What is the most romantic gift a husband can give his wife? Correction. What is so precious that it is fit for a prince to gift his beloved? Think ‘Mughal era’ and the obvious answer is – an album of miniature paintings.
And, mind you, this was no ordinary prince. Dara Shikoh was the eldest son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and one of the most tragic characters in Indian history. A great scholar and an aesthete, a beloved son, a doting father and a loving husband, Dara Shikoh met his tragic end in 1659 when he lost the war of succession to his brother Aurangzeb. One of the most interesting possessions of this doomed prince that survives to this day is the ‘Dara Shikoh Album’ of miniatures, now in the possession of the British Library, London.
The Dara Shikoh album is unique as it is one of the most complete miniature albums of its kind.
During the lifetime of his mother Mumtaz Mahal (who was buried in the Taj Mahal after its completion), Dara Shikoh was betrothed to his half-cousin Princess Nadira Banu Begum, daughter of his paternal uncle Sultan Parvez Mirza. And thus began a very interesting art project – an album of exquisite paintings made for Dara by the renowned artists of Shah Jahan’s Mughal court.
The contents of the album were prepared between 1633 CE and 1647 CE. The paintings are arranged in facing pairs, as was the tradition in Mughal albums. The contents mostly consist of portraits of teenage princes and princesses, holy men and studies of flowers and birds, indicating the breadth of Dara’s intellectual pursuits.
The ‘Dara Shikoh Album’ also has an inscription in Dara’s own handwriting, pointing to just how much he loved his wife Nadira Banu. It reads –
īn muraqqa‘-i nafīs ba-anīs-i khāṣṣ u hamdam u hamrāz ba-ikhtiṣāṣ Nādirah Bānū Bēgam dādah [shud az] Muḥammad Dārā Shikōh ibn Shāh Jahān pādshāh-i ghāzī sannah 1056.
(‘This precious volume was given to his dearest intimate friend Nadira Banu Begum by Muhammad Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan, emperor and victor, year 1056/1646–47’). It was a special gift from a loving husband to his dearest wife.
Shah Jahan’s favourite son Dara Shikoh (Persian, ‘of the Grandeur of Darius the Great’) had a lot going in his favour. He was given plum appointments and frequent promotions beginning at an early age and, most importantly, his father Shah Jahan formally confirmed him as his ‘heir-apparent’ by granting him the title ‘Shahzada-e Buland Iqbal’. Dara is seen here with his father, brothers and maternal grandfather, Asaf Khan (father of Mumtaz Mahal)
The young prince seems to be about 12 years old from his size although somewhat older, judging by his features. He holds out his hand to his tutor, who seems to be about to hand him a book.
Dara was an erudite champion of mystical religious speculation and cultural interaction among people of all faiths. This would later make him a heretic in the eyes of his orthodox younger brother Aurangzeb and a suspected eccentric in the opinion of the worldly power brokers swarming the Mughal throne.
The lady in the painting, which appears in the album opposite ‘Dara Shikoh With A Tutor’, somewhat more mature than most of the female portraits in the album, wears jewels of imperial quality and stands with one hand on a prunus tree and the other holding a narcissus. That and the white narcissus growing before her – white being associated with mourning – suggest that this could be Dara Shikoh’s mother Mumtaz Mahal (b. 1593), who died in Burhanpur in 1631 while giving birth to her 14th child.
The mismatched borders of the two facing paintings suggest that the prince rearranged the order of the folios so that his mother could cast her benevolent gaze on his studies. The handling of her head and the prunes in the background suggest that this could be the work of painter Bishndas.
Inscribed on the bowl in Persian is: ‘Amal-i Muhammad Khan musavvir sanna 1043’ (‘work of Muhammad Khan, the artist, the year 1043/1633–4’). The only signed and dated painting in the album is by the otherwise mysterious artist, Muhammad Khan, who was possibly from the Deccan and was engaged by Dara Shikoh when the Mughal emperor’s court was in Burhanpur in 1630-32. It depicts a prince pouring wine.
The most interesting aspect of the painting is the vase, which is filled with a bouquet of many different sorts of flowers and is very unlike contemporary Mughal depictions of vases of flowers in paintings. While flower vases are occasionally seen in contemporary Mughal party scenes, they are usually slender and filled with a single type of flower arranged in two dimensions. This extravagant bouquet in Muhammad Khan’s painting appears to have been influenced by European paintings of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Paintings of Birds and Flowers
Like his grandfather, Emperor Jahangir, Dara Shikoh too commissioned great paintings of birds and flowers, as can be seen from the album. One such painting is that of the black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), a medium-sized bird found in many parts of the world, including South Asia and South-East Asia. Such herons have a black crown and back, while the rest of the body is white or grey, the eyes red and legs yellow.
Paintings of Flowers
One of the most beautiful naturalistic studies of flowers in the album is found in another page attributed to Muhammad Khan, where six different species of flowers are laid out as specimens on the page. Such an arrangement appears to be derived from earlier paintings by Mansur, foremost of Jahangir’s natural history painters.
Paintings of Unknown Royals
A prince is seated on a white carpet against a blue-green bolster, wearing a fur-lined gold coat and green headdress with feather aigrettes, and holding a black aigrette in his left hand. An attendant stands on the left; flowers and water are in the foreground and background. The painting is attributed to Muhammad Khan.
A girl, facing right, stands in a landscape holding a bottle of wine and a cup; European pastoral scenes in the distance. Gouache with gold, originally oval, foreground and flowers added to form a rectangular shape.
Sadly, the beautiful love story of Dara Shikoh and Nadira Begum ended in a tragedy. Emperor Shah Jahan’s prolonged illness in 1657 CE gave Aurangzeb a chance to muscle in on the throne. In a series of battles, he defeated Dara’s generals and the army sent by his father. Victorious, Aurangzeb entered Agra and Shah Jahan was placed under house arrest and he spent the rest of his life confined within the walls of Agra Fort.
A far more grim fate awaited Dara and Nadira Banu Begum.
While they were trying to escape capture by Aurangzeb’s army, Nadira Banu took ill and died on 6 June 1659 at Bolan Pass, now in Pakistan. She had been devoted to her husband during all the hardships he had faced and accompanied him on all his travels. Just days later, Dara was betrayed and handed over to Aurangzeb’s army. On 30 August 1659, after being paraded through Delhi’s streets in chains, Dara was beheaded. All his wealth and artworks were seized by Aurangzeb.
The whereabouts of this album in the 18th century are not known. In 1823, it belonged to Lt Charles Forn of the 6th regiment at Vellore. It was purchased in an auction by the India Office Library, now known as the British Library, where it is on display in the rare manuscripts section. It has 72 folios with Persian calligraphy and 68 miniature paintings, with five leaves missing. The miniatures face each other in pairs.
Interestingly, in the early years of Aurangzeb’s reign, every effort was made to erase Dara’s existence, and Dara’s inscription dedicating the album to his wife wouldn’t survive either. It was obliterated by covering it with a gold foil, concealing it completely.
But many years after Aurangzeb’s death, the gold foil wore away and Dara’s handwriting resurfaced. Without this inscription, we would never have known the real owner of this precious work of art and the story of this intimate gift to Nadira Banu Begum. At last, Dara, the intellectually curious and beloved husband of Nadira Banu Begum, got the recognition he deserved!
Manoj Dani is an independent researcher of art history based in California and is currently working on classifying the art treasures of BISM, Pune.
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