Of Hunting and Haloes

Depicting Sultan Jamshid Qutb Shah of Golconda
In the following paper I have tried to suggest what an early modern European art historian might learn from the Sainsbury Centre. To do this, I have focused on one image: the miniature 'portrait' of Sultan Jamshid Qutb.

This miniature was made roughly three hundred years ago in Golconda, one of the most affluent cities of medieval and early modern India. Golconda is located on the Deccan plain, an area to the south-east of present-day Bombay. Between 1512 and 1687, the city was the centre of an independent kingdom ruled by the Qutb Shahi, a Shia Muslim dynasty; Sultan Jamshid Qutb governed Golconda on behalf of that dynasty between 1543 and 1550 [1].

The interesting thing about the Sainsbury Centre image is that it cannot be a direct portrait. For it was made sometime around 1680, just before the collapse of the Qutb Shahi dynasty and more than a hundred years after its subject was dead. Its purpose was to form part of an illustrated book depicting past rulers and nobles of the Deccan. Such books were probably made for the consumption of local nobles and indeed for the Qutb Shahi dynasty itself. These books helped such readers to form and reinforce a sense of their own descent and their place in the broader history of Golconda. So the image under discussion here is not so much a portrait - although it may be based on early portraits of Sultan Jamshid - but rather a generic image showing what a great Deccani prince should look like, what the ruler of Golconda ought to look like. Its function is to instruct late seventeenth-century noble and princely viewers in how to deport themselves.

Great care has been taken in the making of this small image. There is substantial evidence that pictures like this represented up to fifty days of work for the skilled craftsmen who made it [2]. Considering this, it is worthwhile exploring exactly how the anonymous craftsmen of Golconda have put together this generic image of nobility and princely dignity to instruct and delight their readership.

First, Sultan Jamshid's head is shown in profile, framed by a delicately hatched golden halo. In turn, both head and halo are set against an intense turquoise background which fades off into stylised clouds at the top and on the left. The halo is quite discreet. But it is nevertheless part and parcel of the visual iconography of rulership as it had developed over two centuries in Mughal India, the great Muslim state just north of Golconda [3].

The halo, quite simply, stands for the relationship between the Sultan and God. This becomes clear if one considers the 'Institutes of Akbar', a Mughal text on kingship written in the late sixteenth century and circulated in manuscript form throughout the Indian subcontinent. The 'Institutes of Akbar' describe royalty in the following terms:

'[It is] a light emanating from God, and a ray from the sun, the illuminator of the universeÂ… Modern language calls this light farr-i izidi (the divine light) and the tongue of antiquity called it kiyan khurra (the sublime halo). It is communicated by God to kings without the intermediate assistance of anyoneÂ…'

[4]

Sultan Jamshid's halo, then, is in part a reference to the sun - it stands for his own role as 'a ray from the sun' - and this certainly begins to explain why the halo is set against a bright turquoise sky. As such, the image under discussion deploys a tradition well-known not just in early modern India but also in Europe: conceiving of the king as a sun, equally common, for example, at the French court in the later seventeenth century. But the halo also stands for the Sultan's special role as 'a light emanating from God'; it constitutes him as a sacred presence, just as a halo indicated a sacred presence in contemporary European art.

Clearly, this image of Sultan Jamshid relies on a set of broadly shared visual devises deployed both in Europe and in Asia to depict the royal and the sacred. In turn, this suggests that one should avoid thinking of European and Asian art as fundamentally different. After a little thought, this is hardly surprising. Europe and Asia are connected by a great landmass running from the Ural Mountains in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Even from a purely geographical point of view, this division between 'Europe' and 'Asia' is largely arbitrary. Moreover, since before the early days of the Roman Empire, what we are now pleased to call the boundary between Europe and Asia has been criss-crossed by trade routes. By way of such trade-routes images, objects and people travelled back and forth, the trade-routes facilitated the exchange of news, goods and ideas. This explains why a Golconda Sultan might be understood as a version of the sun and depicted with a golden halo, using visual devices equally current in Versailles and Golconda during the second half of the seventeenth century.

In fact, invoking their connections to the world beyond Golconda was particularly important to the rulers of that area. For they claimed descent from the foremost Shia dynasty, the Safavids, rulers of Persia. The Safavids, in turn, saw themselves as descended from the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed himself. So, for the Qutb Shahi dynasty and for the Deccani Shia nobility, a halo stood for more than just a general relationship between God and royalty. The halo could also be understood as a specific indicator of the Sultan's kinship with the Prophet and of his long-standing connection with the powerful Persian Shia dynasty. It should be noted here that this dynastic alliance was of crucial importance in the early 1680s when this image was made. At that date, the independent kingdom of Golconda was under great military pressure from the neighbouring Mughal Empire. Indeed, in 1687, the Qutb Shahi dynasty finally surrendered to the armies of the Mughal emperor Awrangzib and Golconda was annexed into the Empire.

