The Grieving Figure in Scenes of Loss and Mourning in Mughal Manuscript Painting

Images depicting sorrow were rare, though not an uncommon genre, contained in illustrated manuscripts produced during the Mughal reign in India (1526 – 1857). The tradition of image-making during Mughal rule can be traced to earlier Timurid (15th century) and Ilkhanid periods (14th century), whose subject mainly consisted of histories of dynasties, Persian poetic and literary works and biographies of Turko-Mongol rulers. Images displaying tragedy and loss were limited to death scenes of legendary and historic rulers, heroes and anti-heroes, and saints and protagonists from literary works. The main corpus of images, however, contained themes that exalted the ruler, depicted his might and strength and displayed his connoisseurship of literature, art and culture. Therefore, despite their limited role, the tragic end of heroes, rulers and saints were as much part of the literary and visual cultural history, as were narratives and legends glorifying their lives.

The Hanging of Mansur al-Hallaj
Divan of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi (d. 1328), Mughal c.1602-03, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Artwork in the public domain, photograph provided by Walters Art Museum

The incidence of the hanging of Mansur al-Hallaj was an important episode illustrated by Mughal artists in the seventeenth century. Hallaj was the late-ninth, early-tenth century mystic theologian who is best known for having declared, “I am the Truth,” a statement perceived by the religious and political authorities of ‘Abbasid Baghdad as highly inflammatory and heretical. Ultimately, after nine years of imprisonment, Hallaj was hanged, then decapitated and his body cremated.

In the dramatic scene presented above, some of the onlookers who have gathered at the poet’s hanging, are portrayed with an array of emotions displayed on their faces and body postures -the wiping of tears with the edge of the shawl, tearing hair from heads, and ripping apart of the jama from the chest. The crouched body of one of the followers of the mystic poet-philosopher on the lower left of the image, shown bent-over-double upon the grass with one hand held to the forehead, exemplifies the Mughal artist’s ability to introduce emotions of grief and anxiety into the tragic narrative. Simply displaying the hanging of the poet without the grieving onlookers and disciples would not have evoked the required emotion of mourning. As the image is unaccompanied by text which guides the recall of verses associated with the image, the grieving figures add (imaginary) sounds of sorrow invoking the tragic emotions meant to be experienced upon beholding the work of art. In addition to portraying sorrow and grief on figures witnessing the hanging, the artist also etched the emotion of surrender and subjugation upon the figure of the poet, whose head is shown bent down, chin touching the neck, as his shoulders droop down in defeat and acceptance of his fate. In direct contrast to the mood of despair, figures of men tasked with the hanging, are shown as burly and strong, men who have the authority and power to end the life of a human being.

Left: Detail from The Hanging of Mansur al-Hallaj, Mughal, c. 16th century, Walters Art Museum
Right: Detail from Death of a Mongol Khan Il-Khanid, c. 14th century, Raza Library, Rampur

The need to express dramatic emotions, contained in tales circulating within the Persian cosmopolis[1], already existed in earlier centuries. Ilkhanid artists in the fourteenth century had attempted to dramatize and show heightened emotions in folios illustrating the death of their ancestors, the great Mongol Khans, by introducing motifs of grieving figures as seen below in a leaf from the Raza Library Jami al Tawarikh.[2] The image displays a coffin placed upon a carpet, surrounded by mourning figures, lamenting the death of their sovereign. A man, placed upon the carpet in the centre beside the coffin, holds apart the lapels of his jama – the gesture expressing grief and sorrow over the passing of an extraordinary person. This folio was overpainted by Mughal artists, who retained the original fourteenth century compositional elements, including facial features, costumes and the distinctive headgear of the Mongol figures. The presence of images from the Ilkhanid period in the royal library of the Mughals ensured that Mughal artists had access to and claimed ownership of distinctive motifs expressing grief and loss introduced by earlier artists in illustrated manuscripts.

