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Tales of a Parrot: Emperor Akbar’s fascination with the Tuti-nama

The Appeal of Animal Fables and the Tuti-Nama

As a child, many of us heard the story of the thirsty crow. As we grew older, we came across many stories from Aesop’s fables or the Panchatantra. Not only are such stories entertaining, but they often include a moral at the end. Children are fascinated by animal characters behaving in human ways, so these tales make them more receptive to picking up good values. This love of fables also extended to the child emperor, Akbar, who commissioned one of the most extensive Mughal Miniature folios on the tales of the Tuti-Nama.

Introducing the theme: What is the Tuti-nama?

Above: The merchant hears of his wife’s unfaithfulness; Below: the unfaithful wife performs penance by plucking her hair. Circa 1650. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

From the 700s to the 1400s, animal fables were quite popular in the Arabian Peninsula. One such popular fable is the Tuti-nama, also known as the “Tales of a Parrot.”

The Tuti-Nama was derived from ‘Seventy Tales of the Parrot’ a Sanskrit text titled ‘Śukasaptat’ that dated back to the 12th century.

The Persian physician Zia Nakshabi translated the version known as the Tuti-Nama during the reign of Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq. It was the first piece of literature to be translated from Sanskrit to Persian, and was later translated into Turkish and other European and local languages.

It is interesting to note that the Persian language was not only restricted to Persia, however: it was used as an everyday language, in official administration, and also heavily influenced many of the languages that we speak today.

The Tale of the Tuti-Nama

This literary work weaves together 52 stories narrated by a clever parrot to captivate Khujasta, the wife of his owner.

The story itself follows a simple premise. Its narrative unfolds when the merchant Maymun ventures out on a long business trip. He does not want his wife to be lonely in his absence, and so he leaves her with two pets to keep her company- a Mynah and a parrot.

The Parrot’s Ingenious Wit

Khojasta, the merchant’s wife, knows that her husband will be away for a while. She has a lover and is eager to meet him at night. She is all alone, with nobody to stop her from cheating on her husband- or so she thinks.

The mynah, faithful to Maymun, dutifully advises her against extramarital adventures. Khojasta is not very receptive to the mynah’s advice. She becomes enraged and, in a fit, strangles it.

First Night: Khujasta kills the pet mynah who advises her not to be unfaithful to Maymun, her husband. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

This is the first painting of the folio. It shows three scenes: on top: Maymun’s merchant ship departing, the middle: Khojasta sees a prince from her balcony and falls in love with him; and in the bottom: Khojasta kills the mynah.

This form of narrative story-telling by dividing a single painting into multiple panels was a common pre-Mughal technique.

The parrot realises that its life might be in danger if it opts for a direct approach. Instead, for 52 nights, the parrot regales Khujasta with captivating stories, successfully delaying her rendezvous with her lover until the merchant’s return.

The parrot’s intention is clear: to enchant Khujasta through the night, preventing her from meeting her lover and succumbing to an adulterous affair.

The use of parrots as narrators was quite popular in Indian tales due to their unique ability to speak and hold a conversation.

How is the Tuti-nama relevant to Miniature Painting?

Second Night: The Sentinel prepares to sacrifice his son to the ghost of the Shah of Tabaristan. Image credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art

Emperor Akbar was renowned for his interest in moral scenes and fables. He ascended the throne at the tender age of 13, but possessed remarkable intellect for his age. He commissioned a series of Miniature paintings based on the Tuti-Nama within the first five years of his reign.

Why is this a big deal? The Tuti-nama paintings aren’t a series of just one or two Miniatures. It comprised an impressive 250 miniatures, which were imperative to the development of the Mughal style. They showcase a synthesis of Indian, Persian, and Islamic artistic traditions.

The Foundations of Mughal Miniature Painting

Fifth Night: The monkey bites his chessmate, the prince, as the guests look on. By Dasavanta. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art.

In 1530–40, the Mughal Emperor Humayun had invited seven Persian artists to Kabul. They taught Miniature painting to Humayun and his son Akbar and later moved to Fatehpur Sikri during Akbar’s reign. At around this time, the Mughal Empire reached its zenith.

Akbar provided patronage to many artists and laid the foundation for ‘Mughal painting’ as we know it. He employed Iranian artists as well as Indian artists who were skilled in the localised idioms of painting.

