Razmnama or The Book of War is the Persian translation of the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The Mughal Emperor Akbar took a personal interest in the translation project and invited learned men, well-versed with the work, from all over the country to help some of his best Persian scholar-courtiers prepare the most authentic text possible. Once this was complete, master painters at his atelier produced a lavishly illustrated copy for his personal use. Akbar then invited his nobles to get copies of the text made for themselves. Out of the three copies made, the three-volume Razmnama in the Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Kolkata, is the only one complete with 81 miniatures. Most of these images are full-page ones and the text bears the name of the scribe and date of completion-1605. The paintings are of great interest to students of Mughal painting as they combine the finest elements of the Mughal court style with the narrative style of storytelling. Some of the most popular Mahabharata stories were chosen by the painters and instead of composing two or three separate paintings they incorporated different stages of narrative detail within the frame of a Single image. The overall style is refined and clearly follows the court style during the closing years of Akbar's reign. The 1605 Razmnama is a key document for the study of Mughal painting during the beginning of the 17th century.
Ashok Kumar Das is currently Visiting Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is former Director of the Swai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur and has also taught at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan as Satyajit Ray Chair. He has published extensively on different aspect of Mughal art and culture and recently edited the volume Mughal Masters: Further Studies.
Nearly fifty years ago, during a year-long London visit, I wrote an article for Lalit Kala on manuscript painting at Agra in circa 1605. It included remarks about the Birla Razmnama. Alas, the article was never printed. While being taken to the Post Office by Underground, my small suitcase opened accidentally, and the sole copy of the typed article toppled out. Instantly, it was sucked into the tunnel by the wind of a departing train. While I gawked at the flying spiral of papers, a saintly and responsible Underground employee, barely younger than I am now, scrambled onto the tracks and began to pick up the dozens of 8" by 10" sheets of paper and photographs. A moment later, scared by the rumble of an approaching train, I grabbed the kind volunteer's wrists and pulled him to safety, lest he and the article be shredded together. Salient points of the article were passed on to my friend Pramod Chandra, who published them in his article about popular Mughal painting, also for Lalit Kala.
It is nostalgic and satisfying to turn again to the Birla Razmnama, the artistically best and probably earliest example of manuscript painting from Agra's commercial, or bazaar, workshops in and soon after 1605. I have thought of it and the Agra workshops countless times, especially when visitors to my offices at Harvard University and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art have made appointments to show Indian and Persian illustrated manuscripts. Almost always, I have guessed rightly that the Persian ones would be from Shiraz, and date between 1535 and 1585, and that the Indian ones had been copied and illustrated at Agra, in circa 1605. Rarely, it must be admitted, have I been impressed by the high quality of their artistry.
The sole artistically attractive manuscript I have seen from this large group is the Birla Ratmanama, first known to me from Dr. M.A. Chaghatai's article, referred to below. Among its eighty-one paintings, several would have pleased Akbar the Great, or even passed muster with Jahangir, his connoisseurly son. Paradoxically, without this supremely art-minded Mughal patron, the present Razmanama would not have been made. Shortly after his accession to the throne in 1605, the new emperor, whose feelings towards his father were to say the least ambiguous, ridded the imperial painting workshops of a very high percentage of their staff. One can imagine the impact of Jahangir's decision upon artists, illuminators, binders, clerks, and the many others whose lives and careers were devoted to the arts of the book Many tender egos were wounded, and lives shattered We deeply sympathize with the plight of these lacklustre, "old fashioned" painters, once the dependable, dedicated work-horses of the imperial workshops, now fallen victim to Emperor Jahangir the "World-Seizer's" enlightened aesthetic whims. To support themselves and their families they had become desperate for new patronage.
In search of security, many left Agra to serve Muslim and Hindu courtiers eager to establish or improve workshops with talents from Akbar's esteemed ateliers. Artists, even entire families of artists, moved to the courts of Mughal governors, generals and of other high-ranging officials. Rajputs, some of whose families had provided wives to Akbar and his sons, eagerly recruited erstwhile imperial painters and brought them to Amber, Bundi, Kotah, Marwar, or Bikaner. where earlier artistic traditions took on new Mughal naturalism and finesses. When asked to do so, artists turned their talents to adorning walls or designing buildings.
Others among the newly unemployed remained in Agra and were welcomed in the bazaars which always had helped imperial artists keen to earn extra income by moon-lighting. Bazaar workshops laboured to furnish illustrated manuscripts to prosperous households, especially during the aftermath of Jahangir's firing of most of the artistic establishment. The art bazaars burgeoned. But were there enough buyers for the dozens upon dozens of sub-imperial copies of literary classics, histories, and Hindu religious classics?
