The Taming of Wild Elephants

Attributed to the artist Mir Kalan Khan
Lucknow, India, circa 1760
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper
21.5 x 13.2 cm

This exquisite painting displays the mature style of the artist Mir Kalan Khan. Active circa 1734-1770, he began his career in Delhi as a master painter in the atelier of Muhammad Shah (r. 1719-1748), before moving to Avadh circa 1755. Mir Kalan Khan’s style was more experimental than his contemporaries, such as Kalyan Das, who popularised the classicising elegance associated with painting of the Muhammad Shah period. He rejected this formal aesthetic in favour of a more expressive and emotive style that incorporated a range of influences, from masterpieces of the Mughal and Deccani courts to works of art from Europe.

Mir Kalan Khan’s understanding of Indian painting styles, particularly those of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, is evident in the present work. Employing the traditional vertical format he depicts an elephant hunt, with two fighting elephants as the epicentre of action. Whilst primarily a genre scene, the painting has a strong narrative quality, expressed in three distinct registers. In the distant background a spear-wielding group attempts to capture two wild elephants as they bathe in a lake, while two figures converse with urgency and gesture towards them; in the mid-ground, a princely figure with a radiant halo sits astride a rearing horse, a falcon on his arm as he gazes beyond the picture’s frame; and finally in the foreground, two elephants clash with glorious, sinuous aplomb, their gold bells jangling, trunks delicately intertwined and bodies colliding with irrefutable grace.

The theme of fighting elephants, specifically tame beasts gone astray to trample an unfortunate mahout, is widely depicted in Indian painting. It was popular in the Deccan and Mughal contexts and found masterful expression in the paintings of Bundi and Kota in Rajasthan. Here, Mir Kalan Khan’s elephants are more dynamic than those typical of Mughal examples and less heavy and muscular in form than those of Bundi and Kota. Their exaggerated pose, fluttering ears, piercing gold eyes and fluid motion are more reminiscent of seventeenth century renditions from the Deccan, particularly Bijapur. This same energy is found in the magnificently coloured horse, its coat a radiant wash of pale blue through yellow to deep orange. The horse’s form, derived from a traditional Mughal and ultimately Persian prototype, embodies a tension and expressive complexity equally akin to works of seventeenth-century Deccani art.

Colour plays an important role in the work of Mir Kalan Khan. Conjuring hot red sunsets and glowing forest glades, his otherworldly use of colour imbues the painting with a fantastical, dream-like quality. The ethereal landscape provides sanctuary to the drama of the hunt, its billowing rock forms and softly flowing streams exquisitely rendered with subtle shading and iridescent gold. The liberal use of gold powder, mixed and applied in a European-inspired watercolour technique, is an important characteristic of Mir Kalan Khan’s mature style. The rock forms appear luminescent in warm yellow, fading into areas of deep blue and green.

The scene is rendered with remarkable detail, illustrating Mir Kalan Khan’s masterful draughtsmanship. Smooth shading is heightened with fine line drawing, evident in the detail of the portraits, the soft furs of the princely rider and the tiny lock of hair caught before his ear. A distinctive feature of Mir Kalan Khan’s work is the freely drawn application of black pigment in the form of expressive outlines. Particularly apparent here in the faces of the elephants and the horse and rider, these lines create areas of dramatic contrast, drawing the viewer in and accentuating the sense of drama and energy throughout. The scene is also imbued with a strong sense of movement; figures lunge and stride with fluidity, almost as though engaged in a dance. Their distinctive round faces, some in three-quarter profile and with eyes that glance inquisitively to one side, are expressive and delicately painted. They are a further characteristic that defines the mature style of this evocative and enigmatic artist, Mir Kalan Khan.

Private Collection, France, 1969-2014.
Collection of Mr. C., Paris, 1969.

Beach, M.C., Eberhard Fischer & B.N. Goswamy (eds.). Masters of Indian Painting. Zurich: Artibus Asiae Publishers, 2011.
Leach, Linda. Paintings From India. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art: Vol. 8. London and New York: Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1998.
Markel, Stephen (ed.). India’s Fabled City: The Courtly Art of Lucknow. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2010.

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