The Rukh Carries Amir Hamza to his Home
By Dr. John Seyller
Even in a manuscript celebrated for its fantastic adventure stories and dramatic pictorial qualities, this spectacular illustration from the Hamzanama easily ranks among the most boldly conceived paintings to have survived from the original 1,400 monumental paintings in the most important of all Mughal manuscripts. The subject lends itself well to this kind of visual flair. Finding himself in an alien land far from home, the kingdom ruled by Tulu Gao-Pa, Amir Hamza devises a plan to avail himself of a supernatural means of transport back home. He hides in the nest of a rukh, a gigantic phoenix-like bird that is the enemy of Hamza’s new ally, and clings to the creature’s legs as it crosses the great sea. The rukh tries to shake off its unwanted human cargo, pecking relentlessly at Hamza’s hands until he can no longer hold on. As he plummets towards the sea, Hamza is miraculously rescued. In the Urdu version of the story, it is Khizr and Ilyas, two spiritual luminaries in Islamic lore, who deliver Hamza to safety, but they are not mentioned in the three lines of Persian text below the illustration. A brief title, “The Rukh Carries the Amir to His Home," is written informally in a different hand above the second line of text.
The specter of an enormous bird carrying off a vulnerable man appears twice in Mughal painting of the 1590s, once as an illustration of the story of the Princess of the Black Pavilion in the Haft Paykar section of the 1595 Khamsa of Nizami, and again as an independent painting created by Basawan1. Both pull back from the key passage of the avian predator and its dangling victim to show them high above a panoramic landscape replete with tiny buildings and trees, while the latter adds a broad swath of ocean teeming with assorted sea creatures. By contrast, the artist here dramatizes Hamza’s predicament by different means. He emphasizes the impressive size of the rukh by devoting fully half the composition to it, manipulates its position so that the crucial action of the creature biting Hamza’s hand occurs at the very center of the painting, and depicts Hamza actively flailing between a pair of menacing talons. Even as the artist establishes the setting with only a narrow strip of water inhabited by a few fish, he energizes the atmospheric sky itself, filling it with colorful but sensitively shaded Chinese-inspired clouds whose electrifying coiling forms echo the rukh’s plumage and streamers.
The creative force behind this dazzling scene is surely Daswant (or Dasavanta), an artist described as the son of a palanquin bearer and recorded by ascriptions as active from the mid-1560s until 1584, when he committed suicide, a fate unique in the annals of Mughal painting. Acknowledged posthumously by the chronicler Abu’l Fazl as one of the greatest Mughal masters, Daswant designed many of the most compelling paintings in the Hamzanama2. He has an unmistakable affinity for images of supernatural encounters, and a keen ability to render humans pushed to the limits of physical exertion, a quality seen here in Hamza’s straining neck and arms, as well as in his legs kicking out as he hurtles through the air. Above all, Daswant understands the power of oversized forms and dramatic shifts in scale, and regularly astounds viewers with the looming forms of hulking giants, gargantuan elephants, sinister dragons, and brooding, eruptive outcrops.