On the basis of the style and deluxe scale of the Birla manuscript, we suppose that it was initiated with great expectation, either for a specific patron or to be sold in the market as a work of great pride. Ample in format, it was lavishly enriched with eighty-one illustrations. These open with a succession of particularly attractive pictures (plates 1 to 5), designed and painted by the project's leading artist, surely the senior master and artistic guide of the entire project. To these, he later added a dozen or so "masterpieces." He also sketched or outlined many designs for the three or four lesser painters of his workshop. On grounds of style, one can see that the heyday of this artist known to us as the Birla Master, was in the mid-1580s, when Akbar's might suffused everything he thought did, or touched. The emperor's force-of- nature dynamism also found expression in his artists' bold compositions, and in their lively interpretations of trees, romping elephants, land and waterscapes, and passages of (not so) still life. Nothing was beyond reach either of Akbar himself or of the devoted artists and craftsmen he inspired.
The ageing Birla Master survived the shock of rejection from the imperial studios. With his eo-workers, he joined the bazaar workshops, and initiated his series of pictures for this Razmnama. It opens impressively with one of his masterpieces, by which we mean paintings wholly designed and carried out by a Single great artist: "Sauti recites the slokas of the Mahabharata" (Plate 1), is perhaps the most thoughtfully composed and artfully finished miniature for the project We are invited to share the artist's creative pleasure in a passage showing rishis, gracefully waving their arms in a "seated ballet." Fluidly arranged on a tiled platform, they are surrounded by fourteen delightfully varied and omamented mud huts. A few other outstandingly inventive passages also enthrall a cluster of silhouetted trees in the foreground, and a lyrically back- lighted distant landscape. All proclaim the artist's lofty aspirations at the outset of the commercial career forced upon him by a sudden change in imperial taste.
Composition, figures, and animals for his second picture for the Razmanama, "Samudra-manthana. Devas and asuras churn the ocean" (Plate 2), further exemplify the continuation of the Master artist's creative joy. Although it is small and sparely painted, few elephants in Mughal art are better observed or livelier than the one in the upper left of this illustration. We dote upon the serpent king's look of surprise tinctured with spiritual and sensuous pleasure in his new role as churner of the ocean. The Birla Master enjoyed making us smile.
This artist's boldest flight of fancy for the project is "Garuda flying with the fighting elephant and tortoise" (Plate 3). Although we sense that the clerk of the project presumably another veteran from Akbar's workshops, had begun to urge him to work more quickly, and to employ pigments more economically, the Master remained undaunted. Garuda's feathers and jewels, each ornamentally arranged leaf of the tree in the foreground, and the romp of birds and lotus blossoms in the pool at the bottom of the page, celebrate the artist's determination to maintain "imperially" high artistic standards. His continuing artistic pleasure may have been prompted by the gloriously picturesque subject. Later, as the manuscript progressed, a succession of scenes with scrambling horses, corps of wounding, wounded, and slain warriors and demons - India's own "horse operas" - required as much self-discipline as stamina. Throughout the manuscript we come upon pictures or parts of pictures imbued with this veteran artist's creative spirit and inventiveness. [See, for instance, Plates 11, 16, 19, 21, 23, 24, 27, 33, 42, 44, 48, and 81.)
He wished to please both himself and viewers of his work in "Parikshit takes refuge in a house atop a pillar" (plate 4). The burning tree, leaping fish, evil serpent, and above all the captivating golden house atop the pillar are among the manuscript's memorable elements.
While painting "Sarpa-yajna. The snake sacrifice of lanamejaya" (Plate 5), the Birla Masters talents continued to flourish despite his willingness to confront economic realities by working faster and skimping on pigments and brushwork The depiction of Ianamejaya's ministers and priests surrounding the fire which would exterminate all of the world's snakes was designed as an undulating circle of determinedly proud snake-haters. Yet more enthralling are the snakes themselves, some of them with dragon, horse, and elephant masks, plunging sinuously to their flaming deaths. Such pictures underscore the fact that books of this sort were intended to enlighten and fire up the imaginations of their patrons, patrons' spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends. If they were revered sacred texts, they were also the equivalents of our comic books and animated films. Turning the zestful pages of these portable art galleries provides amusement, diversion, amazement, and spiritual elevation. Examining them evokes pride as well as sadness. Between snickers and guffaws, we might sigh, gaze heavenwards, or weep.
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