Akbar’s Adventure with the Elephant Hawa’i in 1561 by Basawan and Chetar Munti

Akbar’s Adventure with the Elephant Hawa’i in 1561
by Basawan and Chetar Munti (1590-95)

My Daily Art Display today features a famous 16th century painting from the Indian sub-continent.  The painting is an allegorical tale about an incident in the life of one of the greatest emperor’s in the history of the sub-continent, Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar or Akbar the Great, who was the third Mughal Emperor.

Akbar was born around 1543. He was of Timurid descent; the son of Emperor Humayun and the grandson of the Mughal Emperor Zaheeruddin Muhammad Babur, the ruler who founded the Mughal dynasty in India.  As a child he was brought up by the army chief, Bairam, his mother and foster-mother.  His childhood was difficult as he had to endure a life of strict discipline.   Although he never learned to read or write, he was noted as being a very clever child.  In 1556, a nobleman named Hemu rebelled and declared himself ruler in Delhi. His forces were defeated by Bairam at the Second Battle of Panipat, and Hemu, dying from an arrow wound, was brought to the young Akbar.  Akbar, who was only thirteen years of age, was made to kill him with his sword to show he had legally won the crown.  Akbar was proclaimed the new emperor.

Early on in his reign as ruler Akbar showed signs of his future reforms by marrying a Rajput (Hindu) princess.  At the age of 18, Akbar was more and more frustrated by the strict control imposed on him by his mother, foster-mother and her son, Adham Khan.  In 1560, the young Akbar dismissed Bairam, ordering him to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. On his way there Bairam was murdered by an enemy, but in remembrance of him, Akbar made his son one of the chief nobles in his empire.  A more serious threat to Akbar came from his foster-mother and her son, Adham. When Akbar chose his new prime minister, Adham murdered him in the royal palace. He then tried to kill Akbar himself, but the emperor was stronger and threw Adham to the ground. Akbar ordered Adham to be thrown down the stairs to his death.

Akbar reigned until his death in 1605.  At the end of his reign the Mughal Empire covered most of northern and central India.  He is most appreciated for having a liberal outlook on all faiths and beliefs and during his era, culture and art reached a high-point compared to his predecessors.

 The opaque watercolour painting I am featuring today is entitled Akbar’s Adventure with the Elephant Hawa’i in 1561 and was collaboratively painted by two artists, Basawan and Chetar Munti between 1590 and 1595.  Basawan first drew the outline of the picture and his assistant, Chetar Munti, added the colour work later.     It is an excellent example of richly detailed Mughal paintings and depicts animals under the control of man. What we see before us is a depiction of an allegorical tale of Akbar.   This work was one of a hundred and sixteen miniatures that were made by almost fifty different artists to be included in an illustrated book of Akbar’s life, entitled Akbarnama (Book of Akbar), which chronicled his reign as the Munghal emperor.

Akbar had recounted his life to the writer and historian, Abu’l Fazl, who wrote the book.  The entry written by Fazl, which went alongside this picture,  was a story told to him by Akbar.   The ruler recounted what seemed a somewhat foolhardy and impetuous act of his but was based on his belief and trust in God.  For Akbar fervently believed that if God was not on his side he would have been killed.  The depicted scene celebrates Akbar’s bravery and masterfulness.  The painting portrays an episode in Akbar’s life when he pitted two elephants against each other.  The rampaging huge beasts, in full flight, are seen careering across and almost collapsing a pontoon bridge which rested and was supported by a flotilla of small boats.  It is a story of Akbar, portrayed as a brave young emperor, who has mounted the ferocious elephant known as Hawa’i and the two of them battle it out with another large and terrifying creature, the elephant, Ran Bagha.  Although being asked to stop this dangerous ride, Akbar ignores the warnings and continues with no care for his own personal safety.  The rogue elephant, Ran Bagha is finally defeated and is being chased off across a rickety pontoon bridge of boats, which straddles the River Jumna, towards Agra Fort by Akbar and Hawa’i.

It is a scene of total chaos.  We see the pontoon bridge almost collapsing under the weight of the two wildly charging elephants.  A man, with an unwound turban lying at his side, is seen prone on the ground having been trampled underfoot.  In the foreground we see men in the water desperately trying to steady the collapsing pontoon bridge.  On the other side of the bridge we catch a glimpse of fisherman in their boat frantically trying to get to the shore in the turbulent waters caused by the violent movement of the pontoon bridge.    The size of the figures in the distance help to give a depth to the painting, and the artists, through the use of his vibrant colours and two strong diagonal lines: the bridge and the shore, have effectively added energy to the painting.  I like the way in which the artist has spent time on the detail of all the characters in this painting.   The elephants are seen as being wild and charging but the evil one is defeated and forced to retreat whilst Akbar controls his animal and this portrayal symbolises Akbar’s perception of his rule: a steady power over an unruly populace.

After Akbar’s death in 1605, the Akbarnama manuscript remained in the library of his son, Jahangir and later Shah Jahan. Today, the illustrated manuscript of Akbarnama, with its 116 miniature paintings, is held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.   It was bought by the South Kensington Museum, which is now the V&A, in 1896 from Mrs Frances Clarke.  The manuscript was acquired by her husband upon his retirement from serving as Commissioner of Oudh,  Central India.  Later the paintings and illuminated frontispiece were removed from the volume and were mounted and framed for display.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

1 thought on “Akbar’s Adventure with the Elephant Hawa’i in 1561 by Basawan and Chetar Munti”

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    I stumbled upon ur blog looking for details abt Akbar and his famous atelier. and in the process have discovered a whole bunch of other artists (and interesting discussions betw ur readers and u).
    It’s fabulous. Will definitely visit regularly. I love art in a sort of ‘from the gut’ way, but find most art ‘critics’ too dense and intimidating. Ur writing is great. Thanks for sharing,
    God bless you, Kavitha

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