Siyah-Qalam – An Unusual Literary Commission

Here is a commission I undertook earlier this year for writer Shekhar Das. It is an illustration for a work on which he is currently engaged.

Camel commission for Shekhar Das (sorry it’s heavily copyrighted, as it awaits publication.)

This extraordinary vision comes from a chapter of his book, based on events – part historical, and part fictional – that occurred during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in the early 17th century.

Poor camel! The story is, that he is transporting the severed heads of rebels accross the desert from Qandahar to the Imperial capital of Lahore where the Emperor Jahangir awaits his tribute. The focus here is on the plight of the camel, who has the vile job of carrying this stinking load for days in the heat of the desert, maddened by the gore and the flies it attracts. He stops, and tries to buck the rotting heads off his back, and has managed to get rid of some of them. Vultures circle above the distant mountains in the background, attracted by the scent of carrion. The landscape is desolate, highlighting the camel’s dispair. To get a sense of scale, the entire picture fits onto a piece of A4 paper, with wide margins all round.

The Commission

Consultation process with the writer Shekhar Das

I like to work on commissions that are in effect creative partnerships in which I can create a tangible image of the client’s vision. The magic only works if the client’s ideas work in synergy with my own creative endeavour and skill-sets, so such partnerships are quite rare and precious. As a journalist, Mr. Das has been a professional writer all his life, and his research for this project goes deep – so we both understand and appreciate the historical context to begin with. He wanted the work to look like that of an artist who might have worked under Jahangir’s own patronage, possibly with the fictional identity of one of the few women artists that were part of the royal household. I guess I am one of the few people with the technical skills and sensibilities to be able to do justice to this, so I was happy to put them to service.

So, how does such a commission begin, and what are the processes that go into creating a vision like this one? Well, first of all comes the client’s brief. We have a long meeting, where Mr. Das outlined the the story, and the moment within the narrative that I was to illustrate. He described the setting, and the psychological anguish of the camel. Then we discussed the role of the artist within the story – the person trained within the traditions of the Imperial Mughal workshops, who was assigned the task of painting the scene.

Zebra by Mansur, 1621, inscribed by Jahangir. Copyright V&A Museum. Museum no. IM 23-1925

Jahangir was a passionate patron, encouraging and nurturing his favourite artists. He championed the idea of making luxurious Muraqqa’ or albums, repositories for masterpieces of drawing, painting or calligraphy, all beautifully margined and bound in his Kitabkhane or workshops. Some of the master-painters excelled in incisively realistic portraiture, absorbing influences from the European prints and miniatures that Jahangir admired and collected. Others, like Mansur and Manohar, were noted for their exquisite natural history paintings and drawings.

Siyah Qalam

In the end we decided on a monochrome drawing technique called Siyah-Qalam, which Jahangir also admired. This is a technique of fine brush-drawing with black ink that developed in Iran during the 15th century, hence the name – Siyah = Black, Qalam = Brush or Pen. Sometimes the drawings were embellished with subtle areas of colour or gold. Mr. Das brought examples of old-master drawings of fighting camels done in siyah-qalam. It was a popular theme in Iran and Mughal India, and allowed artists to create dynamic compositions.

Two Fighting Camels, Iran,1630. Copyright Agha Khan Museum. Museum no. AKM 75

Sketching and composition

Any commission starts of with an intense period of sketching and planning. First of all I needed to get to know camels – dromedary camels to be precise, so I spent time drawing all aspects of camels from photographs as well as historical drawings. Trying to get into the soul of a camel, I recalled the time I rode on a camel in the Thar Desert with my young son, remembering how feisty these creatures could be! I also had a go at some of the severed heads that were to be an important aspect of the commission.

Preparatory sketches – brush and watercolour

Sketch of the final composition.

As the ideas developed, I started thinking about the exact composition of the camel’s stance, the way in which the heads had been loaded onto its back, and what happened to them in that moment of time when the camel bucked. I needed to get the camel’s pose plausible and dramatic, the expression of dispair on its face just right. We had several meetings during this process, untill we got the final composition just right. We eventually decided not to include the red gore that you see in the sketch.

Once the composition was approved, I drafted it onto tracing-paper, to be transferred onto the fair paper we had selected for the work. We chose a fine-textured writing paper with laid lines, as near as possible to the sort that Jahangir’s artists would have used. I had dyed the paper with henna, which was also authentic to the period, sized it with a dilute gum-Arabic solution, and polished it up with a wide agate burnisher. Part of Mr. Das’s narrative includes the discovery of an ancient stash of Mughal drawings by the narrator, so I wanted to convey a sense of age. The rich colour would enable the white highlights to come into their own.

The actual drawing took a long time to complete, as the technique of Siyah-Qalam is rigorous and precise. Maintaining a fluid, linear elegance is important in this style of drawing, at the same time as rendering the clear fine strokes of shading and detail, known as pardaz.

Painting in progress

Of course, the Devil is in the detail, such as these two close-ups of severed heads. It was kind of depressing and fun at the same time!





And finally, subtle gold washes to highlight the searing sky and distant mountains.