East meets West – in 17th Century India

Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings from the St. Petersburg Album, 1615-1618.

Last week, I came across a miniature painting, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, from 17th century Mughal India which perfectly portrays the meeting of East and West and the beginning of the blending of cultures and influences which eventually led to the world becoming a smaller place. The miniature was painted in the Mughal court, from where it went to Persia after the invasion by Nadir Shah in 1739 where the back floral motif was added to the painting.  After this, the painting reached St. Petersburg in Russia (I am not sure how this happened – I will need to research this further).  It is now at the Freer Gallery in the Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art. 

Bichitr (b 1585), a Hindu court artist lived and worked in the court of Jahangir where he painted the Mughal emperor and the happenings in his court.  Between 1615 and 1618, he painted this watercolor, gold leaf, and ink miniature masterpiece which shows Jahangir granting audience to four men who are lined up in the order of importance Jahangir is showing them. 

Jahangir seated on an hourglass throne

Jahangir – the second Mughal emperor of India was the son of the Great Akbar is seen seated on an hourglass throne.  Jahangir liked to be glorified in paintings, and was responsible for the flourishing of Italian Renaissance style painting in his court. Jahangir has a halo of both the sun and moon behind his head, which symbolizes his exalted status.

The hourglass was most likely brought to court in 1584 by an English goldsmith

A connection with Europe is seen in the hourglass which was a European invention.  It has been painted from a gold hourglass that was most likely brought to the court in 1584 by an English goldsmith William Leedes.  Similar European hourglasses from this period are found in museums across Europe.  Two cupids (puttos) at the base of the hourglass are a direct influence of Christian iconographic devices in European art.  Another European influence is the grotesque looking three headed figure at the base of the footstool that is eerily reminiscent of gargoyles.

The Ottoman King – The second person in line is an Ottoman King (though exactly who is unknown) from present day Turkey who stands patiently waiting his turn with his hands folded in deference.

King James – Bichitr painted King James I (1566-1625) of England from a portrait by John De Crtiz (left) which was given to Jahangir by Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to the Mughal court.  Thomas Roe traveled to Ajmer in 1615 in order to secure trading concessions for the East India Company.  John De Critz (1551–1642) was a Flemish painter who came to England from the Netherlands and was appointed Serjeant-painter to James I in 1605. While the King customarily rests his hand on his sword in de Critz’s painting, it is hovering in a conspicuously non-threatening manner above the sword in Bichitr’s painting. Both kings who wait in line to be seen by Jahangir are from far flung empires showing us that the world has always been interconnected. 

Bichitr: Portrait within a portrait

Self-portrait – The person closest to us (who ironically is the smallest) is the artist himself who has forgone perspective for the sake of aggrandizing his patron Jahangir. That Bichitr had been influenced by Italian Renaissance perspective is evident from the small portrait within the portrait in which he has painted himself with two horses and an elephant (all gifts to him from Jahangir).  He shows his utmost gratitude to Jahangir by bowing deeply before his king.  The portrait within the portrait is made with depth perspective and shows the artist’s skill and the influence of Italian techniques in his work.

This brilliant miniature from the early 1600s shows us how interconnected and small the world was even then.  It is a perfect blending of Persian and Hindu cultures, of European and Turkish influences, and of religious iconography and symbolism – showing us that the world and its peoples have always traveled the globe seeking new people and places.   

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