30th September 2014
2 min read

Observations on a Painting by Dharm Das

John Seyller


This painting belongs to a dispersed Zafarnama (Book of Victories). Composed by Sharaf al-Din ‘Ali Yazdi about 1425, the text relates the history of Timur (r. 1370-1405), the Mughals’ illustrious ancestor. This manuscript, part of a program begun in the mid 1580s to illustrate Mughal dynastic histories, was produced in the late 1590s and is estimated to have had over ninety illustrations, all in a small format traditionally used for poetical manuscripts but also employed in the 1596-97 Akbarnama that is now largely divided between the British Library and Chester Beatty Library.1

The folio number (f. 482) recopied in the margin on the reverse and the rubric describing Timur’s expedition against the Qara Tatar (Black Tatar) together establish the subject as an event of early 1402, when Timur distributed rewards in the aftermath of his successful campaign of western Anatolia.2 These rewards, described as robes of honor, golden swords, and various royal provisions, are shown as assorted daggers, jeweled swords, and golden vessels displayed on broad golden platters laid out before the enthroned Timur. A noble drops to one knee before the royal carpet, while others pay homage to the sovereign with more conventional gestures.

Though the original ascription was lost when the folio was trimmed to the ruling, the painting can be attributed to Dharm Das (active c. 1577-1607), a leading painter who was involved in nearly all the major manuscripts of the 1590s. This painting is considerably finer than the three other known illustrations by Dharm Das in this Zafarnama manuscript, and rivals the level of accomplishment seen in his works in two of the greatest contemporary manuscripts: the 1595 British Library Khamsa of Nizami and the 1597-98 Walters Art Museum Khamsa of Amir Khusraw Dihlawi.3 The faces of any figures here—notably the door guardian, falconer, and two nobles closest to Timur—belong ¬unmistakably to the artist’s very distinctive character types, and others exhibit his penchant for intense, even glaring expressions. Dharm Das models figures exquisitely, concentrating the shading just inside their garments’ contours. In this way, for example, Timur and those closest to him achieve that rare combination of three-dimensional volume and coloristic intensity. This quality is developed in concert with the artist’s unusual palette, which includes a teal blue, blackish green, and lime green juxtaposed with a chocolate brown. Dharm Das has the three retainers in the foreground move animatedly with his familiar sense of urgency, and streaks and shades various architectural elements so that the pavilion, doorway, and dome become exceptionally three-dimensional.

i. For a fuller account of this manuscript, see J. Seyller, Mughal and Deccani Paintings. Eva and Konrad Seitz Collection of Indian Miniatures (Zurich, 2010), no. 6.

ii. Zafarnama, ed. Muhammad ‘Abbasi (Tehran: Rangin, 1336), vol. 2, p. 357.

iii. For these paintings, see B. Brend, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami (London, 1995), figs. 4, 6, and 14; and J. Seyller, Pearls of the Parrot of India. The Walters Art Museum Khamsa of Amir Khusraw of Delhi (Baltimore, 2001), pls. X, XIII, XV, and XX.

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