One of the more enigmatic manuscripts now in the British Library (IO Islamic 1255) from the rich library of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore (d. 1213/1799), is the untitled qiṣṣah or tale featuring a figure popular across the range of Persian literature, the Prophet Sulaymān (the biblical Solomon, son of David). In this tale, the prophet-king is confronted by the head of the ranks of birds, the Sīmurgh (Phoenix), expressing its disbelief in the doctrine of predestination (qaz̤āʾ va qadr). Having angered Allāh, Jibrāʾīl (the archangel Gabriel) is sent to inform Sulaymān of a prophecy foretelling the birth of the Prince of the East (Malikzādah-′i Mashriq) and the Princess of the West, daughter of the Malik-i Maghrib, who together bear a child out of wedlock. The Sīmurgh believes it can prevent this outcome. Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh conclude an agreement (qawl) to reassess the situation after fifteen years, by which time the accuracy of the prophecy would be apparent.
For many viewers, the subject of most Indian paintings is understandable even without a specialist’s knowledge of the identity and history of the figures portrayed. For example, images of a princely couple listening to music on a palace terrace can be appreciated without needing to know the historical or literary identity of the protagonists. Beyond this basic intelligibility, however, many works feature complex subject matter, symbolic nuances, and/or compositional substructures that require an in-depth explanation to understand their layers of meaning.
Inspired by the iconography and mythology of Western divinity and sovereignty featured in the European prints brought to India, the Mughals and other Islamic dynasties of India soon appropriated the visual attributes of the divine and the regal for their own glorification. Chief among these emulated personages were Solomon and David, kings of ancient Israel; Orpheus and the philosopher Plato, both legendary musicians and poets of ancient Greece; and Majnun, the famous Arabic poet and unconsummated paramour of his beloved Layla. The unifying thread in the stories of these influential personalities was that each was graced with the ability to tame and control animals by means of his musical ability and/or spiritual authority.
Love stories never go out of fashion, especially when they are narrated using songs and drama. The story of Laur and Chanda, is one such story. The folklore is performed till date in Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh and some parts of North India. Many moons ago, somewhere around 1377-78 AD (the Sultanate Period), a Sufi poet, Maulana Daud composed this narrative in Avadhi, giving birth to the first surviving Indian Sufi romance.
A reason why I am drawn to museums is because they are a storehouse of stories. I chanced upon the story of Laur and Chanda at the Government Museum & Art Gallery, Chandigarh. A delicate set of folios, the Museum has a great book on the collection.
THE STORY & ITS CHARACTERS
The narrative begins with the birth of a beautiful Chanda to King Sahadeva of Govar. While still very young, she is bound in wedlock to a blind and impotent Prince. The great beauty that brought her this lamentable fate also releases her from it, for the unhappy maiden catches the eye of a wandering ascetic, Bajir. Bajir sings her praises wherever he goes and sets the story in motion. His songs arouse the lust of King Rupchand so much so that he forcefully tries to forge an alliance with King Sahadev. This is when our hero, Laur is brought in by the King, to overcome and kill Rupchand; but he falls in love with Chanda, though not before achieving his goal. Chanda engages her confidante, Brihaspati in arranging secret meetings with Laur. But the story isn’t as simple because Laur is married to Maina – who comes to know about her husband’s illicit love and devises ways of winning him back when he elopes with Chanda. Chanda and Laur’s elopement itself is ridden with challenges – snakebites, thieves and the King Mahipat – who invites Laur to a game of dice and wins everything including Chanda. He is, however, outwitted by Chanda and they journey on. Maina on the other hand, entrusts Sirjan, a caravan leader with the task of locating her husband. Eventually, Laur and Chanda return but the lovers’ plight does not end with confrontation and Chanda ends up as Laur’s second wife.
THE CHANDIGARH MUSEUM FOLIOS
The folios of Laur-Chanda are rare and significant in artistic terms. A set of 24 folios has survived, of which 14 lie with the Lahore Museum in Pakistan, and 10 in India’s Chandigarh Museum. The poem by Maulana Daud testifies to his genius as a great storyteller. The artist pays tribute to this very genius by placing him in every folio – almost reminding the viewer of the origins of the story. You will notice him in white with a holy book in every frame.
To celebrate our new series of South Asian seminars and especially the focus on food with Neha Vermani’s talk this evening Mughals on the menu: A probe into the culinary world of the Mughal eliteI thought I would write about our most ʻfoodyʼ Persian manuscript, the only surviving copy of the Niʻmatnāmah-i Nāṣirshāhī (Nasir Shah’s Book of Delights) written for Sultan Ghiyas al-Din Khilji (r.1469-1500) and completed by his son Nasir al-Din Shah (r.1500-1510). We are planning to digitise this manuscript in the near future but meanwhile I hope some of these recipes will whet your appetite.
Three interesting portraits on ivory of Mughal ladies of the imperial zenana were acquired by the Visual Arts section in 2012, now numbered Add.Or.5719-5721. All three were mounted in one frame with pasted down inscriptions below relating to the subject and the artist, while attached to the back of the frame were three envelopes which once contained the miniatures and which were written further particulars. The paintings were sold in Delhi in these envelopes in 1900 by Sultan Ahmad Khan, who styles himself the son of one painter Muhammad Fazl Khan and grandson of another painter Muhammad ‘Azim, both of whom are named as artists in the inscriptions. The purchaser must have put them into their present gilt frame and fortunately also preserved the various inscriptions and attestations. All three are supposed to be portraits of some of the wives of the Mughal Emperor Akbar II (r. 1806-37). For a more correct appreciation of who they might be, we rely on that invaluable on-line resource, The Royal Ark. None of these ladies’ names unfortunately appears among the numerous wives of Akbar II, but that does not necessarily detract from the validity of the inscriptions of artistic interest.
A long tradition of preparing princes to rule was the genre of literature known as ‘mirror for princes,’ fables with tales in which animals are the leading characters of the stories. These tales, thought to have been introduced to the Muslim world through India, were derived from the Indian Panchatantra (‘The Five Principles’) and Mahabharata written in Sanskrit around the year 200.
Khalila wa Dimna (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)
The tales were adapted and translated into numerous languages including Persian and Arabic, and were illustrated in Kalila wa Dimna manuscripts – from the thirteenth century onward in Arab lands, and from the fourteenth century in Iran.
The tales address the moral education of princes through two jackals, Kalila and Dimna, and a host of other animals as lead characters. These tales also illustrate “universal human strengths and weaknesses, as well as aspirations for justice and truth.”*