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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 21

The Khamsa(‘Quintet’) of Nava’i Herat, 1492, with Mughal additions c.1605–10

Manuscript written in nasta’liq script on gold-flecked paper with illuminated frontispiece and section headings throughout in opaque watercolour including metallic paints and gold leaf; six paintings; set into margins of gold-flecked paper; black morocco binding with gilt-stamped medallions and borders with flap | 300 fols; 34.4 × 23.0 cm | RCIN 1005032

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The Mughal emperors sometimes ‘refurbished’ older manuscripts in their collections. They added new borders if the originals had suffered damage, reworked earlier paintings or even removed them to assemble into albums and had new ones added in their place. This exquisite manuscript was produced in three distinct phases over a period of little more than one hundred years and it represents the highest artistic standards of manuscript production of both Timurid Central Asia and early seventeenth-century Hindustan. According to notes on its opening page, Jahangir considered this the finest turki (Chagatay Turkish) manuscript in his collection. He valued it at a colossal 10,000 rupees, a figure later doubled by his son, the Mughal Emperor Shah-Jahan, when he inherited the manuscript.[64]

The volume contains five lengthy narrative poems in rhyming couplets composed c.1483–5 by Nizam al-Din Ali Shir (1441–1501), better known by his pen-name Nava’i meaning ‘Melody Maker’. Although his Khamsa (‘Quintet’) was written in imitation of the Persian Khamsa of the twelfth-century Iranian poet Nizami, Ali Shir Nava’i’s is written in Chagatay Turkish. He was the first to promote this as a more understandable and creative language for writing poetry and as an alternative to the more widely used Persian. Ali Shir was not a poet by profession, but a statesman and close advisor to the Timurid ruler Sultan Husayn Mirza (1438–1506) at his court in Herat. This manuscript was copied in Herat during the last decade of its author’s lifetime by the famous calligrapher Sultan Ali of Mashhad (1453–1520), who was regularly employed by both Ali Shir and Sultan Husayn Mirza on account of his fine nasta’liq script.[65] The manuscript’s superbly intricate frontispiece shown here was also completed in Herat by the celebrated illuminator Mahmud.[66] Following the death of Sultan Husayn Mirza in 1506, Herat was occupied by the Uzbek Shaybanid dynasty (see cat. no. 18).[67] Several artists and calligraphers from Herat, including Sultan Ali, were forcibly resettled in the new Shaybanid capital nearly five hundred miles away at Bukhara. According to a dated inscription on one of its folios, this manuscript was transferred there by 1540–1 when six paintings were added to it.[68] The paintings are only found in the first of the five poems, and space had evidently been made for these in the original planning of the manuscript.

Twenty years later, the manuscript was in the possession of Hamida Banu Begum (also known as Mariam Makani – see cat. no. 14), mother of the Emperor Akbar, whose seal is found on its opening page.[69] Born near Herat, Hamida Banu’s first language was Chagatay Turkish and she accumulated a sizeable library over her lifetime.[70] Following her death in 1604 at the age of 77, her manuscripts were absorbed into the Mughal imperial library which Jahangir inherited on his accession the following year. It appears that at this stage all but one of the earlier paintings were removed by splitting the folios with paintings in two, as evident from the tears and wrinkling on  the text sides of those folios. New paintings were then added in place of the earlier ones. The single painting that was retained exemplifies the so-called classical tradition of Iranian painting, and was in part overpainted by one of Jahangir’s artists (cat. no. 22). In the other paintings we see Mughal artists making conscious historical references in their aesthetic choices but also exploring new conceptions of how to depict poetic or abstract ideas. The paintings are not directly illustrative of the text but more commentaries on its themes. The most curious of them is a Mughal colour reinterpretation of a late sixteenth-century Flemish engraving (cat. no. 23). 

  • [64] For the inscriptions in this manuscript, see Seyller 1997, p. 270.

    [65] ‘He copied many books for Husayn Mirza and Ali Sher Beg, writing daily thirty couplets for the former and twenty for the latter’, Baburnama,  p. 160. A slightly different translation is quoted in Roxburgh 2015, p. 124. The Royal Collection’s Khamsa is unlikely to have been a royal commission as it does not contain any royal dedications. See Roxburgh 2015 for Sultan Ali Mashhadi, Mir Ali Shir Nava’i and Sultan Husayn Mirza.

    [66] The illumination of the opening page is signed ‘Hajji Mahmud al-faqir’. For Mahmud the illuminator see Sakisian 1937, p. 339.

    [67] The city was soon taken by the founder of the Iranian Safavid dynasty, Shah Ismail, in 1510, but seized by the Uzbeks again in 1528.

    [68] Inscription dated 947 AH on fol. 35v.

    [69] See Remington 2015, p. 15, fig. 3 and Seyller 1997, p. 295 and fig. 6 for images. Square seal dated 968 AH (AD 1560–61). Soudavar translated the seal legend as ‘when one’s seal bears the sign of love, Hamida Banu Begum / Her stamp shall become a reflection of good fortune.’ See Soudavar 1999, p. 61. There is a portrait of Hamida Banu Begum holding a seal in a manuscript in the National Museum, New Delhi (inv. 48.6/11).

    [70] See Das 2009. 

  • Presented to George III by Lord Teignmouth, Governor-General of India, c.1798

  • Bibliographic reference(s)

    Seyller 1997, p. 270; Losty 1982, p. 96