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Simon Ray: Indian & Islamic Works of Art

India (Lucknow), circa 1770
Opaque watercolour heightened with gold on paper.
Page: Height: 40.5 cm; Width: 28.5 cm
Miniature: Height: 21.5 cm; Width: 13 cm

A very fine miniature depicting the important episode from “The Khamsa of Nizami” of the meeting of the famous lovers Layla and Majnun. “The Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami” or “The Five Tales” by the twelfth century poet Nizami, is one of the greatest works of Persian literature, and the story of Layla and Majnun is one of these five tales. Layla and Majnun are the most famous lovers in Persian literature and may be compared to Romeo and Juliet with whom there are numerous parallels; a story of powerful passions, familial disapproval and the hardships of forced separation. In the episode depicted, they have united at last by a mysterious old man, thought to be Khwaja Khizr.

The painting depicts Layla and Majnun in a swoon, overcome with emotion when they finally meet in a palm grove at the edge of the desert near Layla’s camp. They are watched by the animals of the desert that have come to protect Majnun. In contrast to Majun’s bare torso, Layla is splendidly dressed in fine brocaded silks with delicate floral sprays. A gentle eroticism is undeniable, yet the restraint with which this has been depicted suitably parallels the restraint of the lovers.

The lovers are surrounded by an immense array of attendant animals from land, sea and air. These include elephants, lions, tigers, leopards, frogs, rhinocerii, oxen, deer, gazelle, ibex, a variety of birds, snakes, rabbits and monkeys clambering up the central tree around which the painting is organized, as well as a selection of mythical animals like the simurgh (mythical bird like a phoenix) and a dragon, all painted with great attention to detail and remarkable grace. It is interesting to note that most of the animals are paired, reflecting the union between Layla and Majnun, but also containing elements of the Solomonic myth and Noah's Ark, depictions of which the Mughal painters would have seen and studied in European prints.

Also depicted are a crocodile, and Layla’s camel fitted with the howdah in which she has travelled.

To the right can be seen a series of white buildings, overlooking an expanse of water. A fantastic bird with a long tail flies overhead. In the hilly landscape behind is a city by the river. The source of the river is statue with a pot from which the water emerges.

Compositionally, this painting can be related to an earlier painting by the artist Farrukh Chela in the famous manuscript of 1595, now in the British Library, “The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami”, in which Layla can be seen swooning while Majnun is revived by the old man with rosewater, attended by an entourage of animals. This is illustrated in Barbara Brend, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami, fig. 21, p. 32.

The adoring attitude of the animals, not unlike that of a Christian Nativity, their multiplicity and charm, and the manner in which they seem to be able to communicate almost in a human language, show the influence of the greatest animal painter in the Mughal atelier, the master Miskin. They can be related stylistically to Miskin’s “The Raven addressing the Animals” now in the British Museum, in particular the crocodile and the dragon. A comparison with this painting shows how the painter has learned from Miskin the art of infusing his animals with a human intelligence and the ability to elicit from the viewer an emotional response. It is published in Philippa Vaughan, “Miskin” in Master Artists of the Imperial Mughal Court, (ed.) Pratapaditya Pal, 1991, fig. 11, p. 29.

According to Brend, Majnun’s original name was Qays, born of an Arab chieftain of the Amiri tribe. He fell in love at a very early age with Layla whom he met in school. Layla was a beautiful girl from another tribe, and the young Qays was so maddened by love that he was unable to concentrate on his studies and was nicknamed Majnun or “one possessed by a demonic jinn”. They are forcibly separated and Layla is later forced to marry Ibn Salam, whom she does not love, against her wishes, and with whom she refuses to consummate her marriage. It is only when her husband dies and Layla has mourned for him a year, that she sends a message to Majnun and asks for a meeting. (1) The scene depicted in this painting is a climactic moment, almost amounting to a betrothal.(2)

The decoration of the reverse can be compared to an album in the Bibliotheca Phillippica (Phillipps MS.6730) dispersed in London in Sotheby’s in 1974, the Lucknow Album and the pages of the Hamilton album commissioned by Antoine Louis Henri Polier between 1757 and 1788.

Colonel Antoine Louis Henri Polier (1741-1795) was an adventurer working for first the French and then the English East India Companies. Of Swiss Protestant origin, he joined the English after the defeat of the French in southern India. In 1767, he found further promotion blocked by the company’s ruling against officers of foreign extraction rising further in his service. Warren Hastings (Governor-General of Bengal, 1773-1784) arranged for him to go to Oudh to work as engineer and architect to the Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah (1754-1757) at the court in Faizabad. Driven from his post through the machinations of Hasting’s enemies on the council in Calcutta, Polier took refuge in the service of the Mughal emperor in Delhi, but was able to return to Oudh in 1780, after Hastings regained control of his council, to serve the new Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, (1775-1797), the former capital of province in Oudh and Delhi. Polier collected spectacularly well both seventeenth and eighteenth century miniatures as well as Persian and other Indian manuscripts. He both collected the best antique work he could find, as well as commissioning new work principally through his favourite retained artist Mir Chand who was largely responsible for arranging the layout and decoration of the albums made for his collection of paintings. After his return to Europe in 1789, Polier sold most of his albums to the collector William Beckford, whence they found their way to Hamilton palace and then to Berlin. Other albums were dispersed from the collection earlier.

Antoine Louis Henri Polier

1. Barbara Brend, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami, The British Library, 1995, pp. 26 to 30 and fig. 21, p. 32.
2. Ibid.

Majnun’s Emotions after meeting Layla

An extract from Nizami, translated by James Atkinson, 1836

By worldly prudence uncontrolled,
Their every glance their feelings told;
For true lover never yet had skill
To veil impassioned looks at will.
When ringlets of a thousand curls,
And ruby lips, and teeth of pearls,
And dark eyes flashing quick and bright,
Like lightning on the brow of night-
When charms like these their power display,
And steal the withered heart away-
Can man, dissembling, coldly seem
Unmoved as by an idle dream?
Kais [Majnun] saw her beauty, saw her grace,
The soft expression of her face;
And as he gazed, and gazed again,
Distraction stung his burning brain:
No rest he found by day and night-
Laili for ever in his sight.

(Quoted in Reuben Levy, Persian Literature –
An introduction
, Oxford University Press, 1948, p. 47.)

Majnun’s Song for Layla

Translated by Colin Turner, Blake Publishing, London, 1997

Whenever the garden is gay with red roses
How fitly we match them with ruby-red wine:
For whom does the rose tear its garment,
I wonder-
From love of the sweetheart, insane
I tear mine!
Do not wretched victims cry out at injustice?
Why rumbles the thunder - the victim am I!
Like raindrops that fall on the jasmine at sunrise
The cheek of the sweetheart, the tears that I cry.
With tulips aflame all the plain is a ruby-
What robber has been to the gem-mine to plunder?
The trees scatter musk in such fragrant profusion
That musk of Khotan is left breathless in wonder.

Layla listened in awe as Majnun continued to recite poem after poem. Suddenly, he fell silent. Then, with a cry, he jumped up and fled out of the garden and into the desert like a shadow. True, Majnun was intoxicated with the scent of the wine, but he knew that such wine may be tasted only in paradise.

(Quoted from Turner, 1997, pp. 225-226.)

all text & images Simon Ray: Indian & Islamic Works of Art

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