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)
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…

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