Lyrical visions
fondo

Lyrical visions: Ilustrations of Persian literary works for an educated elite


The Shahnama: Book of Kings

Commissioning and collecting illustrated books became integral to the elite court culture of Iran in the thirteenth century and especially with the advent of the extraordinarily sophisticated Timurid dynasty of the fifteenth century. The epic and romantic stories of the Persian literary tradition would exert a profound influence throughout the eastern Islamic world, especially in Central Asia and India, as admiration for Persian culture spread between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. The pages in this gallery highlight illustrations from six of the most popular of these narratives. The love of these stories and their exquisite illustrations throughout South Asia would set Indian artists to work adapting the traditional styles seen in the first gallery to this new aesthetic spreading through the persophone world.

Since the Koran could not be illustrated, these books tended to be secular in nature: poetry, tales, encyclopedias, and scientific compendia. The Shahnama, or Book of Kings, contains the Persian national epic—a blend of myth and history that recounts the pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian roots of the culture in Iran and surrounding areas. This vitally important epic poem was written by Firdawsi ca. 1100 and tells of the adventures of many great Persian kings. The two heroes who rise above the others—Esfandiar and Rustam—are featured in the paintings on the left. The sections of the Shahnama detailing their respective quests, trials, and combats, are some of the longest and arguably most well-wrought sections of the poem. When Esfandiar and Rustam met in single combat, it was as two of the most revered heroes in the Persian canon.


Leyli and Majnun: The Ill-Fated Lovers

Commissioning and collecting illustrated books became integral to the elite court culture of Iran in the thirteenth century and especially with the advent of the extraordinarily sophisticated Timurid dynasty of the fifteenth century. The epic and romantic stories of the Persian literary tradition would exert a profound influence throughout the eastern Islamic world, especially in Central Asia and India, as admiration for Persian culture spread between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. The pages in this gallery highlight illustrations from six of the most popular of these narratives. The love of these stories and their exquisite illustrations throughout South Asia would set Indian artists to work adapting the traditional styles seen in the first gallery to this new aesthetic spreading through the persophone world.

One of the most beloved of the five poems of the Khamsa, or “Quintet,” by the celebrated Persian poet Nizami (c. 1141–1209) is the romance of Leyli and Majnun, the star-crossed lovers. Drawn from a Bedouin folk tale, its popularity persists through present times among Hindus and Muslims alike. As a young man, Majnun embarrassed Leyli’s family by wandering the streets, reciting beautiful poems of devotion to his love, and they forbade the pair’s marriage. In despair, Majnun fled to the desert and subsisted on roots and herbs. His lovelorn nature and heart-rending poetry garnered him an entourage of docile animals and an audience of travelers who came to hear his latest compositions. Fate prevented the lovers from reuniting at every step. Eventually, Leyli was forced to marry another. Many years later and after only the most fleeting and intermittent contact, she died. Majnun cast himself on her tomb and died soon after, encircled by protective animals. The lovers were together at last.


Khusrow and Shirin: …

The romance, Khosrow and Shirin, relates the love affair of the Sasanian king of Persia, Khosrow Parviz (590–628), and Shirin, the intrepid and beautiful Armenian princess. Artists, manuscripts, and painting styles traveled from Persia to the Sultanate courts of India, where Muslim rulers commissioned the production of classical Persian texts, such as Nizami's Khamsa and Firdowsi’s Shahnama, both of which contain stories about Khusrow and Shirin.

Their tale begins when Khosrow, king of Persia, became intrigued by reports of the beauty of Shirin, and decided to journey there to meet her.  At the same time, Shirin, who had been impressed by a portrait of Khosrow, decided audaciously to journey alone to meet him in Persia.  On their way to meet each other, their paths crossed.  In a glade described as an earthly paradise, Shirin stopped to bathe; and there Khosrow espied her, though he does not realize that the lady is Shirin herself, and continues on his journey.

After a prolonged period of crossed paths, a long courtship ensued, during which  Shirin and her handmaidens famously impressed Khosrow with their skill at hunting; indeed he marvels that they are like lionesses themselves on the hunting ground.  Nizami is known for his portrayal of strong and beautiful women, and it is Khosrow who ultimately falls prey to her and must improve his character and values for her sake.

