Indian Court Painting: 16th-19th Centuries, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997
Welch 1995, pp.320-341, fig.13, colour plate 19, p.293
Kossak 1997, p.52, no.23
This gruesome scene is one of the most arresting and unusual of Mughal paintings. Showing the figure of Bhairavi, the terrible aspect of Parvati, in a cremation ground with her consort Shiva, it is a rare and very powerful example of a painting of a profoundly Hindu subject from the reign of Shah Jahan (r.1628-58). It has been attributed to Payag, one of the greatest artists of the Mughal royal atelier (Welch 1995, pp.325-339; Kossak 1997, p.52).
Bhairavi, coloured a glowing red, is shown with four arms, adorned with skulls and severed heads, holding symbols of her power and seated on a headless corpse. To her right is the kneeling figure of Shiva, with ash-covered body and youthful face, breathing a jet of flame. Around her are further human remains, a pair of dogs and various macabre details.
The depiction of Hindu themes was relatively common in the earlier Mughal period, especially during the later years of Akbar's reign, when the translation of many Hindu texts into Persian took place, and illustrated copies of these texts were produced by the royal atelier. These included the Razmnama (a translation of the Mahabarata), the Harivamsa (a continuation of the Mahabarata), the Ramayana and the Yog Vashisht (the latter executed for Prince Salim). Thus the rendition of Hindu gods and goddesses was not new to the artists of the Mughal atelier, many of whom were Hindu themselves. But although the depiction of Hindu holy men was a popular subject during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan (see, for instance, the well-known miniature also from the Stuart Cary Welch Collection, sold in the Part One sale at Sotheby's, London, on 6th April 2011, Lot 94), the depiction of Hindu literary themes, and the figures of Hindu deities themselves, had become much rarer by the 1620s. The present work is therefore an interesting phenomenon in terms of its context and commission, and Welch suggests that it was painted as an imperial gift for one of the Ranas of Mewar, probably Rana Jagat Singh (r.1628-52), explaining the close relations between Shah Jahan and the Mewar rulers (who worshipped the Devi) at this time (Welch 1995, pp.332,334-5; Kossak 1997, p.52). An inscription on the reverse of the miniature indicates that it was certainly in the Mewar Collection at some stage, but there were many Mughal works present in Mewar which were not given as gifts, and it is possible that this miniature arrived there in a less specific manner.
In terms of the compositional heritage of the present work, many of the individual elements can be seen in earlier Mughal painting. Prototypes for the figure of Shiva occur in the form of a variety of holy men throughout the Mughal tradition of the late 16th and early 17th century. A close example is the left-hand figure in Two Students by Manohar, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (see Okada 1992, fig.164, p.144; Pal 1993, p.235, no.60; Heeramaneck 1984, pl.191), in which the volume and fleshiness of the nude figure, as well as his pose, are akin to the present work. (In the same painting it is worth noting the faces and heads of the figures, particularly the figure in the lower right carrying a large bundle, whose face and hair are very close to those of the figure of Shiva in the present work). Other examples of figures seated or kneeling in this pose are numerous, and include figures of Majnun as well as many Hindu ascetics. Another Manohar work that shows a related corporeal volume is a figure of Shiva in The Descent of the Ganges (see Kramrisch 1986, no.22, p.25; McInerney 1991, p.53). The general facial features of the figure of Shiva in the present work are similar to those of two wrestlers at the left of an illustration in a Gulistan of Sa'di made for Shah Jahan in 1628-29, now in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (see Leach 1995, vol.I, p.365).
The scattered gory remains, skeletons and bones also have prototypes in many Mughal examples, as do the billowing columns of smoke. In the case of the former, battle scenes provided many examples. In the case of the smoke, the exact form of these occurred quite widely, but seems to have been most common in imperial portraits in which European cloud formations occur in the skyscapes, often with putti or angels descending, holding various symbols of royal power. Both the cloud formations and the putti would have derived from European prints that had become popular at the Mughal court by the late 16th century. A good example is a late 16th century French engraving of the Dauphin (see Rogers 1993, p.105), and examples of Mughal versions include several in the Minto and Kevorkian Albums (see Wright 2008, pp. 330, 350; Welch et al.1987, pp.97, 208) and in the borders of the Late Shah Jahan Album (see Lowry and Nemazee 1988, no.52).
