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The Renaissance of the Sultans

Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, April 20–July 26, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 368 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
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Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, lent by Howard Hodgkin
Sultan Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II in Procession; painting by the school of ‘Ali Riza, Bijapur, early seventeenth century

In 1610 an itinerant Dutch Mannerist painter named Cornelis Claesz Heda arrived at the court of an unlikely but most enthusiastic patron. Ibrahim Adil Shah II, who ruled the central Indian kingdom of Bijapur, was an erudite scholar, lute player, poet, singer, calligrapher, chess master, and aesthete. In many ways he was an Indian version of Duke Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino, and comparable to the Tuscan poet-princes who had filled their palaces with masterworks a century earlier.

Since Ibrahim came to the throne in 1580, he had overseen a remarkable explosion of artistic activity, attracting to his court the greatest painters and poets of his day, from as far afield as Abyssinia, Turkey, and Central Asia. These included Zuhuri, the Persian poet laureate, whom he lured all the way from Isfahan, and one of the most celebrated artists of the Mughal court, Farrukh Husain, who traveled to Bijapur from Shiraz, by way of the courts of Kabul and Agra. But the Dutch artist was certainly Ibrahim’s most exotic catch. As soon as word reached court that a European painter had crossed the border, Ibrahim summoned him straight to his capital.

“When I came here to the court,” Heda later wrote,

the King, as a great lover of our art [painting], let me come immediately before him. He asked what sort of man I was, and I gave him a description of all that had occurred. The King said he had long wished for a painter from our land, and had me clothed with great honor, following the custom of the land.

Heda was delighted by the enthusiasm of the sultan, whom he described as “very mild and kind-hearted…and having good judgement in matters of aesthetics.”

Shortly before Heda arrived in Bijapur, Ibrahim had changed the name of his capital, from Vijayapur—City of Victory—to Vidyapur, City of Learning. According to the chronicler Rafiuddin Shirazi, during his reign the libraries of Bijapur had swelled with painted books as Ibrahim had “a great inclination toward the study of books and he had procured many books connected with every kind of knowledge.” Nearly sixty men, calligraphers, gilders, book binders, and illuminators worked in the library.

Voyages from Europe to Asia in the seventeenth century were rarely without incident, but Heda’s passage to India had been dogged by so many twists of fate that his extraordinary story—recently reconstructed from his archive by two scholars, Deborah Hutton and Rebecca Tucker, in their chapter “A Dutch Artist in Bijapur” in The Visual World of Muslim India—resembles the trajectory of a picaresque novel.

Heda had left Haarlem around 1600. His original aim was to find a patron at some court where there was less competition than in his native Holland, for artistic talent existed in such profusion there that patrons had a surfeit of choices. Heda duly packed his saddle bags and rode all the way across Germany and the Hapsburg Empire, until he reached Prague, then at the peak of its golden age. Here he hoped that he could procure work from the emperor Rudolph II, at that point widely acknowledged as Europe’s greatest connoisseur.

Initially Heda had little more success establishing his reputation in Prague than he did in Haarlem; but then an unlikely opportunity presented itself. In July 1604, an embassy arrived from Shah Abbas, the ruler of the Safavid dynasty in Persia. The Persian ambassador was clad from head to foot in the most luxurious silk robes and was literally dripping in gems. Heda wrangled an introduction to him, used his charm, and before long was invited to return with the embassy to Isfahan. In 1608, the delegation caught ship from Lisbon on a Portuguese caravel taking the new viceroy of the East to Goa. The Persians were to disembark when the ship reached the Persian Gulf.

A month later, however, the ship was nearly wrecked in an Atlantic storm and had to refit on the east coast of Africa. Here Heda was arrested and accused of spying for the Dutch. Manacled below decks as the Persian delegation disembarked at Hormuz, he was taken on against his will to Goa where he was thrown into a dungeon. He was released only in 1610, after a wealthy merchant intervened on his behalf. Heda had no wish to stay longer than he needed to among the Portuguese, whom he described memorably as “shitheads unworthy of trust.” Instead he fled into the Indian interior, and it was here that his luck finally began to turn.

