The Jenghiz Kahn Miniatures
Designed by Bedrich Forman, Design and Production by Artia for Spring Books, London 1963, printed dint Czechoslovakia. Text by J. Marek and H Knízkova
The descendants of Genghis Kahn (1162-1267), his grandsons and great grandsons, ruled from the Chinese shores of the Sea of Japan across northern India, what are now called the ‘stans, and through Turkey to part of what is now Serbia. They quarreled, made and broke alliances, and held magnificent courts. They adapted to the local cultures; Kublai Kahn became a Chinese emperor; others became Buddhists, others Muslims. His great grandson Ghazan Kahn who ruled in roughly the area of Iran commissioned a history of the descendants of Genghis Kahn in the early 1300's
Toward the end of the 16th century Akbar, the greatest of the Islamic rulers of India and (approximately) a 15th generation descendent of Genghis Kahn through Tamerlane, commissioned an illustrated version of this history. Akbar was a great synthesizer. He understood that he could not impose Islam on India and that he could not rule only through a Muslim minority, and gave prominent places in the sophisticated administration he created to many Hindu and some Christian men. Among his many wives, mostly married for political purposes, were Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. Illiterate himself, Akbar was one of history’s’ great patrons of literature, the arts, and architecture. His favorite grandson built the Taj Mahhal. He employed philosophers and theologians and listened thoughtfully to their debates. His own attitudes and thought underwent a historical development; he grew from a rather narrow cultural background to the synthesis for which he is known.
Miniature painting was an important area of his patronage. A Hindu tradition existed before the coming of the moguls, and he also imported masters from the Persian court (the source of the tradition celebrated in Orhan Pamuk's fascinating novel My Name is Red). The greatest ornament of this school of artists was the illustrated edition of the Genghis Kahn history.
The images lack the least effort at historical verisimilitude or the slightest suggestion that things in the past may have looked different from how they look now. All the men and women wear the clothing of their class in Akbar’s time. When Genghis Khan attacks the encampment of an enemy, it looks like a The Red Fort. The armies of whatever period are borne by the camels, elephants, and elegant horses of Akbar’s India and involve firearms and cannon. Islamic aniconism does not prevent the representation of thousands of human figures and faces from all levels of society and many occupational groups. There are few puritanical restrictions on the depiction of women. They are all clothed, as are men. Their heads are usually covered, but there are no burkas; the drawing often accentuates their curves, and dancers and the like wear filmy outfits.
The sum total is rather like the shield of Achilles. The whole world as it was present to sophisticated folk of Akbar’s time is represented: forests, farms, forts, rivers, mountains, orchards, gardens, armies, great hunts, the multifariousness of cities, thieves, beggars, courtiers, warriors, harems, dancers, jugglers…. It is an intensely social world. There are very few isolated figures like the mountain sages of Chinese landscapes or the country folk of Constable landscapes. The society portrayed is hierarchical and sexist.
To my untrained, western eye, the illustrations present a flatish surface full of detail. Objects appear in front of one another but near objects are not consistently larger than far objects. Foreshortening is inconsistent, chiaroscuro is absent, and distant objects are usually as distinct a close ones. There is no representation of space as in western historical painting or even as in many Chinese landscapes. As far as I recall no horizon line ever appears.
If you draw a scale between cartoon caricature at the one end and, say, Holbein at the other, the exquisitely painted miniatures hover in an intermediate location hard for me to define. They are portraits of typical people rather than portraits of individuals. They show feeling and attitudes: fear, love, contentment, rage, generosity, submission, but do not suggest an individual.
As maybe you can tell, the historical and cultural implications of this book interest me somewhat more than the art itself. The miniatures are wonderfully painted. They are pleasant and engaging. They are interesting. But they do not move me. I suppose this is because of the lacks I have mentioned, of portraiture of individual consciousness, or chiaroscuro, of a sense of things being organized around space. Perhaps I have become dependent on these things to get the historical hit. But, for example, Chinese and Japanese landscapes that omit the same devices often move me. Perhaps it was different to viewers in Akbar’s time.
The Sanskrit tradition of literary criticism holds the purpose of art as to create a mood rather than to teach a lesson, and this seems to be the goal in these paintings.
The book is nicely printed and arranged with many pages usefully showing details of the larger views. Reproduction on book-quality paper is appropriate for these paintings. The text that appears of the pages is usefully translated with discussions of the many lacunae and confusions in the MS. A long and informative introduction explains the historical context of the family of Genghis Kahn, the artistic community of Akbar's court, the history of the manuscripts, and issues of artistic influence and technique.