The figure of Bhairavi in the present work, however, is very unusual in Mughal painting, not least for being a full frontal image rather than the profile or three-quarter view that was usual. Multi-armed deities feature in some earlier Mughal illustrations, particularly in the Harivamsa and the Ramayana (for example, Parasurama Slays Kartavirya, from the Harivamsa, sold in these rooms 12 December 1972, lot 22). However, the figure as represented here is extremely rare in Mughal painting of this period, although an iconographically related figure appears in a miniature on cloth from an Akbar-period Devi Mahatmya series in the Chandigrah Museum entitled The Goddess in her Dark Aspect, which shows a standing Devi holding a sword, severed heads and a skeleton, and wearing a girdle of dead demons (see Goswamy 1986, no.166, p.210). A related scene of the Devi enthroned, also on cloth, is illustrated in Chandra 1960, fig.33. For other illustrations with related images of the Devi from this interesting series see Crill, Stronge and Topsfield 2004, pp.57-66).
Interestingly, a painting that includes a number of compositional elements pertinent to the present work is a Christian scene, The Last Judgement and the Resurrection of the Dead, painted circa 1605 (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, see Stronge 2010, p.119). The eschatological theme provides nudes and skeletons in the foreground, and billowing clouds, putti and a frontal figure of Christ, arms outstretched, in the upper half of the picture. There are even rising figures of the blessed and falling figures of the damned at left and right, similar to those in the borders of the present work (for a further discussion of the borders see below). One wonders whether the artist of this Bhairavi image had observed this Christian scene, as well as the miniature of The Goddess in her Dark Aspect, mentioned above.
In terms of Payag's stylistic traits in the present work, the most obvious is the skilful rendition of the rising billows of smoke. Payag was a master of smoke and cloud effects, and two good examples of this aspect of his style can be seen in his paintings executed for the Padshahnama; one depicting the siege of Qandahar, painted circa 1633 (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, see Beach and Koch 1997, no.18, p.55) and a Battle Scene (formerly Pozzi Collection, see Welch 1978b, pl.33, p.104; Beach and Koch 1997, App.J, p.221). Another element that is typical of Payag is the careful rendition of morbid body parts, bones and skeletons. These can be seen in both of the battle/siege scenes mentioned above, as well as in Khan Dawran receiving the heads of Jujhar Singh and his son Bikramajit, also from the Windsor Castle Padshahnama (see Beach and Koch 1997, no.36, p.91). The treatment of the ground of the hillside is another feature of this work that occurs on others by Payag, notably The Siege of Qandahar in the Padshahnama and Shah Shuja Hunting Nilgai (see Dye 1991, fig.11, p.130). A further, more subtle element of Payag's style in the present work is seen here in the specific rendition of the eyelids and the mouths of the two figures of Bhairavi and Shiva. The eyelids of Shiva protrude very slightly over rounded, bulbous eyeballs, and similar treatment can be seen on the eyes of the figure at upper right in the well-known painting of Soldiers Listening to Music, from the Late Shah Jahan Album, in the Chester Beatty Library (see Leach 1995, vol.1 p.441; Okada 1992, pp.212-213; and Wright 2007, p.401), and on the eyes of the prince in A Prince and his Mistress in a Camp, also in the Chester Beatty Library (ibid., p.476). The treatment of the mouth, in which the lips are parted just enough to see the teeth, can be seen in a number of works by Payag, including the figure playing the drum in Soldiers Listening to Music (Leach 1995, vol.1 p.441 Okada 1992, pp.212-213; and Wright 2008, p.401), the figure at upper right of Officers and Philosophers Seated around a Candle at Night, in the San Diego Museum of Art (see Okada 1992, no.251, p.214) and in several figures in Payag's illustrations to the Windsor Castle Padshahnama (Beach and Koch 1997, pp.55, 91).
