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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 82

The Amirnama (‘Book of the Amir’) Calcutta: Mazhar ul-Ajaib Press, 1870

Lithographed text in nasta’liq script on paper decorated with printed and hand-coloured decoration in opaque watercolour including metallic paints; margins flecked with metallic leaf; 16 photographs; marbled end-papers and marbled design on text block edges; dark green goatskin binding with gold tooling | 378 pp.; 28.5 × 19.5 cm | RCIN 1051398

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The transition from scribal to lithographic print culture, which involved writing the text in mirror on a prepared limestone block from which a positive image was then printed, enabled the aesthetics of South Asian manuscript production to continue into the printed book and still utilised the traditional skills of calligraphers and artists. Although printed, this autobiography of Amir Ali, the legal and financial advisor to Wajid Ali Shah after his deposition, mimics the traditional text layout of a manuscript with an ornate floral style of printed, hand-coloured decoration. The book’s illustrations are however all photographs rather than paintings or lithograph prints, among them portraits of Amir Ali, Queen Victoria, Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh, who had visited India in 1869–70, and important figures within the British administration.

Amir Ali Khan (1810–80) was from an aristocratic family near Patna, halfway between Calcutta and Lucknow.[272] Having served Nasir al-Din Haider, King of Awadh, until the latter’s death in 1837, he worked for the East India Company in Calcutta and was later employed to advise the deposed Wajid Ali Shah. He reduced the King’s debts from nearly £500,000 to a more manageable £71,000 by the end of 1867 and remained in the King’s service until his own death in 1880. Following the longstanding tradition of contemporary history writing in South Asia, Amir Ali wrote his autobiography in the formal literary language of Persian, rather than Urdu. To make it accessible to a British audience he added an abstract in English in which he summarises his favourable analysis of the British rise to power in the subcontinent, demonstrating his loyalty to the British crown in clear terms. 

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  • [272] For Amir Ali Khan see Llewellyn-Jones 2014, p. 181. He also wrote the Wazir-Nama (1875–6), a Persian history of Awadh up to the deposition of Wajid Ali Shah.

  • Presented to Queen Victoria by the author