Many smaller details confirm this attribution to Daswant. Although the figure of Hamza has shed nearly all of its painted surface, the underdrawing of the face closely resembles that of an ayyar (spy) dressed in yellow in another Hamzanama illustration and the fully painted features of a spy outfitted in a blue jama in another.3 The fluttering points of Hamza’s sheer chakdar (four-pointed jama) are rendered in exactly the same fashion in another scene of extreme physical struggle by the protagonist.4 The fantastic rukh has no counterpart elsewhere in the Hamzanama, but shares with Daswant’s dragon, the most flamboyant in all Mughal painting, the remarkably forceful claws and hairy streamers.5 Another painting previously attributed to Daswant enlists the same very distinctive clouds, which tellingly are used in combination with a figure suspended precariously in the sky.6
Few if any Hamzanama illustrations were made by one artist working alone, and this one is no exception. There is a noticeable difference in the rendering of feathers, which changes from the freely painted areas around the rukh’s head and neck to more regular shapes with somewhat drier articulation. The handover from Daswant to his collaborator can be pinpointed quite specifically to the feathers on the back, where formulaic brown shapes suddenly yield to the more dynamically conceived and more richly painted undulating feathers along the edge. Likewise, the tiger-stripe pattern within those brown scalloped forms contrasts with the bolder, more irregular stripes of an actual tiger skin in two of Daswant’s other Hamzanama paintings.7 Together, these differences indicate the hand of Shravan (or Shravana), a gifted artist who frequently collaborated with Daswant on his Hamzanama paintings. Shravan’s characteristic handiwork is visible, too, in the water, which churns less violently than Daswant’s own, and uses solid white lines to define serpentine crests around concentric thumbprint patterns on the water’s surface.8
One anomaly of this folio is the absence of text on the reverse, which instead has only a thin sheet of rough paper and a patchwork of rudimentary paper repairs. This strongly suggests that the folio, which once had the laminate structure of paper and cloth described in the catalogue of the Hamzanama exhibition, has been split at some point in its history, though it is difficult to imagine the motivation behind such a potentially risky action unless it were to separate another painting on the reverse or to remove the folio from a support on which it had been laid down. It is remotely conceivable that this painting was the first or last folio in a 100-folio volume, which would leave the other side altogether plain. Yet the two known examples of that phenomenon have the usual polished paper used for text, and written on it are formal inventory notes.9 This folio, however, has no indication of a volume or painting number, which customarily appears above the penultimate line of text or near the bottom of the painting field and has been useful in the reconstruction of the manuscript.
The chronology of the Hamzanama continues to be a matter of scholarly debate. The most definitive analysis uses historical accounts of the Hamzanama and unique codicological information on actual surviving paintings to assign the project to the earliest years of the reign of the young Emperor Akbar, that is, 1557/58 - 1572/73.10 Other proposed chronologies disregard that codicological information and date the Hamzanama as much as a decade later, with some scholars persisting in the belief that the mammoth 15-year project commenced in 1562 or 1564 and thus ended in 1577 or 1579.11 Whatever the absolute chronology, the presence of text on the painted side of the folio is a feature found only in the early volumes (that is, 1-5) of the 14-volume project; this traditional format was later abandoned in favor of one that had a full-scale painting on one side and a full page of text governing the following illustration on the other.12 Given our current understanding of the internal sequence and absolute chronology of the Hamzanama, the three lines of text affixed to the painted side of the folio thus suggest a date of about 1564 for this painting, a chronology anchored by the appearance of the date A.H. 972 (1564-65 C.E.) on a painting 74 from volume 6 of the project.
1 For these paintings, see J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire (London, 2012), fig. 17, and B.N. Goswamy and E. Fischer, Wonders of a Golden Age (Zurich, 1987), no. 21.
2 See J. Seyller et al., The Adventures of Hamza (Washington, D.C, 2002), cat. 25, 31, 36, 42, 44, 45, 47, 53, 54, 58, 59, 63, 64, 69, 71, 73, 79, 83, and 86.
3 Seyller et al. 2002, cat. 64 and 63.
4 Seyller et al. 2002, cat. 42.
5 Seyller et al. 2002, cat. 86.
6 Seyller et al. 2002, cat. 69.
7 Seyller et al. 2002, cat. 53 and 64.
8 Compare the treatment of the water in Seyller et al. 2002, cat. 42 and 43.
9 Seyller et al. 2002, figs. 11-12.
10 Seyller et al. 2002, pp. 32-41.
11 A recent formulation of this later chronology, which includes restoring the Cleveland Tutinama to a date as early as 1560-65, a position accepted by few scholars, is given in S. Quintanilla, Mughal Paintings: Art and Stories (Cleveland, 2016), pp. 166-176.
12 For folios assigned to volumes 1-5, many with text above or below the painting, see Seyller et al. 2002, pp. 256-261.