The pen case has been a symbol of power at court throughout the mediaeval Islamic period. One of the very few top quality mediaeval Persian objects that has survived inscribed with a non-royal owner’s name was a pen case made for the Ilkhanid vizier Shams al-Din Muhammad Juvaini that sold at Sotheby’s, London, 30 April 2003, lot 68. At the Mamluk court in Egypt the pen-case became an increasingly frequent element of the heraldry that indicated the position at court of the amir whose bearing it was. Pen cases and inkwells are among the most opulently decorated works of art of the mediaeval Islamic world. In a way they are a mediaeval reflection of the modern maxim that “knowledge is power”.
This tradition continued into the Mughal world. Because of the wonderfully detailed records left by the early Mughal emperors and their courtiers, we know that from Babur’s time until the reign of Aurangzeb, opulently decorated pen cases were given to leading court officials, especially viziers and Chief Revenue Officer. One such was given by Jahangir to Asaf Khan, the official depicted in Lots 338 and 182, on his appointment as Mir Bakhshi (vizier) in 1608. Considerable further examples are noted by Amin Jaffer (Jaffer, 2013, p.90). Such pen-cases were worn with pride, frequently tucked into the waist sash, as depicted in various paintings. One of the best depictions is in the depiction of the submission of Rana Amar Singh of Mewar to Prince Khurram in the Chester-Beatty Library where two courtiers are depicted with pen-cases in their waists (CBL. In 60.6; reproduced in San Francisco 2018, pl.28). Because of the lack of comparable record-keeping we know far less about the practices at the Deccani courts, but it is relatively safe to assume that the pen case was a similarly important indication of status there as elsewhere in the Islamic and Mughal worlds. That the shape was also used in the Deccan is demonstrated by a late 16th century drawing from Ahmednagar of a Scholar mediating before an open book in the Musee Guimet in Paris (E.O.3577 (b); Zebrowski, 1983, pl.18).
The earliest dateable pen case of this form, with the inkwell attached to one side near the end of the tubular pen cases, is a silver and niello inlaid brass example signed by Mirak Hussein Yazdi dating from the early Safavid, early 16th century period in Iran (Benaki Museum, Athens, inv.13172). It is a form that spread, becoming the most popular shape in Ottoman Turkey as well as appearing elsewhere in slightly different forms in the Islamic World. Within India the shape took on regional characteristics. A spectacular gem set jade example almost certainly made for the Mughal court is in the al-Sabah Collection (LNS 84 HS; Keene and Kaoukji, 2002, no.2.17, p.38). Very close in form to the Iranian prototype, the inkwell is compact, of small diameter and with a simple onion dome with ball finial. Here the proportions are very different: the inkwell is of wider diameter, but the really prominent element is the ribbed domed cover. Similarly enlarged and ribbed domed covers are known on brass examples attributed to the Deccan in the Al-Sabah Collection (LNS 637 M and LNS 638 M). The dome in our example is higher and even closer to the proportions of the swelling lotus-bud shaped domes that are such a feature of Deccani Sultanate architecture. The collar below the dome echoes the band of sepals that typically encloses the base of a Sultanate architectural dome.
Just as the proportions here are far more voluptuous than the elegant refinement of the Mughal jade example, so is the decoration. A riot of gold and precious stones, the gold with its scrolls, leaves and swirls running riot like a plant over the surface. These leaves and scrolls are however carefully worked to create claws that help retain the stones. The work, both in terms of the materials and the execution is very similar to that of a flask, probably a case for a ceremonial conch shell, in the Al-Sabah Collection, (LNS XXXV SH; Zebrowski, 1997, pl.45; Keene and Kaoukji 2001, no.13.3, p.144). Both use very pronounced gold, proudly ribbed on the surface, within which the stones are almost enveloped. The stones themselves are comparable, with good colour rubies contrasting with paler emeralds. The diamonds are noticeably primitively cut, some clearly revealing the original crystalline structure. The use of claws extruded from raised gold-work enclosing cabochon tightly packed rubies is reminiscent of the construction of South Indian temple jewels such as the late 17th century Gopalakrishna temple pendant now in Doha (Tan, 2002, no.12, pp.46-49).
The bird on the underside of the inkwell has been identified as a hamsa, a mythical bird that is associated with water, is also the mount of Sarasvati and is very similar to the mount for Brahma. The conch shell cover in Kuwait has as the main element of the design a large bird that is considerably more ferocious; it resembles the simurgh but has a strongly Hindu South Indian face, reminiscent of the large lion supports at the Vitthala temple at Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagara dynasty in Southern India. While the main dynasty there was strongly Hindu, there were Moslem queens, many of the constructions are very clearly strongly influenced by the Muslim architecture just to the north of their realm, and one of the buildings still standing is a mosque in the Royal Enclosure of pure Sultanate form. This seems the perfect context in which this spectacular inkwell and the conch shell cover would have been created, a site that shows the same fusion of Hindu and Muslim elements as are found here.
A comparable work is also found on a dagger attributed to the royal Mughal workshop under Jahangir (inv.no.R-59; Mohamed, 2007, no.172); also two tawiz type pendants attributed to Deccan late 16th early 17th century in the Al-Sabah Collection (LNS 1902 J; Curatola et. al, 2010 no.283).