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Akbar’s Hamzanama: An Illustrated Masterpiece of the Mughal Era

An Introduction to the Hamzanama

Storytelling is an art as old as time itself. In the present, advertisers and marketers create brand stories and weave narratives. In the distant past, cave dwellers drew images on cave walls, leaving their mark on a canvas untouched since the beginning of creation. The recent past is no different. From the peasants to the kings, everyone loves a good story. So let’s take a look at how storytelling took place in Akbar’s court through the illustrated Hamzanama.

The Hamzanama: A Beloved Work of Literature

Amr, Disguised as Mazmahil the Surgeon, Practices Quackery on the Sorcerers of Antali. By Daswanth. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum

The Hamzanama, also called ‘Dastan-e-Amir-Hamza’, is a unique literary work that describes the adventures of a male protagonist called ‘Hamza’. Hamza is a warrior who, together with his band of friends, fights any and all dangers that come their way. These stories describe the tumultuous life and romance of the hero, and the dangers he faces from enemies like demons, dragons, witches, giants, and the like. A thrilling sequence of events follows, from violent altercations, romantic rendezvouses to narrowly escaping death.

The story of Hamza existed many years before it was actually put into writing. Like all famous stories, it lived in people’s memories as an oral tradition. It was later penned in Persian and spanned multiple volumes. The literary text closely embodies the spirit of the tale in its original form, i.e. as an oral storytelling tradition, or dastan. An Urdu version of the Hamzanama is considered to be the longest iteration, with over 45,000 pages compiled in 46 volumes.

The Completion of the Hamzanama: A Project of Ambition

The Spy Zambur Brings Mahiya to the City of Tawariq. By Keshav Das. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When Akbar became emperor at the young age of 12, he quickly established himself as someone with a unique love and appreciation for art. Due to Akbar’s speculated learning disability, his tastes in literature leaned towards illustrated manuscripts and stories that were performed or recited to him.  He commissioned the illustrated Hamzanama while he was still very young, most likely because of his love for the story. At that point in time, the royal atelier was headed by the Persian artists Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad.

This commission took on a colossal scale. Hundreds of artists, bookbinders, calligraphers, etc. played a part in the Hamzanama’s creation. At first, Mir Sayyid Ali supervised this enormous project. He was later replaced by Abd al-Samad. Some sources state that it was due to the slow pace of the project, as only four volumes had been finished in the first seven years. However, Mir ‘Ala al-Daula Qazwini states in the Nafa’is al-Ma’asir that Mir Sayyid had obtained permission to leave on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Under Abd al-Samad’s direction, production picked up pace. It still took seven more years, and all twelve volumes, or 1400 paintings, were finished in a total of fourteen years. Many experienced artists, like Daswanth and Basawan, joined this project. As Akbar’s atelier was a mix of Indian and Persian artists, the work produced was a unique blend of the existing Indian style and the Persian Safavid conventions. The finished Hamzanama was kept at the Kitab Khana at Red Fort, Delhi.

The Unique Features of Akbar’s Hamzanama

Hamza kills a lion on the way to visit Anoshirvan at Mada. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Akbar’s illustrated Hamzanama is painted on a canvas much larger than the typical Miniature: spanning an astonishing 2 ½ by 2 feet, or approximately 20 x 27 inches. Painted on cotton cloth, each illustration covers one page. These cloth pieces were then attached to paper to increase their strength and durability. The reverse side is adorned with nastaliq calligraphy. Certain pages at the beginning contain both paintings and text on the same side.

This unusual format may have served a specific purpose. Since Akbar enjoyed illustrated stories, it is likely that these paintings were held up and the text was read aloud, similar to many Indian storytelling traditions that employ visual aids to accompany the narration. The Hamzanama is closely related to the Tuti-nama in terms of the techniques and compositions employed in the illustrations.

The Finer Details of the Hamzanama: Architecture and Landscape

Basu beheads Namadpush and enters Acre Castle. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

The Hamzanama features a bold colour palette that was previously unseen in Safavid Persian painting. It captures the lavish interiors of Persian palaces while keeping the spirit of an Indian drama. The arching onion domes and curved interiors of the Middle East seamlessly exist alongside the stepped towers so commonly seen in Hindu temples. Though set in Persia, we observe lush landscapes occasionally taking on the form of the Indian countryside.

The Hamzanama features fast-paced dramatic action, capturing the Indian love of adventure and drama. It features daring fight scenes and violent action that appears larger than life itself. It was and is considered one of the most remarkable works of the Mughal School of painting. 

However, the Hamzanama derived inspiration from an unexpected source. The Jesuits had brought with them the Plantin polyglot Bible, which contained numerous Antwerp-style etchings and illustrations. Painter and art critic Gulam Mohammed Sheikh states that these illustrations, along with other European elements, were highly influential in developing the unique Mughal style.

When Persian monarch Nadir Shah invaded Delhi, he took back with him various treasures such as the Kohinoor diamond and the Peacock Throne. Out of all those precious treasures, the reigning Emperor Muhammad Shah pleaded with Nadir Shah to return only the Hamzanama.

The Surviving Paintings of the Hamzanama

Umar Defeats a Dragon. By Daswanth. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, many of the Hamzanama’s paintings have not survived the test of time. Now dispersed, approximately two hundred of these paintings are scattered in different museums all over the world. Notably, some of the Miniatures found in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection were ‘discovered’ hanging in huts and boats along the Jhelum river. These unique paintings were serving an unintended purpose: they were being used as window shades!

Sixty one of the surviving paintings are part of the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts (Vienna), while twenty seven are housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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