Death of a Mongol Khan, from a manuscript of the Jami al-Tawarikh Copied in Persian during the Il-Khanid period c. 14th century; overpainted by Mughal artists in the 16th century Raza Library, Rampur, India. Photographed by author.

My research proposes that the recurring motif of a grieving figure, who indexed the mood of loss and mourning in the overall composition for constructing a poignant scene of tragedy, was intentionally inserted by pre-modern artists illustrating Persian tales. By inserting grieving figures in constructing images of loss, the pre-modern artist may have addressed directly to the sense experience of the participating spectator. Sensory studies propose that the senses are lived and understood differently in different cultures and historical periods.[3] Observing the image of loss of a historical ancestor or the death of a legendary philosopher, containing familiar cultural indexes marking gestures, emotions and feelings associated with grief, would have allowed the viewer to re-experience the tragic event through his sensory perceptions as a participant rather than a mere observer. Therefore, in both images, artists belonging to two historical periods, attempted to directly invoke the sensory experience of loss through the grieving figure, and aid the observer to re-imagine a historical tragedy (the death of a Mongol ruler for Il-Khanid spectators and the execution of al-Hallaj for Mughal viewers) in context of the present time and place. In addition, the objective behind facilitating the sense of loss and mourning over deaths of historical figures may have also served to memorialize and keep alive the memory of ancestors and saints, so that their lives, deeds and personalities would continue to mark their presence for the contemporary viewer.

[1] Persian cosmopolis as the idea of a shared trans culture, was proposed by Richard Eaton, who argues that the portability of the Persian language, diffused by migrating poets and refugees in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, created a new cultural and demographic diaspora across a vast geo-political space. By the thirteenth century, a corresponding absence of any geographic centre of literary production was an important aspect of an emerging ‘Persian cosmopolis’. See Richard M. Eaton, Philip B. Wagoner, Power, Memory, Architecture, Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600, Oxford University Press, India, 2014, p. 23

[2] The Raza Library Jami al-Tawarikh was written by Rashid al-Din (1247 – 1318). The manuscript preserved at Raza Library (first volume, the history of the Mongol rulers, beginning with Qipchak princes and ending with the birth of Ghazan Khan) was copied in Persian during the Il-Khanid period c. 14th century, overpainted during the Timurid period in 15th century at the Herat court of Sultan Husain Bayqara  (1438 – 1506); and further re-illustrated at the court of Akbar in Mughal India in the 16th century

[3] Elaborating on the sensorial revolution in anthropological understanding, David Howes notes, “Grounded in a methodology of what could be called “participant sensation” as opposed to observation, the new sensory anthropology focuses not on the measurement of the senses, but rather on their meanings and uses as understood and enacted in specific cultural contexts.” See David Howes, “Charting the Sensorial Revolution”, The Senses and Society, 1: 1, March 2006, p.121 

Dipanwita Donde

Dipanwita Donde completed her PhD in Visual Studies, specializing in Mughal Art, from School of Arts and Aesthetic, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in 2017. Dipa received the SYLFF fellowship, the SRA fellowship for research abroad and the Nehru Memorial Trust fellowship during the period of her PhD research. She studied Persian, particularly medieval Persian poetry under Prof. Syed Akhtar Husain. She spent one year as a subject expert, art historical researcher and co-curator of an exhibition of Indian miniature paintings at Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden, Germany. She has delivered several lectures and participated in seminars and conferences, including Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden; York University, Toronto; Indian Institute of Persian Studies, Mumbai and Kolkata; India International Centre, New Delhi; and International Conference on Greek Studies, JNU. She has contributed her writings as special writer and subject expert to “The Body Ideal: Heroic” in The Body in Indian Art and Thought, Ministry of Culture-ICCR, Europalia 2013 Her essay was published in the exhibition catalogue, Miniature Geschiten Die Malerei Im Dresden Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and was reprinted in the Dipa has spent 18 months as the manager in the Department of Collection, Management and Research of Indian Modern Art at the Delhi Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2017-2018.

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