The Untold Story of Bichitr and his strange painting of Emperor Jahangir

Among all the Indian painters whose glory has somehow got lost in time, Bichitr was one of them. He was the court painter of the two great Mughal Emperors - Jahangir and Shāh Jahān. Bichitr's work is characterized by clear, hard lines and brilliant colors that barely manage to avoid cold perfectionism. His earliest works date from 1615 and unfortunately, that’s all we know of his life.

In fact,the people would have never known about Bichitr if he had not painted the famous yet strange portrait collage of Emperor Jahangir called- Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings.

In this blog, India’s emerging artist and contemporary painter Shantala Palat shares an interesting story about this painting.

Bichitr painted the 18 x 25.3 cm piece of the work, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, from the Indian and Persian album, “Saint Petersburg Muraqqa,” in 1615-1618 through the use of gold, watercolors and ink .

The painting is divided into the border and this technique of inserting the borders within the border interestingly works. In the inner part ,i.e, the main painting, Jahangir is shown as sitting on a pedestal and he is surrounded by four men. On the extreme left side of the painting, is the kneeling figure of Shaikh Husain of Christi Shrine, an Ottoman Sultan, King James I, and lastly the artist Bichitr respectively.

Around Jahangir’s head is a halo, which is a combination of both a slim crescent moon and a sun (harmonious fusion between the sun and the moon) symbolizing the ruler’s emperorships and divine truth. In the background are a few cupids, which are also used to show Jahangir’s divinity. The importance for Jahangir to become as seemingly divine was brought forth by his father Akbar, who began to incorporate the ideas and styles of Sufism.

The second important figure in the painting is Sufi Shaikh who stands almost on par with the Emperor’s level and accepts the gifted book and a hint of a smile brightening his face. By engaging directly only with the Shaikh, Jahangir is making a statement about his spiritual leanings. Tthe painting reflects the fact that the Emperor favours a meeting with a holy man over an audience with kings.

In the composition, the artist has shown himself as one of the smallest figures. In his self-portrait, he has incorporated his own signature within the hourglass pedestal that Jahangir is sitting on.

Allegorical portraits was a popular painting genre in Emperor Jahangir’s court. Regardless of whether Jahangir actually met the Shaikh or was visited by a real Ottoman Sultan (King James I certainly did not visit the Mughal court), Bichitr has dutifully indulged his patron’s desire to be seen as powerful ruler (in a position of superiority to other kings), but with a spiritual bent. While doing so, the artist has also cleverly taken the opportunity to immortalize himself.

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© Shantala Palat 2015