A Page from Emperor Akbar’s First Baburnama

Attributed to Basawan and Suraj Gujarati, Babur Orders the Spring of the Three Friends at Istalif Enclosed, c. 998 AH / c. 1590 (ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper

Attributed to Basawan and Suraj Gujarati, Babur Orders the Spring of the Three Friends at Istalif Enclosed, folio from a Baburnama manuscript, c.998 AH / c.1590. Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, sheet: 26.5 × 15.9 cm. Gift of Max Tanenbaum, 1979. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

This late 16th-century manuscript painting is among the National Gallery of Canada’s best-known works of Mughal art. When the page was received as a gift in 1979, its importance was immediately recognized, but its exact source – its parent manuscript – was uncertain. It was known to be an illustration to the Baburnama (Book of Babur), the autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur (1483–1530), founder of the Mughal dynasty that would come to rule much of the Indian subcontinent. His autobiography is extraordinarily personal and direct, encompassing daily life, politics and war in the early 16th century, offering evocative descriptions of people and places, and revealing a deep fascination with the world around him.

Babur wrote in Chagatai Turkic, the language then spoken in much of Central Asia, including the regions of modern-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. His grandson, Emperor Akbar I (reigned 1556–1605), had the text translated into Persian, the language of the Mughal court. When the translation was completed in 1589, Akbar had at least five illustrated manuscripts produced, and the Gallery’s page can now be recognized as coming from the first and most lavish of these, commonly called the South Kensington Baburnama or the First Baburnama. This earliest version of some 590 leaves was broken up in 1913 and is today scattered among public and private collections, with the largest group in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Although Akbar apparently could not read, possibly due to dyslexia, he had works read to him, joined in learned discussions and was a passionate patron, especially of the book arts so important in Islamic cultures. The illustrated manuscripts of the Baburnama join others he commissioned – his memoirs, accounts of his ancestors, of the ancient Persian kings, and translations of Sanskrit epics – helping craft an identity for the Mughal dynasty.

Although the artistic culture of Akbar’s court had its roots in Central Asia and Persia, patrons and artists also turned to Indian and European models. Abu’l Fazl, a courtier and Akbar’s biographer, gives a sense of the emperor’s patronage and cultural horizons:

“The works of all painters [employed by the court] are weekly laid before His Majesty by the superintendents and the clerks; he then confers rewards according to the excellence of workmanship, or increases the monthly salaries. … Most excellent painters are now to be found and masterpieces … may be placed at the side of the wonderful works of the European painters who have attained world-wide fame. The minuteness in detail, the general finish, the boldness of execution, etc., now observed in pictures, are incomparable; even inanimate objects look as if they had life. More than a hundred painters have become famous masters of the art, whilst the number of those who approach perfection, or of those who are middling, is very large. This is especially true of the Hindus; their pictures surpass our conceptions of things. Few, indeed, in the whole world are found equal to them.”
[Adapted from Abu’l Fazl’s A’In–i Akbari (The Institutes of Akbar), translated by Heinrich Blochmann]

Akbar’s commissions were divided up among teams of artists working at the court, and often two painters collaborated on a single image, in addition to the calligraphers. The Gallery’s illustration is attributed to Basawan, responsible for the composition and the drawing, and Suraj Gujarati, who painted it. Their names are recorded in red ink at the bottom – later largely trimmed off. Responsible for many of the narrative scenes in the first Baburnama, Basawan is likely to have been in charge of the manuscript’s production. Abu’l Fazl praised him: “in composition, drawing of facial features, blending of colours, the painting of true likenesses, and several other branches of this art, he is most excellent.” His list of the artist's skills gives a sense of how Mughal patrons understood painting.

Akbar will have chosen the scenes he wanted illustrated. Momentous events in Babur’s life are complemented by scenes of leisure, gardening and natural history – subjects that resonated with Akbar, just as they had with his grandfather. The Gallery’s leaf is one of two facing illustrations, showing Babur overseeing work at his garden at Istalif, near Kabul in Afghanistan:

“A one-mill stream, having trees on both banks, flows constantly through the middle of the garden; formerly its course was zig-zag and irregular; I had it made straight and orderly; so the place became very beautiful. Between the village and the valley-bottom … is a spring, known as Khwaja Seyaran (Three Friends), round which three sorts of tree grow. A group of plane trees gives pleasant shade above it; holm oak grows in masses on the slope at its sides – these two oaklands excepted, no holm oak grows in the mountains of western Kabul – and the Judas tree is much cultivated in front of it, that is towards the level ground – cultivated there and nowhere else. People say the three different sorts of tree were a gift made by three saints, whence its name.”
[Adapted from the Baburnama, translated by Annette Susannah Beveridge. She translated Babur's original Chagatai Turkic text. The manuscripts illustrated here have the Persian translation.]

Basawan and Suraj Gujarati, Workmen in a Garden, c. 998 AH / c. 1590. Ink, watercolor and gold on paper

Basawan and Suraj Gujarati, Workmen in a Garden, c.998 AH / c.1590. Ink, watercolor and gold on paper, image: 24.8 × 13.7 cm. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence (Museum Appropriation Fund 17.463). Photo: Courtesy of the RISD Museum, Providence, RI

The right-hand illustration, now in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design, was also painted by Basawan and Suraj Gujarati and shows workmen at Istalif. On the left side was the Gallery’s painting, depicting Babur inspecting the Khwaja Seyaran spring being enclosed:

“I ordered that the spring should be enclosed in mortared stonework, 10 by 10, and that a symmetrical, right-angled platform should be built on each of its sides, so as to overlook the whole field of Judas trees. If, the world over, there is a place to match this when the Judas trees are in full bloom, I do not know it. The yellow Judas tree grows plentifully there also, the red and the yellow flowering at the same time. In order to bring water to a large round seat which I had built on the hillside and planted round with willows, I had a channel dug across the slope from a half-mill stream.”  
[Adapted from the Baburnama, translated by Annette Susannah Beveridge]

Babur and Akbar’s shared loved of gardens had deep roots in Islamic culture: these verdant places of delight evoked Paradise and served as microcosms of the ordered, fertile state – ideas which resonated across many cultures over millennia. The kingly action of controlling and improving nature made images such as the Gallery’s painting an appropriate choice for an imperial manuscript.


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