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Published in the 1-15 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Hamzanama Muslim answer to Mahabharata
By Usama Khalidi

Thousands of Mughal miniature paintings may be gathering dust in the warehouses of Indian and Pakistani art museums or even in display cases, unloved and neglected, but the art form has a wide circle of its admirers in Europe and America, where hardly any major art gallery is without a few pages from the illuminated books produced by the miniaturists for the enjoyment of their royal patrons in the courts of the Safavis, the Osmanlis, the Mughals, the Rajputs and the Deccanis, hundreds of years ago. Among these museums, the highest honor goes to the Smithsonian Institution, which owns and proudly displays pages from the Mughal classic, the Hamzanama. Smithsonian's Sackler Art Gallery recently concluded its year-long exhibit of these fragments from the 16th century Hamzanama in Washington and New York City. 

In a rave review of the Hamzanama exhibit, the Washington Post's art critic compared the manuscript's exuberantly illuminated pages to the Mona Lisa. Blake Gopnik wrote that the comparison wasn't fair because "I got more out of looking at the Hamzanama than from all the time I've spent in front of Leonardo's lady."

Hamzanama tells the story of the mythical exploits of the Prophet's uncle in what probably was the Muslim answer to the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Hamzanama was prepared over two decades for Akbar Badishah. It originally consisted of about 1,400 painted pages illustrating the many characters and their fantastic adventures in the story. The Sackler Gallery in Washington displayed 61 of the 200 or so surviving pages. That was enough to judge the manuscript one of the world's great masterpieces, Gopnik wrote. 

"For sheer ornamental splendor, the Hamzanama outdoes almost anything the West has managed," he wrote. " Even the most extravagantly illuminated manuscripts out of medieval Europe seem tame by comparison, or at least a touch nave. Only the very best tapestries made in Renaissance Flanders - like those displayed in another heart-stopping summer exhibit, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York - rival the Hamzanama's mix of compositional sophistication and decorative exuberance. Hamzanama tells its stories clearly, with wonderful verve; its pages rarely get so carried away with decoration that the narrative gets drowned in pretty patterning. But at the same time, they use that backbone of bold storytelling composition to help structure a riot of exquisite ornament."

"Legible content coupled with visual delight - not a bad recipe for artistic excellence, anywhere, anytime."

Almost as well-loved in the Indian Subcontinent over the centuries as the Hamzanama was the Khamseh of Nizami, consisting of five masnavis written in the 12th century Iran. The first is the Treasury of Mysteries, a work of mysticism. The other four are romances: Khosrow and Shirin; Layla and Majnun; the Seven Princesses; and Alexander the Great. The Khamesh provided great material for innumerable miniaturists to illustrate the stories. Peter Chelkowski, a professor at New York University, who translated Nizami's stories into English and published as an illustrated book titled Tales From the Invisible World, says in an introduction: "The beauty of the Khamseh of Nizami is unsurpassed in Persian literature. Sensuous, dramatic, gracious, and refined, these epic poems display Nizami's genius for linguistic invention and psychological characterization - a talent imitated by hundreds of poets since his time, but never equaled." 

While Western historians, such as the late Annmarie Schimmel, have done much to rescue our literary and spiritual heritage from obscurity, who would have thought that a popular Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, would bring to life, so lovingly, the subculture of the 15th century miniaturists? But that's what he does in the 417-page novel, My Name Is Red, one of the best novels published in the last few years, and one that is unlike any of Pamuk's earlier novels, which are focused on his country's East-West identity dilemma. 

In Pamuk's novel, the miniaturists frequently allude to the Khamseh story of Khosrow and Shirin, which is rather unfamiliar in the Subcontinent.

On one level, Pamuk's novel reads like a murder mystery, and on another as a love story. However, the novel's main focus is on the turmoil in the community of miniaturists in Istanbul of the late 15th century, caused by the introduction of a new style of painting that came with new values and attitudes toward looking at life and reality, brought by the "Franks" of Europe. For the miniaturists steeped in tradition, it was nothing less than a calamity that their chief patron, the Sultan, had shown interest in the new style and ordered his master painters to produce art works in that style.

The great issue that pitted one miniaturist against another was whether something, say a flower, could be painted all by itself, as a unique entity, rather than as a part of everything else around it. It was the same question concerning an individual human being. Traditionally, the miniature painters were supposed to view everything from God's eye, perhaps from the top of a minaret. Also, it was a shocking heresy for the miniaturists to paint anything that would not be part of a story. Everything depicted had to be faithful to the text. 

Whether such a controversy actually gripped the miniaturist community is hard to determine. The many books available on this art form make no reference to it. At least in the Mughal times, no such turmoil affected the painters working for Emperor Jehangir, who made numerous references to his artists and their works in the Jehangirnama. 

Interestingly, the miniaturists in Pamuk's novel make many allusions to the flourishing art market in Hindustan. One of the major characters in the book muses at one time:

"Akbar Khan, the Emperor of Hindustan and the world's richest shah, is preparing what will one day become a legendary book. To complete his project, he sent word to the four corners of Islamdom inviting the world's greatest artists to join him. The men he'd sent to Istanbul visited me yesterday, inviting me to Hindustan . . . "
Another new novel that centers on the miniaturists' world during Akbar's time is titled The Miniaturist, by Kunal Basu (Penguin Books, 2003) and is available in India. The main character in this novel is a teen-aged painter who was named Bihzad after the great Herati painter by his father. This young Bihzad follows in his father's footsteps in becoming one of the most favored painters at Akbar's court. In Basu's novel, this Bihzad is the real artist behind the Hamzanama.

The miniaturists' belief that they must paint from God's eye, seeing things as He sees them, is echoed in The Miniaturist. This overriding consideration explains why we don't see human beings or even inanimate objects in a three-deminesional representation. Thus, we don't find any shadows or shaded areas in the Mughal miniatures.

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