A Mughal Masterpiece at The British Museum

This painting is called “The assembled animals complain to the raven of their mistreatment at the hands of manBritish Museum catalogue number 1920.0917.05  , an illustration to one of the animal fables that were so popular with royal patrons in the 16th century.  It has been attributed to the painter Miskin (or a student of Miskin) who worked for the Mughal emperor Akbar. It has been dated to around 1595 – 1600. It was one of the paintings that Dr. Barbara Brend selected to show us for our seminar “Painting and Illumination in Persian and Indian Books of the 16th and 17th Centuries” .

© The Trustees of the British Museum

It is a wonderful painting, full of energy, teeming with creatures real and mythical, and appears by its size to have been part of an album. It shows clearly the synthesis of Persian and Indian styles that were the major influences on Mughal painting, and it has a dynamic exuberance that was characteristic of paintings made under the patronage of Akbar.

Some years ago I was asked to do a series of demonstrations of Mughal painting methods for a British Museum educational website, www.mughalindia.co.uk/  I chose this painting to study for the exercise, and so had the pleasure of examining it closely in the study room. You can see the series of captioned photographs they made if you click on ‘Artchest’ in the interactive picture on the site. I selected a small area in the top right had corner of the picture which depicts a magical bird called a simorgh. The Persian name means “thirty birds” and it looks a little bit like the Chinese phoenix. It is also not dissimilar to the Russian firebird. This glorious creature appears many times in Persian literature, where it is attributed with great wisdom.

I think that the master, be it Miskin or one of his followers, would have begun with a lovely flowing line-drawing done with a fine squirrel-hair brush and some lampblack ink, rather like this.

Then it might have been passed on to a junior artist in the workshop to block in the main areas of colour. The body of the simorgh seems to be painted with red lead, and the areas that are to be gold have an underpainting of yellow ochre. The green wings and other details of the plumage are of course malachite, and the sky is lapis lazuli. The blocked in colour would then be polished with a smooth stone to create a fine surface for the next stage of painting, which would be done by the master.

Reconstruction of the simorgh by Anita Chowdry

When I examined the original painting I noticed that fairly loose flowing strokes done in vermilion and opaque white were used to give texture to the feathery neck and breast. This kind of painterly treatment is quite characteristic of pictures made for Akbar, and one of the qualities that I find particularly appealing about this period. Undertaking an exercise like this can teach one a great deal about a particular period of art, and helps to deepen one’s appreciation.

I do wish I had a go at painting the swarm of bees just above the simorgh’s head. They seem almost to be flying out of the picture in the original.