FIVE HOLY MEN, ATTRIBUTABLE TO GOVARDHAN, INDIA, MUGHAL, CIRCA 1625-30, A LEAF FROM THE ST. PETERSBURG ALBUM, BORDERS SIGNED BY MUHAMMAD HADI AND DATED 1172 AH/1758-9 AD
- Opaque watercolour on paper
Joseph Soustiel (1904-1990), Paris.
A Flower from Every Meadow, The Asia House Gallery, New York; The Center of Asian Art and Culture: The Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco; and The Albright-Knox Gallery of Art, Buffalo, New York, 1973
Paintings from the Muslim Courts of India, British Musuem, London, 1976
The Grand Mogul, Imperial Painting in India 1600-1660, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, 1978
London 1976b, no.132, p.74
Beach 1978, no.41, pp.120-121
Welch 1978b, pl.24, pp.86-87
Honour and Fleming 1982, p.548, pl.12.56
Welch 1995, no.12, p.336
Habsburg et al. 1996, facsimile volume pl.231, text volume, p.124, no.231, and p.141, pl.231
This is one of the most brilliant, arresting and memorable of Mughal miniatures. A masterpiece of painting, mood and spirituality, it typifies the work of Govardhan at the height of his powers around 1630, a period when Milo Beach has described him as working at "an extreme of refinement" (Beach 1978, p.119). Okada describes him as "taking portraiture to its zenith, making him the most penetrating and remarkable portraitist in the imperial atelier."(Okada 1992, p.203)
Govardhan was born at court, a "house-born" son of the artist Bawani Das. His earliest works were illustrations for manuscripts at the end of Akbar's reign in the early years of the 17th century, but his separately produced works show an immediate interest in portraiture, both single figures and groups. He continued in the royal atelier through Jahangir's and Shah Jahan's reigns. He produced grand and majestic royal portraits, but his favourite theme was holy men, an interest inherited perhaps from his master Basawan. Govardhan took this genre to new heights, with paintings of penetrating and profound insight, of power and subtlety, which, combined with breathtaking technique, produced paintings of extraordinary intensity. "The stunning portrait gallery of Hindu and Muslim holy men is probably Govardhan's major contribution to the history of Mughal painting" (Okada 1992, p.196).
In the present painting Govardhan depicts five holy men seated in meditative contemplation beneath a tree with a temple in the background on the right and a townscape in the distance. Cary Welch recognised the setting as being near an early Kashmiri temple close to Srinagar (see Hapsburg et al. 1996, text volume, p.124). With his characteristic use of muted tones, atmospheric skyscapes and extraordinary skills of portraiture, Govardhan has imbued the scene with a sense of profound realism and sympathy that must stem at least in part from his having studied a group of ascetics like this from life. Each of the waking figures appears to be in a state of trance, lost in their own worlds of meditation. Yet despite their isolation from the cares of the material world, the figure on the left stares straight out at the viewer, drawing us into direct interaction with their scene and their spiritual states.
Although the subject and mood of the painting are very Indian, there are elements which show the influence of, and Govardhan's understanding of, western art, gleaned through the presence in India of numerous European engravings. The distant townscape is one such element, which had become a regular motif in Mughal painting by the time Govardhan painted this scene, but there is another, more subtle example. As early as 1978 Cary Welch had suggested that the figure of the young mystic lying across the foreground might have been inspired by a European print. By 1996 Gauvin Bailey had identified the source as the female figure in the foreground of St Chrysostomus by Barthel Beham (1502-40), a German artist and engraver who was employed at Nuremberg and at the court of Wilhelm IV of Bavaria (see Hapsburg et al. 1996, p.125; several copies of this engraving are in the British Museum and can be seen on their website).
Govardhan had a close relationship with Prince Dara Shikoh, Emperor Shah Jahan's eldest son and heir apparent to the Mughal throne. Both patron and artist had an interest in mysticism and it has been suggested that some of Govardhan's studies of ascetics might have been executed at the behest of the Prince (Welch 1985, p.243, 244; Okada 1992, p.196).
Cary Welch catalogued this painting three times, in 1973 for his exhibiton A Flower from every Meadow, in 1978 for his book "Imperial Mughal Painting" and for the text volume of the facsimile edition of the St. Petersburg Muraqqa. The following are quotations from his eloquent descriptions:
"Govardhan's miniature brings to life five Hindu holy men meditating beneath a neem tree near a Kashmiri temple close to Srinagar, seen in the background.
Each portrait represents a stage of life. In the foreground, a languid youth with a golden sea of curls reclines opposite the figure, a middle-aged sanyasi whose other-worldly gaze, self-grown shawl of long hair, and claw-like fingernails attest to his shedding of almost every mundane activity.
To his left sits an older devotee, whose expressive, disciplined face implies both intellectual power and spiritual grace. At the left of the miniature, momentarily distracted from his elevated state, a dark-bearded figure with a mala (rosary) and a turban wound from his own hair, looks out beyond the frame. Behind the others reclines a holy man whose tense expression hints of troubled dreams. In the foreground, a fire smoulders, producing both warmth and the ashes worn instead of clothing by these aspiring saints." (Hapsburg et al. 1996, pp.124-5).
"His favourite palette is the golden-tan and gray one shown here, where it is keyed to the subject by the dung fire and the ash covered figures. As an artist, he invites comparison to Basawan and Daulat, who shared his spiritually uplifting Rembrandtesque world of softly rounded, almost liquid forms and soulfully picturesque portraiture" (Welch 1978b, p.87)
In the 18th century the painting was mounted in an Imperial Persian album known as the St. Petersburg Album. The album was assembled in Persia in the 1740s and 1750s, with a large number of Mughal, Deccani and Persian paintings of exceptional quality and importance. The majority of the Mughal and Deccani miniatures in the album had been brought back to Persia from the royal Kitabkhaneh in Delhi after Nadir Shah's invasion of India and sacking of Delhi in 1738-9. In the 1740s and 1750s, in the manner of the great Imperial albums made for Jahangir and Shah Jahan, the Mughal and Deccani miniatures were assembled, along with a smaller number of important and rare late Safavid works, into an album of very large proportions. As was the style in such albums, each folio had a miniature on one side and calligraphy on the other, so that when the pages of the album were turned, the miniatures would be opposite miniatures, and the calligraphy opposite calligraphy. Many of the calligraphic specimens were in the hand of the famous Safavid calligrapher Mir Imad al-Hassani (d.1615). The borders were decorated in gold by two leading artists of the day, Muhammad Hadi and Muhammad Baqir. In the present case the gold illumination on the blue borders on the verso have been signed by Muhammad Hadi and dated 1172/1758-9.
The majority of the extant folios from this album are in the Oriental Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. The album has been published in facsimile form by Hapsburg et al. (1996). At least thirty folios were separated and dispersed during the 18th or 19th century and are in various museum collections including the Freer/Sackler Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Insititution, Washington D.C., the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, the Art Institute of Chigaco, the Aga Khan Museum Collection (formerly the Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection) and the Fondation Custodia, Paris. For further accounts of this album and other separate leaves see Robinson 1967, nos.88, 91 and 94; Beach 1978, p.77 and as indexed; Lowry and Beach 1988, p.294, no.345.