibdin came to prominence with a ragamala series commissioned in 1628 by the newly enthroned Maharana Jagat Singh I. This series shows an early maturity in which the painter has assured command of his compositions, bold palette and intense emotive moods. In Malavi Ragini, all the pictorial components — paired pots, erect cyprus trees, and exuberantly flowering foliage — enhance the message of this scene depicting the prince and his lover, arms entwined as they enter the bed chamber. The roof profile of white cupola flanked by twin pavilions echoes the newly extended palace architecture of Udaipur and of the lake pavilion, Jagmandir, built by Karan Singh (r. 1620–28).
Sahibdin appears to have dominated the Mewar atelier for the next thirty years, producing a series of secular works on themes of love such as the ragamalas and the Rasikapriya (ca. 1630) and religious works that explore similar themes, notably the Gita Govinda (1629, 1635). In the latter, he created lush forested settings for Krishna’s amorous sports that are rich in leaf and flower detail, unprecedented in the Rajput school. For this, he looked to the literary descriptions in Jayadeva’s text of the Gita Govinda itself, armed now with new rendering skills absorbed from subimperial Mughal models. In the 1640s, Sahibdin began producing Hindu devotional works, illustrations of the Hindu epics and Puranas, for his royal patrons. For these, he assumed a landscape format, as if in deference to their Indic ancestry.