25th October 2017
16 min read

Elephants in a Landscape: Dakhl Poetry and the Poetic Imagination of Mir Kalan Khan

Kavita Singh

The Taming of Wild Elephants Attributed to the artist Mir Kalan Khan Lucknow, India, c. 1760 Opaque watercolour and gold on paper 21.5 x 13.2 cm

The Taming of Wild Elephants
Attributed to the artist Mir Kalan Khan
Lucknow, India, c. 1760
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper
21.5 x 13.2 cm


At first glance, The Taming of Wild Elephants could be mistaken for the kind of Akbari painting that was made nearly two hundred years before Mir Kalan Khan ever stroked a sheet of paper with his brush. It has the familiar vertical format, where wave upon wave of nervy rock scoop out a foreground, middle-ground and background where frantic action takes place. Here, elephants collide with titanic force, horse-riders prance across the landscape, hunters attack wild animals, and even spectators are not passive: they add to the picture’s energy as they gesticulate wildly, their forward-pointing hands and backwards-glancing heads making little zigzags that replicate on a small scale the dynamic volatility of the composition as a whole. It is only the characteristic sweetness of the faces with their naive, wide-open eyes, the thin washes of paint across most surfaces, and the high-key tones of yellow, orange, red and gold that lead us to suspect that the painting was made not by an artist serving in Akbar’s court, but by Mir Kalan Khan, an artist from a much later period at the court of Awadh who had studied classic Mughal works so closely that he could make their sensibility his own.

That Mir Kalan Khan should have been able to slip under an Akbari painter’s skin is no surprise. Through much of his career, he had excelled in precisely this kind of brilliant recapitulation of the art of distant places and times past: his versions of Shahjahani, Deccani and European painting are well-known.[1] Although many scholars have acknowledged Mir Kalan Khan’s great versatility, he has been seen simply as a mannerist[2] – one who imitates the manner of other painters – as though he invested his artworks with very little that was his own. But to understand Mir Kalan Khan, I suggest, it is better to think of him not as a mimic, who replicates the outward appearance or gestures and habits of other artists, but as a method actor, one whose profound identification with the art genre he is studying allows him to inhabit the mode and mentality of artists of times past. Going much beyond the skillful reproduction of the appearance of a historic style of painting, Mir Kalan Khan was able to enter its spirit: he could think in the style he adopted and produce novel compositions within it. His introduction of new elements, or ingenious re-use of older elements within a seemingly traditional composition provided a witty and sometimes deeply meaningful commentary on the relationship between past and present, near and far, by contrasting fabled lands and storied pasts with the quotidian realities of his own location.

Mir Kalan Khan could use visual language thus because he could trust that his viewers would understand the game he was playing. In his time, the viewing of Mughal paintings was already underwritten by a long tradition of connoisseurship. For centuries, learned patrons among the nobility had sought books, paintings and calligraphic works made by famous masters from Persia, Central Asia, the Deccan and Europe, as well as heirloom works produced in the Mughal past. These had often been assembled in albums where images were placed in conversation with each other; the erudite viewer would be able to enjoy juxtapositions between, say, a Persian and a Mughal rendering of similar themes. By the end of the sixteenth century, Molly Aitken tells us, this kind of connoisseurly “collecting” was done not just by patrons who could afford to buy rare works, but by artists who dipped into their mental archive of images and produced new compositions that cited, juxtaposed and commented on other paintings from the past. In her words: “By the late sixteenth century Mughal painters were borrowing one another’s forms and reproducing elements from Persian painting in a kind of conversation of imagery,”[3] and by Mir Kalan Khan’s time in the eighteenth century, “repetitions of existing compositions and motifs became a dominant art form…intended to display the painter’s knowledge of the Mughal past, his facility in handling high Mughal forms, and his capacity to bring something new to the reenactment of an existing image.”[4]

But painting was not the only artistic form of the time that strove to weave a web of allusions. It was common for poets composing in Persian and Urdu to make verses that related to the compositions of preceding poets in numerous ways. A poet could imitate the metre and rhyme-scheme of a pre-existing poem, showing his ability to equal his predecessor; he could take the first line of an existing shi’r or couplet and give it a second line of his own, giving the poem a twist in its new interpretation; or to another poet’s poem, he could add his own verses that extended, refined or subverted the original. Such maneuvers – intended as homage or as competition or both – reached a high pitch in the performative milieu of poetry mehfils, where rival poets competed with each other to produce subtler or more ingenious versions of each others’ or an acknowledged master’s verse. Sometimes, the new verses composed by upstart poets became ineluctably attached to the master’s poems, circulating as composite creations of dakhl poetry (literally, the poetry of infiltration, occupation) in which a younger poet had managed to occupy the poems of a master.[5] “The Taming of Wild Elephants” is a painting in the manner of dakhl poetry. Here Mir Kalan Khan reprises a classic Mughal theme, but in doing so, he shifts our perspective on not just his work but on that of the great artists of the past whose work he is recycling. What kind of intervention was Mir Kalan Khan making in this painting? To understand this, we should know a little bit about the place of elephants and the theme of elephant trapping in Mughal art.