However, there are one or two stylistic aspects of the present work which are also close to another major artist of the period, Abid, who also contributed to the Windsor Castle Padshahnama. Although the depiction of the billows of smoke is very "Payag-ish", the general atmosphere is not. His pictures are often marked by an overall smoky atmosphere, often with dark colours and heavy use of chiaroscuro. Here, despite the smoking fires, there is a clarity to the scene. Another aspect is the specific treatment of the flesh and skin of the figure of Shiva, especially the face. This is fuller and smoother than most of Payag's figures, and has a soft, clean sense to the skin tones. In Abid's two paintings for the Padshahnama manuscript, The Death of Khan Jahan Lodi, painted circa 1633, and Jahangir Receives Prince Khurram, painted circa 1635 (Beach and Koch 1997, pp.51, p.93), and in a scene of The Prophet and the Persian Physician, in a copy of the Gulistan of Sa'di (Art and History Trust Collection, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., see Soudavar 1992, p.336) the fuller, cleaner flesh tones and more voluminous figures are evident, as is the "fresh air" feel. Further inspection of Abid's two Padshahnama works reveals other elements similar to the present painting. For example, the scene of The Death of Khan Jahan Lodi (Beach and Koch 1997, p.51) shows that Payag did not have a monopoly on the accurate and intense depiction of gore. Six severed heads and a de-capitation are graphically depicted, as are smaller details such as the human-faced knee-guards of the standing figure at mid-left holding the shield and lance. (This picture also contains several long-shafted lances and tridents, two of which occur in the present scene of Bhairavi and Shiva). The open-lipped toothiness of the figures' mouths can also be seen on several figures in these two illustrations by Abid.
It is possible that the present painting of Bhairavi and Shiva was executed by Payag in conjunction with Abid, perhaps with Payag, as a Hindu and the senior artist, as the main hand. The involvement of two artists in a single picture was quite common in Mughal painting, and these two artists were both working on projects for Shah Jahan at about the time the present work was executed, which coincided with the blossoming of both artists' careers.
Payag (fl. circa 1595-1655) was one of the greatest and most unusual artists of the royal Mughal atelier. He was the brother of Balchand and his career spanned the period from the end of Akbar's reign to Shah Jahan's. He contributed to the Razmnama, the Baburnama and the Iyar-i Danish during the 1590s, but seems to have become less popular and less productive during Jahangir's reign. His career came fully to fruition during the late 1620s, under the patronage of Shah Jahan, when his style also developed a new confidence and distinctive manner. "Alongside the elegant portraits of emperor and courtiers typical of the imperial atelier during Shah Jahan's reign....Payag also produced a series of intensely personal and disturbing paintings marked by an almost expressionist sense of realism. These miniatures are populated by figures whose lively features occasionally border on caricature." (Okada 1992, p.208). He became very fond of night or dusk scenes, with fires and candles providing glowing and flickering light sources and deep shadows, his frequent use of a smoky atmosphere and chiaroscuro in such paintings becoming a signature feature of his style. For discussions of Payag see Okada 1992, pp.207-215; Dye 1991; Welch 1995; Leach 1995, pp.115-116.
Abid (fl. circa 1615-1658) was the son of Aqa Reza, the emigré Persian artist of the early Mughal atelier, and brother of Abu'l Hasan. His career began during Jahangir's reign, but flourished during Shah Jahan's, whence all his signed and dated works originate. Beach describes him as "in many ways the greatest of Shah Jahan's painters" (Beach and Koch 1997, p.175). Beach also discusses pertinent aspects of Abid's work, "The Windsor Padshah-nama illustration of the Death of Khan Jahan Lodi further indicates that he was in the vanguard of the continuing development of Mughal style. It is a superb example of the combination of technical perfection and intensely observed detail (of textures, material, portraits, gestures), with consciously irrational and mannered spatial relationships, that moves the style away from the scientific attitude toward realism.... Abid's paintings often contain unexpected observations that heighten their narrative impact. The Death of Khan Jahan Lodi is described with vivid and unusual combinations of color that intensify the chilling immediacy of the central act of decapitation." (Beach 1978, p.85). For further information on Abid see Verma 1994, pp.46-47; Beach and Koch 1997 as indexed.
The present miniature has been laid down on an album page, and the gold borders are later. An inscription on the reverse indicates that the painting was in the Mewar Collection, and it is possible that the borders were added when the painting reached Udaipur. The artist of the borders has produced an interesting design. He has extended the billows of smoke from the main picture area into the margins in gold. At the same time he has populated the borders with animals and plants in Mughal style in the lower half, and with doves, putti, demons and the figures of human souls ascending and descending from the clouds in the upper half. The latter elements are derived from European iconography via Mughal painting, and the whole border ensemble is reminiscent of the aforementioned painting of The Last Judgement and the Resurrection of the Dead in the Royal Collection, Windsor Castle (Stronge 2010 , p.119).
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