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Simon Ray

India (Deccan, Hyderabad)
circa 1790-1810
Height: 56.5 cm Width: 43.8 cm

Opaque watercolour heightened with gold on paper.

This large and imposing painting depicts the Mughal nobleman Safdar Khan on horseback holding a sprig of carnations, against the charming backdrop of a river and a European-style townscape with a pastoral scene of cows grazing on the left and huntsmen riding through the woods on the right. An elephant-headed barge cruises on the river while sepoys stand guard or wander through the town administering their duties. The buildings are a fantastical mixture of European architecture shown in multiple perspectives along deep recessions, dotted with Islamic domes, mosques, minarets and Hindu bangla roofs.

Safdar Khan is resplendently dressed in a long robe tied with a pakta (sash) into which is tucked a dagger and a sword. He holds the reins of the horse in one hand and his bow in the other. A quiver full of arrows is fastened to the rear of the saddle. The array of weapons and his dignified equestrian portrayal indicate that Safdar Khan is an accomplished military leader, soldier and rider. His lavish jewellery, including a sarpech in his turban, strings of pearls, pendants, bazubands and bracelets, and his richly caparisoned stallion, fitted with a gold saddlecloth, tassels, amulets, jewelled pendants and, like his master, a sarpech on his bridle, all demonstrate Safdar Khan’s exalted rank and social status.

The painting is inscribed to the top in black nasta‘liq against scrolling white clouds, the letters intermingled with diagonal flights of birds. The first two words are almost obliterated, so cannot be deciphered with any certainty, but the first word does appear to begin with a “J”. The inscription may be partially read as follows:

J(?)….. khan ji al-mukhatab be-safdar khan bahadur babi ‘alamgir shahi

“J(?) (undeciphered)... Khan Ji, titled Safdar Khan Bahadur Babi [of] ‘Alamgir Shah”

According to Robert Skelton, the index in vol, I of the Ma’athir ul-Umara lists three men with the title Safdar Khan who served the Mughal regime during the reign of the emperor Aurangzeb.(1) The closest fit in details and most probable identification for our nobleman is Safdar Khan Jamaluddin, the younger son of ‘Azim Khan Koka, also known as Fedai Khan, the Mughal high official and military leader from Lahore who became subhadar (governor) of Bengal in the 21st regnal year. When ‘Azim Khan Koka died 1678 after only one year as governor, Safdar Khan and his elder brother Muhammad Salih Khan, were sent mourning dresses by Aurangzeb. Safdar Khan’s name Jamaluddin may the indecipherable word beginning with a “J” in the inscription.

Jamaluddin received the title of Safdar Khan in the 27th year of Aurangzeb’s reign, during which he was made faujdar (garrison commander) at Gwalior. He gained further social distinction by becoming the son-in-law of his uncle Bahadur Shah Zafar Jang Kokaltash, a foster brother of the emperor and the governor of the Deccan. The Bahadur that follows Safdar Khan in his titles is similar to that in his father-in-law’s titles and means “brave”, an epithet well deserved as Safdar Khan died in battle in Gwalior in 1691, the 33rd year of Aurangzeb’s reign. He was attacking a fort when he was shot by a bullet. The word babi may mean “confidante”.

An interesting aspect of the present painting is the motif of a perspectival view of European-style city in the background. Whilst this idea was prevalent in Jaipur and in Kutch, the general style of the painting and presence of the large inscription suggest that it is more likely the product of the Deccan, in which case the perspectival view must have come to Hyderabad and the surrounding region by the late eighteenth century. While Safdar Khan is dressed as a nobleman of the Aurangzeb period, the sepoys in the townscape indicate a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century date for the scene behind and the painting as a whole. This magnificent posthumous equestrian portrait must have been done for one of Safdar Khan’s descendants living in the Deccan.

We would like to thank Robert Skelton for his kind reading and interpretation of the inscription and the identification of Safdar Khan Jamaluddin.

1. Nawab Samsam-ud-Daula Shah Xawaz Khan and his son Abdul Hayy, The Maathir-ul-Umara: Biographies of the Muhammadan and Hindu Officers of the Timurid Sovereigns of India from 1500 to about 1780 A.D., Second Edition dated 1780, vol. I. (trans), H. Beveridge, revised, annotated and completed by Baini Prashad, 1941-1952, pp. 314, 563, 567 and 788.

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