May 27, 2007Aside

Sunday Levity: The history of spin (17th Century)

The emperor who dominated over the world and shot poverty too

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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All democracy and modernity did was to introduce subterfuge in the old art of spin-doctoring. It was different in the past, when spinning was not only done more openly, but also actually expected. But then, as indeed, now, creating a lasting favourable impression was a matter of fine art. Take, for instance, this intriguing miniature that you might have noticed on Maverick’s blog.

Now, this is a strange painting because it is well known in history that (the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, and the Persian Shah Abbas) never met in actuality. Thus, this magnificent piece of Mughal art is fanciful to say the least. Can such a whimsical, ahistorical visualization act as a source of historical information? Consider the following salient features characterizing it:

  1. The globe in the picture is much accurately rendered signifying that modern scientific ideas had already reached the imperial Mughal court.

  2. Both kings are depicted in the traditional costumes of their respective nations. Indeed, in 1613 Jahangir had sent an embassy to Shah Abbas that had a renowned portraitist named Bishndas accompanying it. Inscriptions say that this figure of the Shah was based upon portraits made by Bishndas. Thus, the two personalities have been authentically perceived in this apparently fictional composition.

  3. Jahangir has been rendered larger in stature and is shown embracing the Persian emperor in an almost condescending manner. In truth, Shah Abbas was a powerful opponent and a contestant for the city of Qandahar which guarded the Mughals’ northwestern frontier and was of much strategic importance. In fact, the Persians took Qandahar in 1622, when Jahangir was too preoccupied with the rebellion of his own son Shahjahan to stop them. Unlike his illustrious father Akbar who had to fight each and every inch of his way to consolidate and expand the Mughal Empire, Jahangir inherited a comfortable and secure existence which was both shaped and influenced by his passive and comfort-loving nature and an excessive fondness for both opium and wine. Hence, unable and unwilling to take on his rival militarily, the great Mughal emperor Jahangir instead had a fantasy where the submissive king of Persia paid homage to the formers’ own towering presence. Very aptly, the artwork is entitled Jahangir’s Dream.’ What greater insight can there be to the inner workings of an emperor’s mind?

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  1. While the Persian king stands on a meek looking sheep, Jahangir has been perceived as a mighty presence, standing over a much larger lion. Significantly, the lion has nudged the sheep almost into the Mediterranean, another instance of Jahangir’s wishful thinking, or was it some latent Mughal ambition flowing in his veins?

  2. Nevertheless, lest the Shah take offence at the unfair treatment meted out to him (even in a dream), Jahangir has very magnanimously allowed the former to share the refulgent halo in the background, this being another pointer to his pacifist nature. This composite halo is formed of both the sun and the moon and is upheld by angels (an assertion of European influence).

Evidently this painting, borne out of the rich tradition of Mughal art, has much to say over and above what lies at its surface. [ExoticIndiaArt.com]Geopolitical aggrandisement was not the only spin in town. Then, as now, the battle against poverty began, and often ended, with symbolism. In this other miniature, Abul Hasan portrays Emperor Jahangir—again balanced unprecariously on a globe with the same lion and lamb—shooting an arrow at poverty. Decidedly European looking angels are in the picture, one of them actually handing him arrows. We don’t know if Abul Hasan was known for cynical humour, for the image on the lower right may be suggesting that this is all very, well, fishy.



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