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Mike King

India was then dominated by the powerful Mughal empire, which from Agra ruled all of North India, as well as most of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. But the southcentral belt of the Indian peninsula—the Deccan—was fragmented into a patchwork of small but culturally dynamic independent sultanates, the most prominent of which, and the closest to Portuguese Goa, was Bijapur. It was Heda’s good fortune that at that moment, Bijapur happened to be ruled by a man with a passionate interest in painting; and it is our good fortune that Heda’s letters, drawn on in the essay by Hutton and Tucker, provide an outsider’s insight into this world in the grip of an artistic rebirth of great brilliance.

Ibrahim Adil Shah II was the one-man catalyst for this outpouring of creativity. The sultan was a contemporary of Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors; but while Akbar was an illiterate general and man of action, Ibrahim was a romantic and a dreamer. While Akbar liked to have himself depicted at the head of his army, storming the forts of his Rajput rivals, Ibrahim is typically depicted either sleeping, being fanned by his servants and having his feet massaged as he slipped into the reverie of his siesta, opium cup by his side, or else strumming his favorite tambur.

One portrait shows Ibrahim sharing an intimate moment with a lover, another wandering through the haze of an emerald forest in a fantastic landscape, lost in thought, his gentle gaze directed slightly downward. There is even a miniature of Ibrahim clicking castanets. These were all perfectly appropriate ways of depicting a man who wrote that the two most beautiful things in the world were a lute and a beautiful woman. As Deborah Hutton, in her important 2006 study, Art of the Court of Bijapur, puts it: “The closest that images of Ibrahim come to recording specific [historical] events,” in the manner of Mughal history paintings, “are Ibrahim Presenting a Necklace to His Lover and Ibrahim Venerating a Sufi, which are ambiguous at best.”1

The artists, writers, and craftsmen who worked for Ibrahim were drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds and religions, and crossed the divide both between Sunni and Shia and between Hindu and Muslim. For the officially Muslim but deeply syncretic Ibrahim did share one very important quality with his Mughal contemporary Akbar: his fondness for, and interest in, Hinduism. Early in his reign Ibrahim gave up wearing jewels and adopted instead the rudraksha rosary of the Hindu sadhu. He visited both Shaivite temples and the monasteries of the Nath yogis, and knew Sanskrit better than Persian. According to the art historian Mark Zebrowski:

It is hard to label him either a Muslim or a Hindu; rather he had an aesthete’s admiration for the beauty of both cultures.

In his songs Ibrahim uses highly Sanskritized language to shower equal praise upon Sarasvati, Hindu goddess of learning, the Prophet Muhammed, and the Sufi saint Gesudaraz of Gulbarga. In his fifty-sixth song this Muslim sultan more or less describes himself as a Hindu God:

He is robed in saffron-coloured dress, his teeth are black, the nails are red…and he loves all. Ibrahim, whose father is god Ganesh and…mother pious Sarasvati, has a rosary of crystal round his neck…and an elephant as his vehicle.

Ibrahim’s preferred Sanskrit title was Jagatguru, “World Teacher.”

Bringing together Hindu and Muslim traditions in an atmosphere of heterodox learning, and uniting Persians, Africans, and Europeans in a cosmopolitan artistic meritocracy, Ibrahim presided over a freethinking court in which art was a defining passion. For Ibrahim was literally obsessed with the power of art. In his poems he dwells on its ability to bring people together, and on the way that art, and particularly music, acted on the body and was capable of moving an individual to tears, or ecstasy, or a deep melancholic sadness.

Under his patronage, the court of Bijapur developed a theory of aesthetics that sought to reconcile the old Greek medical ideas of the humors of the body with Hindu ideas about the capacity of music to affect a sensitive person through rasa, or aesthetic appreciation. Developing the idea at the center of Sanskrit aesthetics of the nine rasas—literally “flavors,” “essences,” or “emotions”—nauras became the central theme of Ibrahim’s reign; the word expresses the binding aesthetic force that he hoped would hold the diverse subjects and religions of his empire together.

