Marbling, gouache and gold on cream paper
Indian Drawings and Painted Sketches: 16th through 19th Centuries, New York, The Asia House Gallery, 1976
Ebru: The Art of Marbling in the Islamic World; Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University; Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, 1986-1987
Welch 1976, no.34, p.74
Zebrowski 1983, no.104, p.136
Michell and Zebrowski 1999, fig.136, p.186
This is an important and superbly executed example of a rare, interesting and distinctive group of drawings, almost certainly produced at Bijapur in the Deccan in the 17th century. Zebrowski described it as the finest surviving example of Deccani marbled drawings.
Although marbling as a technique was known in several parts of Asia, it seems that the painting of humans and animals using marbling was a speciality of the Deccan, and specifically of Bijapur. The artists produced works in which the main figure was executed in marbling on a plain ground, and also the opposite, in which the main figure was in reserve on a marbled ground. For a long time marbled paintings such as the present example were thought to have been products of Ottoman Turkish artists. An early account of the technique of marbling appears in Lord Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum of 1627:
"The Turks....have a pretty art of chamoletting of paper, which is not with us in use. They take divers oyled colours and put them severally (in drops) upon water; and stirre the water lightly, and then wet thin paper with it, and the paper will be waved, and veined, like chamolet or marble". (Zebrowski 1983, p.137)
This account established the idea that marbling was invented in Turkey. However, when F.R. Martin, the early-20th-century scholar and collector, published three marbled drawings in 1912 he stated that the technique of marbling had begun in Tabriz in north-west Iran in the 15th century and had been introduced to Ottoman Turkey from there. More recently, Zebrowski has convincingly attributed many of the surviving examples to the Deccan.
In the present case the marbled nag has been executed with exquisite skill, and "blood drips from marbled wounds between golden ribs, combining preciousness and pathos in the intensely poignant way that is typical of Deccani taste." (Zebrowski 1983, p.138). The action of the birds, one pecking at the horse's back and one flying down from above to join the action, emphasise the weakness of the starving nag, who is moving so slowly as to allow the birds to land and is not strong enough to shake them off as they peck at his (presumably) raddled flesh and open sores.
The subject of the starving horse is an interesting iconographic type. Starving horses were popular subjects not just for artists using the technique of marbling, although at least two other well-known examples in this technique are extant, one in the Pierpont Morgan Library, and one in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (ibid., figs.105 and 106), but also more generally in the context of Islamic painting and drawing. Persian examples also exist, drawn in the conventional manner, including one by Reza-i Abbasi in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin (see Canby 1996, cat 18). F.R. Martin believed that the images were derived from European prints (Martin 1912, p.93). Annemarie Schimmel believed them to symbolise the baser instincts within man whereby the mystic must starve to attain enlightenment (Schimmel 1975, pp.112-3). Anthony Welch noted that "the ancient, overworked nag was one of the most potent symbols in Iranian mystical poetry of human existence weighed down and broken under the weight of its own mortality" (Welch A. 1976, p.145). It is worth noting that in the case of the other two marbled drawings of emaciated horses mentioned above, both bear equally emaciated and weakened riders. The presence of the starving humans adds a further element to the theme, one which is perhaps key to understanding the context more fully.
In Islamic literature, perhaps the best-known image of an emaciated ascetic is that of Majnun from the tale of Layla and Majnun, a popular love story from ancient days that had been taken up by Nizami and other Persian-language poets such as Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, one of the most important medieval poets of India. An image of Majnun from a manuscript of Nizami's Khamsa executed for the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1594 shows how close the depictions of Majnun are to those of the emaciated humans on the marbled horses (see Brend 1995, pp.29-32). Although the ruling dynasty of Bijapur in the 17th century was Muslim and the princes were naturally influenced by the Persian and Islamic worlds, they were also products of their Deccani environment and were profoundly influenced by their Indian and Hindu cultural context. This was particularly so during the reign of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II (1579-1627), who was an enthusiastic mystic with a strong interest in both Muslim and Hindu thought, who spoke Marathi and wrote a collection of songs in the newly developing language of Deccani Urdu which were full of references to the Hindu deities. Thus the patrons and artists of Bijapur in the 17th century would have been aware of both the Islamic mystical themes of the starving ascetic and horse, and the Hindu imagery of deities such as Chamunda, the Horrific Destroyer of Evil, who is depicted in skeletal form; and although Buddhism had dwindled in the Deccan by this time, perhaps even a faint cultural memory of the Starving Bodhisattva, another visually powerful image of an emaciated mystic in the Indian context. The introduction from the 16th century onwards via engravings brought to India by Europeans of images such as that of a skeletal figure of death on a horse would have added a new pictorial type to an already familiar set of themes and visual references.
The marbled drawings of starving horses and ascetics are thus typical of the Deccani mode of mixing different cultural influences and producing a distinctive phenomenon of their own: the technique of marbling itself may have originated in Persia or Turkey, while the image of the starving horse and rider shows the influence of Islamic, Hindu and European thought and iconography.
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