Rare portrait of Ikhlas Khan, the African Prime Minister of Bijapur, acquired by the British Library
Among the most precious and sought after paintings from early modern India are those from the kingdoms of the Deccan. The Deccan, primarily the upland plateau of peninsular India, was by the time of the Mughals divided into three principal kingdoms, Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda or Hyderabad (corresponding roughly to the modern states of western Maharashtra, northern Karnataka and northern Andhra Pradesh). The Mughals from the north, in their unremitting ambition to conquer the whole of India, assaulted these independent kingdoms throughout the 17th century. Ahmadnagar was largely incorporated into the Mughal empire by Akbar in 1600, and the remaining two were made to accept Mughal suzerainty by Shah Jahan in 1636. All three were ruled by Shia dynasties and looked to their co-religionists in Iran rather than to the Mughals who were Sunnis. They naturally attracted the ambitions of the strict Sunni Aurangzeb who finally incorporated them directly into the Mughal empire in 1686-87. Much of their distinctive paintings and manuscripts tradition was destroyed in these assaults, rendering what survives even more precious..
Deccani painting is distinguished by glowing and sumptuous colours and a sense of fantasy that remained largely aloof from the Mughal obsession with naturalism in the 17th century. Some of these paintings and manuscripts came into the British Library’s collections very early, including a group of important portraits and a magnificent Prince Hawking from Golconda bought with the Richard Johnson collection by the East India Company for its Library in 1807 that epitomises the sense of romantic fantasy found in Deccani painting.
Since it is so distinct, it was not possible to exhibit this material in the Mughal India: Art Culture and Empire exhibition. A rare opportunity has just arisen to acquire an important painting that really enhances the collection.This is an equestrian portrait depicting Ikhlas Khan done in Golconda, 1670-80.
British Library, Ikhlas Khan on horseback, Golconda, 1670-80, Add.Or.5723
Like all Indian miniatures, it is painted in opaque watercolours heightened with gold on paper; and its somewhat damaged condition has led to its earlier being pasted down on card. It has been in a UK private collection since 1931. Both subject and horse are distinctively Deccani, the costume of the former relating to 17th century royal portraits. The rider, clearly of African descent, wears a long white jama (gown), embroidered with flowering sprigs, and a small tight turban of gold brocade. Also of gold brocade are his long patka (waist sash) and dupatta (shawl) wound round his upper body in the Deccani manner. A black belt with gold studs holds the patka in place. A curved sword or tulvar and a shield are hanging on his left side and a bow with a quiver of arrows on his right. He carries another straight sword (a khandan) slung over his shoulder. The stallions’s wide glinting eye, flaring nostrils, open mouth with lolling tongue, braided mane, tasselled trappings and powerful presence are all captured with great skill. The horse is rearing in the haste and excitement of a typical Indian procession, preceded and followed by attendants carrying standards, royal parasols, and swords as well, as one waving the royal scarf, a sign of royalty. In keeping with the Deccani reluctance to paint naturalistically, the horse and the attendants have no ground to stand on but float around in front of the plain background. Only the row of flowers across the bottom of the page indicates that this procession is happening in some kind of space.
All these accoutrements and the splendour of the gold trappings would appear to reinforce a royal identity for the subject. In spite of this, however, the subject bears no resemblance to any of the Deccani Sultans but a considerable one to the powerful minister Ikhlas Khan of Bijapur. Malik Raihan Habshi, a Habshi or African noble of Abyssinian descent in the service of the Bijapur sultans, was given the title Ikhlas Khan after he contrived the murder of the pro-Mughal minister Khawas Khan in 1635 at the time of Shah Jahan’s advance on the Deccan. He rose to the position of chief minister under Muhammad ‘Adil Shah (reg. 1627-56), so that he held all the reins of power in the Bijapur sultanate. He is known to us from several other paintings, in particular Sultan Muhammad ‘Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan riding an Elephant, c. 1650. in the collection of Sir Howard Hodgkin, where Ikhlas Khan wears the same belt as here, and The Durbar of Sultan Muhammad ‘Adil Shah in the City Palace Museum, Jaipur, dated 1651. Another rather damaged half-length portrait is also in the Johnson Collection in the British Library showing Ikhlas Khan holding a gold and jewelled staff of office..
Ikhlas Khan’s depiction in this new painting with the paraphernalia of a ruler would seem to be a reflection of his real power at court. Despite having to submit to Shah Jahan in 1636, Bijapur under his leadership was then free to expand further to the south into Hindu territory in southern Karnataka. His death date does not seem to be recorded. This portrait does not, however, come from Bijapur but from its neighbour and rival to the east, Golconda or Hyderabad. The last Sultan of Golconda, Abu’l Hasan, had spent much of his life in Bijapur territory before being raised to the Golconda throne in 1672. Thereafter Bijapuri influence can be detected in Golconda painting, which had hitherto largely been under Iranian influence in its painting style. Perhaps the idea of Deccani resistance to Mughal aggression and to the encroaching power of Aurangzeb was the catalyst for the production of this posthumous portrait of a heroic Deccani leader.
Ironically the type of a portrait on a rearing horse had been borrowed from the Mughals, as in the magnificent Aurangzeb on a Rearing Horse currently in the Mughal India exhibition.
Africans (Abyssinians or Habshis) from the east coast were known at the various Indian courts since at least the 13th century and several reached high positions as ministers at Delhi and in Bengal. In the 16th century they began to become much more prevalent in the Deccani kingdoms and to assume real power on a regular basis either as generals or ministers. They type is best represented by Malik ‘Ambar, the heroic defender of Ahmadnagar against the aggression of the Mughals in the early 17th century.
Alderman, J.R., “Paintings of Africans in the Deccan” in Robbins and McLeod 2006.
Robbins, K.X. & McLeod, J., African Elites in India, Mapin, Ahmedabad, 2006
Zebrowski, M., Deccani Painting, Sotheby Publications, University of California Press, London and Los Angeles, 1983