As Kavita Singh has pointed out, “nauras became an Ibrahimi leitmotif.” Ibrahim’s book of songs, the Kitab i-Nauras, was a celebration of the idea of nauras, the appreciation of the power of aesthetics. His orchestra was called the Lashkar i-Nauras, the Regiment of the Nine Emotions; a new festival was inaugurated called the Id i-Nauras; and to house all these artistic activities a new suburb was built outside Bijapur called Nauraspur, centered on the Nauras Mahal palace. Through music and art, he believed that his people could learn to look at each other with mutual understanding:

They speak different languages,
But they feel the same thing:
The Turk and the Brahmin.

Audiences with Ibrahim typically took place in the cool of night, on an open veranda that was filled with more than five hundred bejeweled women, all of whom danced and played instruments while the sultan deliberated. In the wide-eyed letter that Heda wrote to the Dutch East India Company, he told how during their first audience, Ibrahim asked him to “make something.” A fortnight later, the Dutchman was granted a second audience so that he could present a three-by-two-foot Mannerist painting of Venus, Bacchus and Cupid. Ibrahim was mesmerized:

The King approved of it, and held it for two hours before his face, while I talked. He asked me if I wanted to serve him for a time, promising to give me great riches. When I swore him service, he showed me great honor, and further gave me a purse with five hundred Pagodas of money. He ordered me to make another work…which now with God’s help is going even better.

In time, in addition to the five hundred gold pagodas—an enormous sum—he also gave Heda the title Nadir uz-Zaman (the Most Excellent of the Age), made him “the Third Counsel of the King,” and presented him with a Bijapur mansion so magnificent that after his death, it was considered to be a suitable residence for the Persian ambassador.

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Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin
Rahim Deccani: Prince Seated in a Garden, probably Golconda, late seventeenth century

The Mughal invasion of India took place in the mid-sixteenth century. The Mughals soon dominated early modern India, controlling all the rich lands from Kandahar down through Hindustan to the Vindhaya range in central India. Until recently they have also dominated the work of modern scholars: for every book on the Deccan sultanates, there are one hundred on the Mughals; for every book on Bijapur or Hyderabad there is a shelf on Delhi and Agra.

As a result, the extraordinary renaissance of the arts that took place in the Deccan region during the sixteenth century, not just in Bijapur but in the other sultanates—Bidar, Ahmadnagar, and Golconda—is only now beginning to receive the scholarly attention it deserves. But in the last few years several remarkable new books, four major scholarly conferences, and two large exhibitions have begun to fill this lacuna. All this has culminated in the landmark show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that opened in April, brilliantly curated by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar, curators in the Met Islamic department, entitled “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy.”2

The highlight of the Met exhibition is unquestionably the room full of Deccani miniature paintings with their luminous palette of rich, jewel-like colors, their sense of make-believe and illusion, their enigmatic shifts of scale, and their brilliantly innovative use of marbling or abri, “clouds in the wind.” The show also includes a spectacular collection of masterworks in other media: in bronze, silver, stone, glass, lacquer, and fabrics painted or dyed into phantasmagoric patterns. Seeing these objects collected together en masse for the first time, it is now possible to grasp just how richly eclectic and heartbreakingly beautiful much of Deccani art was.

The Deccan courts were certainly the most cosmopolitan in South Asia. As Richard Eaton notes in his essay in the Met’s catalog, their culture

can be traced to the migration to India of waves of Central Asian Turks who had been uprooted from their homelands by the Mongol invasions…. Having grown up…amid the flowering of the Persian Renaissance…—a vibrant literary and cultural movement…—these refugees brought with them the entire spectrum of cosmopolitan Persian culture.

This Persianate and often Shia culture was then cross-fertilized with the very different but astonishingly rich Hindu artistic traditions of southern India, dominated by the great Hindu-ruled kingdom of Vijayanagara, in southern India, which includes today’s Bangalore.

Mark Zebrowski, who laid the foundations for the study of Deccani art with his 1983 volume Deccani Painting, argued persuasively that this mixture of art was unlike that found anywhere else:

Whereas Mughal painting clearly illuminates the Mughal world through realistically observed detail, Deccani art presents us with an exotic civilisation seen through the charmed mirror of poetry….

