A Battle between the Iranians and Turanians

Scene from the Shahnama
Mughal, India, 18th Century
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper
39 x 27 cm

Manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama, the greatest epic poem of Iran started being made in India as early as the 15th century. The Mughal rulers who were bibliophiles and also Persianised in many of their ways had luxurious manuscripts of the Shahnama commissioned.

The battle of Iran against Turan is one of the dominant themes of the Shahnama. A sizeable portion of the epic is filled with stories of the Iranian expeditions against Turan and the invasions by the Turanians to conquer the land of Iran. This is one such scene where the Iranians and Turanians are engaged in battle, and according to the story the Turanians use sorcery against the Iranians. The composition is a complex one with the scene divided into a foreground, a middle ground and a background. In each layer of this painting, there is action unfolding. A battle ensues between two

soldiers on a hilly outcrop at the top of the frame, and below them men from both armies march towards each other with their camels and flags, as they beat drums and blow trumpets which signal the beginning of the battle. The inclusion of this element engages the viewer at another level as the sense of sound is evoked by this imagery.

The sky is overcast with grey rain clouds, which pour torrentially on the hilly landscape. The trees in the background are bent, as though swaying in the storm. This could be an artistic metaphor for the storm brewing on the battlefield. In the middle ground, the two armies led by their respective leaders on horses who are shown wearing crowns, approach each other from either side, creating the sense of converging at the centre.

This folio has a uniquely Indian, late-Mughal flavor in terms of its colour palette with bright hues of orange, greens and blues, and in the rendering of the figures. The Mughal style of the 18th century is also seen in the rocks, which originally derive from Persian painting, and the artist has painstakingly depicted a whole range of weapons being used in battle. The Shahnama is replete with scenes of battle and these are often depicted in great detail, and with a degree of animation and some gruesome elements, as is the case in this folio.

Severed heads and limbs, running horses, soldiers in combat with their swords and shields, are all techniques the artists has used to bring to life the scene of battle, and they make the intensity of the moment almost palpable.

The Shahnama remained popular through the centuries as a manual on just kingship. However its more enduring appeal lay in its core theme—the eternal strife between good and evil, which is a theme that has cut across regions, centuries and generations to fascinate and inspire all.

Private collection, UK, 1950s to 2015.

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