Hero Recast as Human: Transformation of Rustam in the Shāhnāmā

Through the centuries, Persian classical tales have regaled audiences with stories narrating the lives and emotions of diverse human actors, including heroes and anti-heroes, transmitted orally as well as copied into manuscripts containing illustrations. One of the most-loved heroes of Persian classical literature is the legendary Rustam, the fiery and brave military commander and king-maker from Sistan. 

Firdausi (934-1020) in his epic Shāhnāmā,[1] developed the dynamic personality of Rustam, who was not a king, but the protector and loyal servant of the king of Iran. The poem describes epic encounters with kings and heroes battling against monstrous enemies and supernatural creatures, that threatened their lives and the survival of their reigns. Although the Shāhnāmā focuses upon the concept of kingship as its central subject, it also meditates on more profound human experiences and narrates the moral struggles, romantic interludes and deaths of its many protagonists. Prophesizing the heroic attributes of the beloved hero Rustam before his birth, Firdausi writes,

            A hero powerful will come to birth;
            With none beneath the sky like him on earth.
            His life shall, be assured, be very long,
            Bright, moderate shall he be, and also strong.[2]

Firdausi narrates the brave feats of Rustam through the voluminous text, wherein the hero battles mighty beasts, warriors of other clans and lands, journeys through several adventures surmounting life-threatening challenges and tragically, fights and kills his own son in battle. The encounter between father and son on the battleground, in which the father delivers the fatal blow to his son, ignorant of the identity of his enemy, paints the episode with deep solemnity and poignancy:

            Rustam was sorrowful and played with his claws
            He caught the ferocious leopard
            He made the chivalrous youth bend backward
            His time went that he had no power left
            Like the lion he tossed him upon the ground
            He knew that he would also not be over-powered
            Lightly, he drew his sharp dagger from his waist
            To tear apart the heart of a vigilant lion
            He twisted it and took a heavy sigh
            He stopped to think of good and bad consequences[3]

The author focuses on the tragedy of Rustam and Sohrab, which describes the doomed relationship between a father and his son. Rustam was unaware that he had a son, Sohrab, by Princess Tahmina. The father and son meet on the battlefield fighting on opposing ends. Rustam did not recognize his son and fought him till Sohrab fell to the ground, and Rustam stabbed him fatally. As he lay dying, Sohrab warned that his father, Rustam, would avenge his death! Rustam was horrified when he realized the truth after seeing Sohrab wearing the arm bracelet (tābiz) which he had given Tahmina many years before. He realized too late that he had killed his own son, ‘the person dearer to him than all others’. 

Sohrab’s death at the hands of his father is a heart-wrenching account of a hero who is unable to cope with the reality of having dealt the fatal blow that killed his son. This is one of the most tragic episodes of the Shāhnāmā. Firdausi delves into the internal conflict of Rustam, who had dismissed the warning given by an inner voice telling him to abandon the fight, when he had sensed that the young man fighting him might have been his son. This sense recognition, or the lack of it, leads to the grave tragedy that destroys the hero – Rustam, and leads to the personal tragedy of the father – Rustam. The poet shifts his focus from the bravery of the hero, after killing his enemy, to the father, grieving the death of his son. 

Rustam subsequently faints, has suicidal thoughts, borders on madness and after burying his son in Zabulistan, becomes a recluse. Thus, we see that Firdausi focuses on the interior life of the protagonist, his personal tragedy and his conflicting emotions – illuminating the value placed on the individual and his struggles. The story of Sohrab and Rustam occupies a significant portion of Firdausi’s narrative, which otherwise chronicles the reigns of the ancient kings of Iran.  

This tragic moment is captured by Persian artists into an image showing Rustom sitting on his haunches after thrusting the deadly knife into the chest of Sohrab. Meanwhile the son is shown lying on the ground, bent backwards as described in the text, while their two brave horses stand on either side of the heroes, eye-witness to the tragic event. 