After all manner of delays—including the re-conquering of his kingdom with the help of the Caesar and various amorous and marital entanglements—that went on for years, Khosrow and Shirin were married. But soon after, the king’s enemies, desirous of the throne, murdered Khosrow. Out of devotion, Shirin killed herself at his tomb and was buried with him.


Haft Pavkar: Bahran Gur and his Seven Beauties

As one of the more historically-based stories of the Khamsa, the Haft Paykar, or Seven Portraits (also known as the Seven Beauties), concerns the pre-Islamic Persian king and hero Bahram Gur. Central to the tale are his visits his seven brides, each of whom lives in a pavilion of a different color.  At each visit, the princess regales him with a story, such as the daughter of the Byzantine emperor who relates the story of Solomon and Sheba, which is concerned with honesty and the avoidance of guile in amorous or marital relationships. Another princess tells of a mysterious visitor to a king’s court who has the ability to leave his own body and enter into another, which results in a web of mistaken identities.

Nizami’s Khamsa was so popular in Islamic India that the poet Amir Khusrau Dihlavi of Delhi (1253–1325) wrote his own version of it for a sultanate court. His version was written in a different style and has different names for the five chapters; the Hasht-Behesht is Amir Khusrau’s version of Nezami’s Haft Paykar.  Its creation also provided Indian artists with ample opportunities to illustrate this Persian tale and assimilate the Persian aesthetic. Amir Khusrau’s Khamsa has remained almost as popular as Nizami’s in India. This section presents illustrations from both versions.


The Khamsa: Nizami’s Poetic “Quintet”

The paintings in this exhibition are all related to the celebrated work of extended narrative poetry called the Khamsa, or Quintet.  The five parts of the Khamsa were written by the learned poet Nizami (1141–1209) during the late 12th and first few years of the 13th century in the Persian town of Ganjeh, now in the present day republic of Azerbaijan.  By the 15th century, illustrated copies of Nezami’s text were frequently commissioned by patrons from Ottoman Turkey to Sultanate India, and the entire text was rewritten by the poet Amir Khusrau Dihlavi of Delhi (1253–1325). Its popularity proved to be a major literary force in influencing the subjects and styles taken up by South Asian painters. This assemblage of works, rendered in a broad range of artistic styles, reveals the profound influence of Nizami's poetry upon patrons and artists from a variety of regions and periods.

The stories of the Khamsa were so well known that their imagery was recognizable without the text.  The two works on the left are from the retelling by Amir Khusrau Dihlavi. Unlike the more epic and romantic tales in the Khamsa, these pages come from a section comprised of smaller anecdotal fables. This section is called the Makhzan al-asrar, or Treasury of Mysteries, in Nizami’s version, and in Amir Khusrau’s they are known as Matla al-anwar, or The Dawning of the Lights. In the illuminations, regional artists drew from Persian precedents but retained many elements of a more traditional Indian sense of perspective and color.


Islamic Views of Alexander of Macedon

The style of storytelling in the Khamsa often lent historical figures mythic or pseudo-legendary qualities, even when—as is the case in the Islamic lyric tradition—the subjects it immortalized lacked the sacred character of their Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu counterparts. One of the more prominent figures of these tales, Alexander of Macedon (356¬–323 BCE), underwent a great transformation as his story was retold.

Student of Aristotle and founder of a Hellenistic kingdom that stretched from Greece to India, Alexander was reviled throughout the Islamic world as the ruthless and destructive conquerer of the Persian empire. As Greek texts were translated into Persian and the story was passed from person to person, text to text, that image shifted away from such a loathsome portrayal. The version composed by 10th century Persian poet Firdowsi in his epic Book of Kings, the Shahnama, cemented Alexander’s new reputation as a curious traveler and philosopher-king. When Nizami wrote of Alexander in the Iskandarnama, one of the five books of the Khamsa, or Quintet, he portrayed Alexander’s exploits in the same laudatory way. In the span of six hundred years, Persians went from vilifying Alexander as a demon and enemy of the persophone world to exalting him as a model of philosophical rigor and intelligent rule.

The paintings collected here span from the beginnings of the Sultanate court in India to the early years of the Mughal Empire. Throughout this time, Muslim rulers used local artists to illustrate Persian literature in emulation of Persian nobles. Though these artists were hired to paint in a Persian style, many elements indigenous to India, such as the flat red background and the billowing textiles hanging from the sky, would persist.
 

Last Updated on Friday, 14 June 2013 22:16

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