Elephants were highly prized in the Mughal stable. Useful in peace and formidable on the battlefield, elephants had to be captured in the wild and tamed. The process of trapping wild elephants has been described in detail in the Akbarnama, and variations on the theme were depicted in several paintings from Akbar’s reign. Mahouts would lure the most valuable tuskers away from the herd by pretending to attack the females and young ones; when the male elephant rushed to protect them, he walked into a trap and was captured. The uppermost register of Mir Kalan Khan’s painting must be inspired by just such a depiction for in the background we see hunters provoking a pair of wild elephants that are bathing in a lake; the tusker rises out of the lake to confront the men even as his fearful mate reaches out to restrain him with her trunk.

At first glance, this distant scene of the luring of a wild elephant seems related to the dramatic elephant fight in the foreground: after all, both scenes are about magnificent pachyderms. It is only on closer examination that we realize that the scene in the foreground bears no relationship with the background activities. Although the painting appears coherent to our 21st-century-eyes, to 18th-century viewers the upper and lower parts of the painting would have appeared startlingly dissonant for the elephant fight we see here is not related to elephant trapping, as it does not show the clash of a trained elephant with a newly-captured one. Instead, both elephants clearly belong to the royal stable as they are decked with golden bells, chains and caparisons; both have mahouts although the unfortunate rider of the right-hand elephant has fallen between the two beasts and is likely being crushed to death. Nor did elephant fights take place in the wilderness where wild elephants roamed. It was an elaborate and expensive entertainment that was staged on occasion, near the palace, on the instruction of the emperor. By juxtaposing this elephant fight with the scene of elephant trapping, Mir Kalan Khan was deliberately bringing together disjunctive moments. But why did he do so, and in what way is this juxtaposition meaningful?

While Mughal power held sway, the staging of elephant combats was an exclusively imperial privilege.[6] Perhaps this is why, once Mughal power weakened in the 18th century and former governors of Mughal provinces strained to assert sovereignty over their territories, they publicly performed acts that had previously been forbidden to them and the staging of elephant fights became one of many signs of having shuffled off the Mughal yoke. This is why elephant combats were so eagerly held and so frequently depicted in Bundi and Kotah, in Mewar, in Lucknow and Hyderabad. Both the elephant fights and the paintings depicting them allowed these breakaway states to assert that they were heir to the Mughal legacy, but also its supplanter.

In the middle ground we see a horse-rider. With his brilliant halo, he can only be an emperor, but his is not a recognizable portrait of any historic figure. Only his youthfulness suggests that this figure might be based on a long-ago image of the boy-king Akbar. Akbar’s presence in this painting would be wholly appropriate in a painting that imitates the Akbari idiom, and Mir Kalan Khan might be drawing on the early portraits of Akbar made by the great Persian artist Khwaja Abdus Samad who had migrated to Humayun’s court and who chronicled the early years of Akbar’s reign when the young prince was catapulted to the throne by his father’s sudden death. Hunting with falcons in a landscape, formerly in the Benkaim collection and now in the collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art, is one such painting by Abdus Samad; in it, a teenage Akbar sits astride his horse in the moving-forward-but-looking-backward posture that Mir Kalan has used as well.

But one senses that Mir Kalan Khan is evoking Abdus Samad in this painting not just in the figure of the young emperor, but in the most dominant and dramatic motif in the composition – the elephant fight itself. The complex configuration of the two animals almost fusing into one body, with heads overlapping and trunks intertwined, is reminiscent of another and more celebrated instance of the depiction of two animals that are completely enmeshed as they engage in mortal combat: the camel fight.

Towards the end of his life, Abdus Samad had made a painting of two fighting camels, each of which reached under the other’s belly to bite his rival’s hind-leg. Abdus Samad’s camel fight was a “dakhl” work for it reprised almost perfectly a work in the Mughal collection that was ascribed to the legendary 15th-century artist Bihzad. Bihzad’s camel fight bears an inscription saying he had made it when he was nearly seventy years old, thus demonstrating the master’s powers into old age. But in an inscription on his own painting, Abdus Samad claimed he had made it with a “decrepit brush” at the age of eighty-five. Abdus Samad’s camel fight, then, was part homage to Bihzad and part upstaging, for his version was made at an even more advanced age than Bihzad’s and was even finer. But Abdus Samad was not the only artist to make a version of Bihzad’s camel fight. Adel Adamova has recounted a dizzying range of paintings and drawings from India, Iran and Turkey which rework this composition.[7] Clearly, there was some significance in the motif of the intertwined camels that impelled so many artists to return to it over the course of centuries; most convincing is the suggestion that it exemplifies the “girift-i-gur, the ‘give and take’ of animals locked in combat” that was considered one of the canonical themes of Persian painting.[8]