Whereas Mughal art has a generous dose of logic and verisimilitude behind its glamour,…Deccani art revels in dream and fantasy. Paintings pulsate with restless lines and riotous colors…. Princely portraits predominate which aim to establish a gently lyrical atmosphere, often one of quiet abandon to the joys of love, music, poetry or just the perfume of a flower…. Moods…are established through fantastic colours…. We are admitted into a private world of feeling…. Reflection and reverie triumph over dramatic action.

As the works in the Met show demonstrate, while Ahmadnagar and Golconda both produced extraordinary artwork, it is Bijapur that is rightly admired as the most refined and innovative of the Deccani sultanates. It initially rose to power when its then ruler, Ali Adil Shah (1558–1580), seized most of the lands of Vijayanagara after the fall of that city in 1565. But despite his role in destroying the last great Hindu empire in the south, Ali was not a zealot. Instead he seems to have been a freethinker, inviting Jesuits to Bijapur so he could learn about Christianity, and bringing his huge library with him whenever he went on campaign.

Ali has recently been shown to have been the author of one of the most mysterious, eclectic, and syncretic texts to survive from medieval India and one that rightly takes pride of place at the heart of the Met show.3 The Nujum al-Ulum, or Stars of Science, is a grimoire, or book of spells, that brings together the astrology of the medieval Islamic and Hellenistic world and mixes it with the mystical Indic astrology of Vijayanagar. Written in Persian infused with Dakani Urdu, the Nujum is full of invocations of spirits and demonesses as well as esoteric musings on such subjects as the celestial levels, the nature of angels, sorcery, and the signs of the Zodiac. It blends astronomy, mysticism, and politics in a text that gives a remarkably comprehensive vision of medieval Deccani courtly learning and culture.

In the Nujum, Hindu goddesses who could have walked off the walls of a Vijayanagaran mural are placed next to Muslim astronomical symbols; heavenly Islamic piris dance with earthy Tantric devis. Tantric methods of summoning gods into mandala diagrams are crossed with Middle Eastern techniques for summoning djinns. The book ends with a long series of invocations for calling to your aid—depending on circumstances—the Moon, the Sun, Jupiter, Mahamari the Personification of Cholera, the Angels of the Four Quarters, and the King of the Djinns. There follows a concluding section of potent love spells, one for each day of the week. Nowhere else in India could such a fabulously cosmopolitan and heretical book be composed.

The Bijapur that produced the Nujum al-Ulum was also a major center of Sufi thought, but of the most unorthodox variety. One typical Bijapuri production of the period was the Bhangab Nama, or the Book of the Pot-head. Written by a Sufi dervish named Mahmud Bahri—a sort of medieval Muslim Allen Ginsberg—the book is a long panegyric to the intoxicating effects of cannabis and how it can help a seeker in his spiritual quest:

Drink your bhangab and be happy—
Be a dervish and put your heart at peace.
Lose all your life in drinking this exhilaration.

In his book, Bahri writes: “God’s knowledge has no limit…and there is not just one path to Him…. Anybody from any group can find [God] to the extent that his own knowledge will permit.”

This open-minded attitude to Hinduism is particularly visible in matters of music, which Ibrahim learned from Hindu musicians who migrated to Bijapur after the fall of Vijayanagara. Ibrahim’s Bijapur seems to have had a central part in the development of Indian musical theory, and especially in the classification and delineation of different ragas, or musical modes. Some of the most beautiful and mysterious of the artworks on show are personified illustrations of the different ragas, each of which is given a distinct human form, as part of Ibrahim’s attempt to answer the question of how it is that music can enter our body and change our mood.

Ibrahim’s love of music was certainly intense: the Mughal ambassador described Ibrahim actually falling into a trance while listening to singers. It is no surprise then that he declared that music should be heard at all times, for “the chest whose breath was not associated with melody was like a musical instrument with broken strings.”

The art of Bijapur seems so dreamy and refined that it often feels somehow too rarified to survive the real world. It is typical of the art of the kingdom that one of the most spectacular Bijapuri miniatures in the exhibition is entitled Portrait of a Ruler or Musician—in this milieu, the artists were so elevated that you couldn’t tell a veena player from a king. A kingdom so obsessed with the arts could only be hopelessly vulnerable to more worldly and militaristic forces.

