Payag’s Shah Jahan Riding a Stallion (c.1628)

For a long time Indian art has been considered the work of anonymous craftsmen, just as Western artists were once thought to be anonymous in the Middle Ages. Or, if identified, Master-of-this, Master-of-that and so forth. Now a ground-breaking exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum has been able to attribute names, even with some semblance of an artist's biography, to a large collection of Indian masterpieces, accompanied in some cases by self-portraits as well. It helps make Indian art infinitely more interesting. If you are in New York, go see Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India: 1100 - 1900, on until January 8th, 2012.1

Payag is just one of about 20 artists named in the exhibition. I know little about his art and even less about Indian art in general so I should not really comment. I was struck, however, by one particular illumination, an equestrian portrait of Shah Jahan, painted by Payag whose self-portrait from another painting is at left.

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Captions for image(s) above:

 Payag, Self-portrait detail from the Windsor Padshahnama, fol. 194v. Royal Collection, Windsor Castle

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On a shallow depth-of-field a creative power, the builder of the Taj Mahal and thus from an artistic point-of-view the king of kings, rides his horse holding a spear in his right hand. Spears and arrows in Western art are often substitutes for a paintbrush, in part because their shape is so similar, in part because they symbolize both the physical force and mental struggle of creative activity. Once mastered, skewered and completed, the artwork "dies". We have already published dozens of examples. In this Indian illumination, the blade of the king's spear twinkles magically where it touches the cloud. I would not mention this if the artist had not signed the illustration where he has, almost invisibly…..

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Captions for image(s) above:

Payag, Shah Jahan riding a stallion: page from the Kervorkian Album (c.1628) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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.....in tiny script, on the tip of the Emperor’s bow. Indeed the signature is so small, it was only noticed recently for the first time.2 These two features together – the sparkling spear and the signed bow - strongly suggest that Payag, like Michelangelo and so many other Western masters, imagined both spears and arrows as symbols for his own brush.

Captions for image(s) above:

Payag, Detail of Shah Jahan riding a stallion with a smaller detail of his signature on the tip of the bow.

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More Works by Payag

Notes:

1. John Guy and Jorrit Britschgi, Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100 - 1900 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art) 2011

2. A lecture by John Guy in the Metropolitan Museum's Patron's Lounge, November 18th, 2011

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 28 Nov 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.