Book Extract: The Politics of Objects

Historian Sudeshna Guha on how select objects illuminate the layered, complex histories of India

A 19th century Mahabharata painting depicts Arjuna killing Karna
A 19th century Mahabharata painting depicts Arjuna killing Karna

Sudeshna Guha

The imperial Razmnama or Book of Wars—the Persian translation of the Mahabharata created between 1582 and 1586 at the behest of the Mughal Emperor Akbar—[consists of] four large and lavish volumes; the first three are translations of the 18 books of the Mahabharata, and the fourth is the last book Harivamsha. It was Akbar’s copy and was acquired by Sawai Madho Singh, the Kacchwaha ruler of Jaipur (r. 1728–68), during the late 1740s or early 1750s. It is now in a sealed vault in the City Palace, along with other valuable antiquities of the Jaipur rulers, awaiting resolution of litigation.

Akbar’s Razmnama and its social accounts allow us to see the many ways in which objects fashion politics and vice versa.

The Razmnama was displayed in the Jaipur Exhibition of Industrial Art, of 1881, to showcase the ‘art of brilliant calligraphy’. At the time, 168 paintings of these opulent volumes were recorded, of which 148 were photographed and published in the Exhibition Catalogue, Memorials of the Jeypore Exhibition, Vol. 4. All but two paintings were photographed as black-and-white platinum prints, with notes written by the surgeon antiquary Thomas Holbein Hendley (1847–1917), one of the event’s key organisers. As Asok Das, one of the eminent historians of Mughal art, reminds us, this is the earliest known instance of a publication of a Mughal manuscript.

The first three volumes of the Razmnama narrate the Mahabharata, and are made up of 600 large folios, many of which are 40.8 cm × 23.5 cm in size. The last folio of the Harivamsha carries a note that declares the four volumes to be ‘of large Waziri size’. It mentions that the Nastaliq script was written on Daulatabadi white paper by Khwaja Inayatullah, the jadval (border lines) is in gold and paintings, and that the volumes were ‘valued at 4,024 Akbari rupaiya’. The note shows the very high value of the royal book. Although the volumes do not carry completion dates, there is evidence to suggest that the project was completed by 1584, the year in which Daswant killed himself. He was one of the highly regarded painters in Akbar’s atelier, who possibly made 29 sketches for the volumes.

Through the application of methods of digital humanities on inscriptional data sourced from the catalogue of the paintings in the Razmnama which appear in Hendley’s Memorials, Yael Rice informs us that more than 50 or 60 artists would have worked on this book, and that 128 paintings reflect the work of more than one painter. Rice has successfully gleaned the ‘artists’ centrality’, rather than study only the frequency of their mention ‘among the numerous collaborations’, and her findings show that Akbar’s manuscript atelier fostered acquaintanceship among artists rather than intimate relationships. As she says, ‘the workshop operated according to a judicious and deliberate, rather than an accidental, scheme, which was likely intended to streamline the production process. A large team of artists […] complete[d] a manuscript’s illustrations far faster than a small team could.’

The production of this imperial Razmnama, as Das reminds us, was a ‘path-breaking venture’ because the painters ‘had to plan every composition from scratch’. The only illustrated copy of the Mahabharata they may have seen would have been a northern recension made during the reign of Sikander Lodhi (r. 1489–1517) by Kayastha painters of the Delhi–Agra area. The paintings of this text ‘present the principal characters performing their assigned role […] in a simple and straightforward manner and in a limited range of colours’ while the paintings in Akbar’s Razmnama ‘express the unfolding of details [and] immediacy of the tense and high drama’. The latter remind us that the painters in Akbar’s court had learned to create elaborate compositions of man, nature and myth while illustrating copies of classical Persian texts such as Qissa-i-Amir Hamza or the Hamzanama. With the Razmnama, they had to enter a new domain: that of a living religion. They had little scope to deviate and many may have been familiar with the Mahabharata episodes, having watched them being regularly enacted.

The battle scenes would have ‘warranted less invention’, as Rice reminds us, since the painters had access to illustrated codices of battle scenes in the illuminated Persian manuscripts in the imperial library. Yet, as John Seyller has noted, the empirical observations of local settings ‘charted the course of Mughal painting away from its Persian roots’. To our eyes today, Karna and Ghatotkacha and their armies in Mughal war helmets and tunics may appear erroneous and an anomaly. But such a depiction was probably deliberate. Through a study of the art of epical tales, Marika Sirdar recalls that artists often kept ancient stories relevant to the current age with subtle visual clues, such as by keeping ‘the characters in settings and costume to the date of the painting’s creation’. She points out that the illustrations were ‘a significant part of the commentary and interpretation of the foundational texts they accompany’.

Crucially, the Razmnama project opened up a ‘new frontier of knowledge’, tahqiq, or enquiry, which challenged the knowledge by rote, or taqlid, which the ulama (Muslim clerics) propagated. It was a political project, as Akbar strove to document through it a plural intellectual culture whose members were personally loyal to the crown. The project enshrined the value of his sulh-i kul, best translated as complete civility. Akbar’s minister Abu’l Fazl ibn-Mubarak (1551– 1602), who wrote the preface at the emperor’s command, between 12 December 1586 and 2 December 1587, informed readers that Akbar wanted his subjects to learn of one another’s teachings and reform their convictions. Thus, Akbar used collaboration effectively, as a political strategy to establish an imperial ideology that comprised cross-cultural Mughal dispensations through the world of ideas.

The Razmnama reminds us of the translation bureau (maktabkhana) that Akbar instituted at Fatehpur Sikri in 1574, which oversaw the copying of a vast genre of Sanskrit literature—including the political chronicle Rajatarangini, and poetry and stories such as the Meghaduta, Nala Damayanti, Panchatantra and Kathasaritsagara—into Persian. The imperial projects of translation… continued well into the reign of Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707), also for cultivating and contesting new community identities.

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