It seems the motif of the entangled camels was a classic theme of Persian painting, a rite of passage for artists to exhibit their skill in showing both dynamism and symmetry through the opposition of perfectly matched beasts. But in Awadh it seems the image of battling elephants was added to the repertoire of girift-i-gur themes. To do so, Mir Kalan Khan took up and modified yet another elephant-themed painting from Akbar’s court: from a brilliant scene of one war-elephant overcoming another in the Akbarnama, our artist subtracted elephant armour and mounted soldiers; tilting the head of the vanquished war-elephant, he turned the climax of a battle into an evenly matched combat, making it an image of girift-i-gur, give and take.[9]

That local tradition associated this newly-reconfigured theme of clashing elephants with the classic motif of the fighting camels is evidenced by an illustration made by another artist in Awadh just a few years after Mir Kalan Khan’s painting. There, in the borders of an elaborate atlas that he was making for a French patron in Lucknow in the 1760’s, this unnamed artist drew a series of contests of strength – including the Bihzadian camels and the Mir Kalanesque elephants that he placed side by side.

Could Mir Kalan Khan’s creation of this motif of clashing elephants be a conscious restatement of a classical Persian painterly theme through an animal that was particular to India, and not found in Persian lands? If so, the elephant combat was a deliberate indigenizing of the classical Persian theme of the camel fight. Perhaps Mir Kalan Khan meant this to be his artistic contribution to another literary debate that was raging in those days about the place and value of Persian poetry written in India versus that of the Persian poetry written in Persia.[10] Needless to say, the “Indian manner” – the sabk-i-hindi— was disparaged by Persian litterateurs even as it was lauded by Indian ones. But as he worked within the refined milieu of Awadh, in the glittering court and among the brilliant poets and ingenious artists, listening to the music of mehfils, inhaling the aromas of the inventive chefs and subtle perfumers, touching the gossamer-thin textiles laden with embroideries and watching the marbled palaces and riverside gardens of Lucknow rising from the ground to become the Shiraz-i-Hind, perhaps by making elephants take the place of Bihzad’s fabled camels, Mir Kalan Khan was telling his viewers that it was his Awadh that was no longer a province but had become the epicenter of the Persian world.


[1] For a survey of known works by Mir Kalan Khan, see Terence MacInerney’s essay on him in Beach et al., Masters of Indian Painting.Vol II pp 607-622.

[2] Leach, Paintings from India, 168.

[3] Molly Aitken, ‘Parataxis,’ 89.

[4] Aitken, ibid, 90.

[5] Dakhl poetry is mentioned by Abul Faz’l in his Ain i Akbari whose translator Blochmann glosses the term thus: “Dakhl, or entering, is the skilful use which a poet makes of the verses or parts of verses, of another poet.” Abū al-Faz̤l ibn Mubārak and Blochmann, The Ain I Akbari, p. 102. In several lectures, Prof. B. N. Goswamy has drawn the link between dakhl poetry and similar traditions of emulation and citation in Indian painting.

[6] Jahangir forbade the amirs at the provinces to make use of the following royal prerogatives “which are the private affair of kings”: sitting in the jharoka, having officers perform the kurnish (prostration), staging elephant fights, inflicting the punishment of blinding or cutting off ears and noses, forcing Islam on others, conferring titles, forcing singers to remain on duty in the manner of royal darbars, beating drums (naqqara), making elephants perform obeisance, going in procession with retinues, and using a seal on written documents.” Jahangir, The Tūzuk-I-Jahāngīrī, Or, Memoirs of Jahāngīr. Cited in Gulru Necipoglu p. 325.

[7] Adel T Adamova, “Iconography of a Camel Fight.”

[8] Adamova, citing Lentz and Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision, cat. no. 68, p. 343.

[9] See “The War Elephants Citrananda and Udiya Collide in Battle,” by Keshav. Illustration from the Akbarnama, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

[10] See Faruqui, Shamsur Rahman, “A Stranger in the City: The Poetics of Sabk-E Hindi.”



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



Abul Faz’l. The Ain I Akbari. Translated by H Blochmann. Vol. 1. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1873.
Adel T Adamova. “Iconography of a Camel Fight.” Edited by Doris Behrens-Abouseif and Anna Contadinia. Muqarnas XXII (2004): 1–14.

Aitken, Molly Emma. “Parataxis and the Practice of Reuse, from Mughal Margins to Mīr Kalān Khān.” Archives of Asian Art Archives of Asian Art 59, no. 1 (2009): 81–103.
Beach, Milo Cleveland, Eberhard Fischer, B. N Goswamy, and Jorrit Britschgi. Masters of Indian Painting, 2015.
Faruqui, Shamsur Rahman. “A Stranger in the City: The Poetics of Sabk-E Hindi.” Annual of Urdu Studies 19 (2004): 1–59.
Jahangir. The Tūzuk-I-Jahāngīrī, Or, Memoirs of Jahāngīr. Translated by Alexander Rogers and Henry Beveridge, 2015.
Leach, Linda York. Paintings from India. London: Nour Foundation, 1998.
Lentz, Thomas W., and Glenn D Lowry. Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1989.
Necipoğlu, Gülru. “Framing the Gaze in Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Palaces.” Ars Orientalis 23 (1993): 303–42.

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