The Shāhnāmā was one of the most enduring tales current in Central Asia in the fifteenth century. The princes of the Timurid dynasty vied with each other to produce brilliant copies of illustrated manuscripts with iconic images mapping the various episodes narrated by Firdausi. The story of Rustam and Sohrab was a much-favoured episode and artists included the particular narrative for illustration into richly produced manuscripts. Timurid and Safavid artists, drawn towards themes of the inner life and the raging conflicts of the chief protagonists, wanted to depict the tragic event, using whatever pictorial means available at hand. The iconography developed into a motif and was copied by various artists belonging to different periods and geographical locations. 

The three images given above display the episode of Sohrab and Rustam included in three different illustrated manuscripts. The first image belongs to the Muhammad Juki Shahnama, illustrated in 1444. The second folio, illustrated in the 16th century is unknown and is preserved in the British Library. The third folio, illustrated in the 18th century, also with an unknown provenance, represents the same theme illustrated in imitation of the earlier paintings.

The Rustam-Sohrab motif usually depicts the two heroes on the battlefield – Rustam recognizable in his snow leopard costume with the leopard’s face as his helmet, while Sohrab is shown fallen upon the ground, displaying his bare arm with the amulet to his father. The brave warriors’ horses are shown standing in shock and astonishment nearby and dynamic rocks usually ring the tragic figures, locating them in the centre of a spacious landscape. 

These are not veristic compositions, but they use their own visual language and codes to give expression to the emotions of the characters. Barbara Brend argues that the tragedy of this particular episode in the Juki Shāhnāmā is conveyed by the colour of the landscape and evoked in certain compositional elements inserted within the folio. Brend notes, “The ground is suffused with a purplish hue, into which the turquoise rocks of the horizon seem to drain their vital forces, while touches of colour from bright flowers form a counterpoint, which may refer to Sohrab’s youth. This powerful expression of the pathetic fallacy by colour goes beyond any other of the period.”[4] The isolation of the two figures placed on the purplish ground coping with their individual grief is suffused with sadness. 

Recasting the hero Rustam as a human, the poet collapses the gap between the undefeatable hero who is embodied with magical and divine attributes and that of an ordinary human being – a father – who is inconsolable at the death of his son by his own hands. Firdausi reduces the glorious and courageous hero, who defeats monsters, magical wild beasts and enemies to win battles for his sovereign, into the state of a tragic human who displays utmost grief and acknowledges his failure and weakness as a father. The transference of human emotions on the masculine personality of the hero introduced humanistic ideals in the writings of medieval Persian poets which were reflected in the works of art produced during the reign of the Timurid sultans in Central Asia and subsequently, transferred, copied and produced in the ateliers of Mughal emperors in the Indian subcontinent during the sixteenth century.[5]

[1] Firdausi’s Shāhnāmā, or Book of Kings, is one of the most voluminous epics of world literature. With its 50,000 rhyming couplets, it is an epic poem that narrates the history of the ancient kings of Iran from the mythical beginnings to the Arab conquest in 651 CE.

[2] Firdausi, The Shah-Namah of Fardausi, trans. Alexander Rogers, first published 1907, reprinted by LPP, India, 2013, p. 116

[3] Translated from Firdausi’s Shāhnāmā in Persian by the author, under the guidance of Prof Syed Akhtar Husain

[4] Barbara Brend, “Muhammad Juki’s Shahnamah in the Mughal World” in Muhammad Juki’s Shahnamah of Firdausi, The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 2010, p. 66

[5] To reflect on the transference of Sufi notions on selfhood and subjectivity explored by Persian poets in Central Asia on image-making practices during the reign of Mughal emperors in the seventeenth century in the Indian subcontinent, please refer to my article, “Selfhood and Subjectivity in Sufi Thought: Image of a Mole on Emperor Akbar’s Nose,” to be published online in December 2021 in the Indonesian journal, Teosofi: Jurnal Tasawuf dan Pemikiran Islam http://jurnalfuf.uinsby.ac.id/index.php/teosofi/article/view/1758

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 www.criticalcollective.in. 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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