This is not just a modern perception. Jacques de Coutre, a Flemish jewel merchant from Bruges who visited Bijapur five times between 1604 and 1619, did not see the aging Ibrahim as the generous patron of the arts described by Heda. For de Coutre, Ibrahim was instead a weak pacifist who paid off the Mughals to avoid war. He quotes Ibrahim as saying, “Why would I want to make war on [the Great Mughal]…? I would rather offer him money as a gift, and content him, and be his friend, and remain in my house with my peace and quiet.”

Ibrahim continued throughout his reign to ply the Mughals with presents, sending embassy after embassy with precious jewels to keep them at bay: one scholar has even suggested that the absence of jewels in portraits of Ibrahim might be to prevent the Mughals from asking for them as presents. They were followed by Ibrahim’s daughter, sent as a bride for Akbar’s son Daniyal, as well as one of his favorite elephants, Chanchal. They were all sent, writes de Coutre, “in order not to make war and put [himself] at risk of losing his lands.” The pressure of having to appease the ever-growing ambitions of the Mughals eventually turned Ibrahim into a paranoid recluse: “When he reached old age,” wrote de Coutre, “he did not have any more with which to make war, even if he had so wished, and he succumbed to the thousand requests the Mughal asked of him.”

To appease the Mughal emperor Jahangir, Ibrahim supported him in a war on the rival Deccani sultanate of Ahmadnagar, led by the former African slave Malik Ambar, one of the great military commanders of his day. Inevitably, the war went badly, and in 1624 Malik Ambar swept through the sultanate’s defenses and burned Ibrahim’s beloved new city, Nauraspur. Ibrahim died three years later, demoralized and depressed.

The Mughals took and sacked Ahmadnagar in 1636, and thereafter they made it clear that they did not recognize the sovereignty of the two remaining Deccan sultanates, Golconda and Bijapur. At the same time, rumors of the heterodoxy of Bijapur spread, and Bijapur came to be seen by the Sunni Mughals as a hotbed of Shia heresy. The puritanical emperor Aurangzeb, appalled by Bijapur’s reputation, finally marched on the city and besieged it in 1685. The city held out for eighteen months, before Ibrahim’s great-grandson finally handed over the keys in 1686.

Yet even as the libraries were looted, the influence of Ibrahim’s art was not extinguished. The Rajput soldiers in Mughal service who seized the city took the contents of its libraries back to Rajasthan, where the art later seeded important developments in Rajasthani art, and later that of the Punjab Hill States—where for example a genre of paintings showing noblemen lying back smoking hookahs appears to be derived from Deccani precedents.

Haidar and Sardar’s astonishing show has almost miraculously succeeded in bringing back together the contents of libraries scattered and dispersed for four hundred years, since the tragic fall of the different sultanates in the second half of the seventeenth century. It is the best chance we are ever likely to get to assess anew the forgotten wonders of this forgotten moment of cosmopolitan freethinking and inspired artistic brilliance.

  1. 1

    Indiana University Press, 2006, p. 106. 

  2. 2

    Stella Kramrisch’s A Survey of Painting in the Deccan (London: The India Society, 1937) and Mark Zebrowski’s Deccani Painting (University of California Press, 1983) are the two foundational works on the art of the Deccan. Zebrowski later cowrote Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates with George Michell (Cambridge University Press, 1999). In 2006 Deborah Hutton produced Art of the Court of Bijapur. Three books of essays have followed in the last decade, each of which emerged out of conferences: Sultans of the South: Arts of India’s Deccan Courts, 1323–1687, edited by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011); Garden and Landscape Practices in Pre-Colonial India: Histories from the Deccan, edited by Daud Ali and Emma J. Flatt (Routledge India, 2012); and The Visual World of Muslim India.

    This year there have been two exhibitions of Deccani art, both of which have produced important catalogs: “Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan” was held in the National Museum in New Delhi between January and April; the ambitious and spectacular “Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy” opened the month the Delhi show closed. I should declare here that I contributed one of the essays in the Met’s catalog. 

  3. 3

    See Emma Flatt, “The Authorship and Significance of the Nujum al-Ulum: A Sixteenth-Century Astrological Encyclopedia from Bijapur,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 131, No. 2 (April–June 2011).