But the halo is not the only thing which proclaims that this is a great Deccani prince. Sultan Jamshid rests his left hand on a shield, the hilt of a sword is visible and one may infer that he must be holding this between his thumb and index finger. The handle of a dagger protrudes from the belt or girdle around his waist. Thus, although he does not wear full military dress, it is clear that one should perceive this man as a warrior, as someone prepared to fight. And that, of course, was the hall-mark of a member of the nobility, in seventeenth-century India just as in medieval and early modern Europe.

But Sultan Jamshid is not simply depicted as a man of war. He does not wear military dress but rather the jama and turban worn by Deccani nobles in this period. Moreover, his right hand is occupied: it is gloved and on it is perched a hunting falcon. Again, there are interesting parallels with medieval and early modern Europe. A falcon was an expensive accoutrement used for that favourite pastime of Deccani and French nobles: hunting. In both Europe and Asia, hunting was understood as a sport permitting nobles to develop and exercise the skills of warfare during periods of peace. So Sultan Jamshid's falcon indicates that, although he is ready to fight, he is also a man of peace. Again, in the 1680s, this would have had particular resonance for the Deccani nobles who formed the original readership of the book from which this image came. For, as already noted, this area was under attack from the enormously powerful Mughal Empire. Yet in the image the foremost Deccani prince figured not directly as a warrior but rather as a man prepared both for war and for peace. Perhaps this was to distinguish him from the patently aggressive Mughal emperor Awrangzib.

So far I have only really concentrated on the iconography of this image: on the halo, the armoury and the falcon. These are certainly important components within the painting: they help to convey that Sultan Jamshid is a ruler and also suggest what manner of ruler he is. Yet it seems to me that there are two formal or purely pictorial aspects of this image which should be considered if one is to understand the visual forms considered appropriate to an early modern Deccani prince. The first of these is the parapet behind which Sultan Jamshid is shown. Conventionally it is interpreted as part of a terrace upon which the Sultan stands [5]. This may or may not be the case. In any case, this parapet inserts a barrier between the viewer and the Sultan - one cannot imagine oneself as being in the same space as him. He is distanced from us, the viewers. So the parapet supplements the halo: together, these two aspects make it quite clear that Sultan Jamshid is no ordinary human being but rather 'a light emanating from God'.

The second important formal characteristic is the profile format. The forehead, nose, mouth and beard are all shown in conformity with the profile view. But the eye is not. The Sultan's eye is shown as if from the front and yet he is most emphatically not looking at us. Rather, his piercing gaze would seem to be fixed on something invisible to the left of the picture frame. This is entirely conventional for this kind of image but, nevertheless, the effect is most unsettling. This is probably because the peculiar depiction of eye is set amongst a careful rendition of the textures of skin, hair and beard which encourages one to read this image as simply following nature. But the Sultan's eye does not follow nature. It is appears turned as if to look at us and yet the pupil is directed away, his gaze is fixed on the blue beyond. And that is perhaps how one should explain the intense turquoise blue of the background - it does at least give some clue about what the Sultan is really looking at, namely the heavens. This, of course, is entirely in keeping with his status as 'emanating from God' - perhaps Sultan Jamshid is piously contemplating his own, divine origins. Nevertheless, his eye is watchfully turned towards the viewer whilst simultaneously ignoring our presence. He is not fully accessible to us and yet he is depicted as potentially aware of us. In turn, this makes him appear as a distant and pious, yet also vigilant and dignified individual.

From all of this, then, one may conclude that the ideal Deccani prince is first and foremost aloof and yet watchful, his mind engaged with higher things without forgetting the present. Perhaps this also helps us understand why images like these have appealed greatly to European collectors ever since the seventeenth century [6]. The aloof profile pose, the halo and the accoutrements of war and hunting all form part of certain, shared visual conventions used both in Asia and Europe in the early modern period to depict the sacred and the noble.

When I began researching this paper, I imagined that I would be venturing into a new area. What I learnt was that a great deal of my existing knowledge - as an art historian of early modern Europe - was more relevant than I could ever have dreamt of. Consequently, the boundaries between 'European' and 'Asian' art history are mostly in our minds, of our own making.

Margit Thøfner | May 2003