Mahesh Soni depicts the moment when the royal mace- bearers sever the head of Khan Jahan from his bound body. It appears as if the renegade loses his life at this moment, though in reality he had been cut to pieces earlier in the engagement with the Mughals. The heads of his son and followers are lying on the ground; two more heads of slain Afghans are held by Mughal officers among those who watch the main scene. The leaders of the Mughal force, Abdullah Khan and Sayyid Muzaffar Khan, have dismounted their richly armored horses to preside over the action.
The artist sets the figures in countryside that is recognizably the stereotypical Persianate landscape adopted by the Mughals, namely vertically disposed terrain topped by a rocky formation lined by a row of spectators, but the scheme is now interpreted more realistically and enriched with horizontally layered segments employed to build up the landscape. The ground is thus divided into three ascending zones of varied greens. Mahesh moves the main scene to the foreground, showing the beheading at close quarters to give it more immediacy. We look directly at the head of Khan Jahan, depicted in the profile view to which he was still entitled in this last moment of his life as a high-ranking Mughal official. However, the intersecting arms of his decapitators create a three-dimensional space around him which was the domain in such miniature paintings of unofficial activity, of anonymous or lower ranking persons and - as in this case -of rebels and traitors. This is emphasized by the other heads lying on the ground, seen obliquely and in shockingly realistic detail. The imperial presence is evoked in nature, by the plane tree (chinar) placed above the decapitation scene. As the favorite tree of the Mughals, it is traditionally associated with imperial landscapes.
The viewer is not the only one to witness how imperial vengeance deals with the rebellious. The line of onlookers who hem the contour of the hill act as a kind of chorus. Mahesh Soni adds a second line of more individualized spectators behind the flower strewn mound that forms a tapestry-like backdrop to the key figures. One of them looks directly out at us, as if to call us to witness, and to direct our view toward the main scene.
The eye is caught by the details, such as the meticulous studies of flowers, the sensuous treatment of drapery and armor, and the painter's ability to individualize faces. Mahesh poignantly captures the expression of Khan Jahan between life and death, and confronts us with the reality of extinction in the distorted features of the already severed heads, in particular those lying on the ground, as if to announce decay and the transience of (rebellious) life.
Mahesh's interest in explicitly realistic beheading scenes is similar to that of the followers of Caravaggio. He expresses it with the Mughal's own 'courtly miniature realism' to give the utmost immediacy to the moral lesson of his painting.
This painfully graphic depiction of a beheading is among the most complex and original of all Mughal pictures. We are brought inescapably close to the act of execution, isolated clearly within a complicated grouping of royalist forces, but each of the surrounding figures also demands our alert attention. The characterizations are intensely individualized, and the composition is enriched by the complicated patterns of the armor and textiles. The densely intertwined forms, and especially the stances and hand gestures of the warriors at the bottom, are self-consciously posed, however, suggesting that the artist has seen Northern European works in the style of Etienne de Laune's engraving of 1570, Ad Locutio. The balance of calculation and direct, uninhibited observation gives this work by Mahesh Soni unusual power.
The Rajput whose head is emphasized below the dismounted horseman on the right is Madho Singh Hada, younger son of the Rajput Rao Ratan Hada of Bundi. (It was a spear thrust from Madho Singh that killed Khan Jahan Lodi.) Abdullah Khan Firoz]ang, the other horseman, became famous for this act of beheading, and a series of portraits showing him holding the head of Khan Jahan Lodi are known.