Exhibitions, South Asian and Himalayan Art

Seat of Power: Politics Mughal Style

“Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings” from the St. Petersburg Album,1615-18, Bichitr;
opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper; Purchase F1942.15a

Najiba H. Choudhury interned in the curatorial department and assisted with Worlds within Worlds; she now works in the registrar’s office but continues to do research for Yoga: The Art of Transformation, opening in 2013.

While walking through the exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran, giving occasional unofficial tours to friends, I have been caught unaware by wandering visitors who ask me, “What’s the highlight of this show?” or “What’s your favorite painting?”

Time and again, I point to the series of allegorical paintings commissioned by the Mughal emperor Jahangir as one of the highlights. Only four such allegorical portraits were commissioned by Jahangir; the Freer|Sackler is in possession of three. They are all showcased side by side in this exhibition. That in itself makes the trio truly special.

One of my favorite paintings from the series is Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings. What I find so striking is that key individuals, the international powerbrokers of the 17th century, so to speak, are brought together in a single moment. There is something audacious about the way Jahangir had his court artist Bichitr depict these eminent leaders as mere courtiers at Jahangir’s darbar (court). He manages not only to bring together an Ottoman Sultan and King James I of England (neither of whom ever visited India), but also makes the painting clearly favor the Sufi Shaikh Hussain (a religious scholar) over the foreign rulers. The white bearded figure is first in line, receiving a book from the emperor. Here the custodian of religion extends part of his garment to receive the book; it is an act of submission in front of the Mughal emperor, clearly placing Jahangir at the helm of authority.

Make no mistake: The painting is a bold statement by Jahangir. Some of the most powerful political figures of the early 17th century appear lined up below the emperor. The massive scale of Jahangir’s figure compared to the rest, coupled with his larger-than-life halo, further solidifies how this Mughal emperor saw himself as a world ruler.

Worlds within Worlds is on view at the Sackler Gallery through September 16. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to view all three allegorical portraits side by side!

Explore the paintings in greater depth on our website.