These artists worked alongside each other in his workshops and ateliers, and their collaboration resulted in a unique style of painting.

Seventh Night: The parrot addresses Khujasta. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

The Persian artists Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd al-Samad headed the production of the first Tuti-Nama that was completed in Akbar’s atelier, or kitab khana. An estimated 45 artists worked on this manuscript. Many of these were Indian artists who were new to the Persian manuscript- book format.

Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd al-Samad created the first copy of the Tuti-Nama for Akbar within the first five years of his reign, which began in 1556. Akbar later commissioned a second folio of the Tuti-Nama sometime around 1580.

Akbar’s Tuti-Nama: Where Is It Now?

Seventh Night: The old man and the daughter of the King of Jinns leave the King of Kings. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

Most of the manuscript of the Tuti-nama that was originally painted for Akbar now survives in the Cleveland Museum of Art. It marked the beginning of Emperor Akbar’s long dalliance with the arts, especially Miniature painting. He would go on to commission hundreds of paintings on several socio-political themes.

The second version is now dispersed among several museums, but a major part can be found at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

The Tuti-nama also paved the way for subsequent Mughal miniature painting portfolios, such as the Akbarnama (Book of Akbar), Hamzanama (Adventures of Amir Hamza), and Jahangirnama (Tuzk-e-Jahangiri: the memoirs of Mughal Emperor Jahangir).

The Tuti-Nama and the Mughal Love of Calligraphy

From a Tuti-Nama. Image credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art

The Tuti-Nama miniatures provide a glimpse into the cosmopolitan Mughal court’s penchant for secular literature as a form of entertainment. Its illustrations are accompanied by Nasta’liq style calligraphy written in the Arabic script known as naskh. The Mughal emperors played a great role in popularising ‘Naskh’ and ‘Nastaliq’ calligraphy.

The Emperor Babur was a highly skilled calligrapher. It is no surprise that his grandson Akbar also held a soft spot for the art form. He employed several calligraphers in his court, including Ali Chaman and Mohammad Hussain Kashmiri. Akbar bestowed the title of Zarin-Qalam (Golden Pen) upon the latter for his calligraphic skill.

The Colours and Characters of the Tuti-Nama

Eighth Night: The Prince’s execution is ordered for the fifth time. By Ghulam ‘Ali. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Tuti-Nama Miniatures have rich detailing that is the standard for Mughal Miniature paintings. The artists used mineral pigments on thin, ivory-coloured handmade paper. Some pigments they used were yellow from arsenic, mercury-based red from sindoor, four different white pigments, and various shades of green and blue jewel tones.

Since the Tuti-Nama was painted at the beginning of the Mughal Miniature School, it tells us a lot about Mughal society and is an important historical resource.

We know that the Mughals had extensive knowledge of far-off regions, as many characters in the Tuti-Nama hail from places like Afghanistan, Iran, Eastern Africa, China, and many others. The Mughal Empire was pretty well-connected and definitely a bit more internationally aware than most other Indian empires.

The Styles of the Tuti-Nama

The parrot addresses Khojasta. Circa 1565-1570. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Its style derived inspiration from several pre-Mughal painting schools. Each painting centres around one particular story and theme, and characters have very simple, straightforward expressions, which could be an influence of the Rajasthani Malwa School.

The Tuti-nama is also similar to illustrated Malwa manuscripts that date back to 1439 AD. However, unlike the Malwa shaili, Mughal paintings have a refined colour palette with rich colours and delicate shading. Persian visual cues like a horizontal white-on-black parapet and flat red floors also feature in the Tuti-Nama.

Moreover, these paintings provide an amazing insight into the socio-religious practises of those times. The Tuti-Nama shows the Mughal’s court’s unique blend of Iranian Mughal influence with local customs.

They accurately depict the jewellery, attire, and hairstyles prevalent in Mughal society. The Tuti-Nama also displays the Kathak dance form, which is said to be a combination of Persian and Indian influences.

Setting Trends With the Tuti-Nama

Tenth Night: The parrot addresses Khojasta. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Tuti-Nama laid the foundations of the Mughal Miniature style of painting: a blend of Indian, Persian, and Islamic painting. The Mughal School subsequently influenced many schools of Rajasthani, Pahari, and Deccan Miniature painting.

Thus, the seed that was sown with the Tuti-Nama caused a ripple effect and made a huge impact on traditional Indian art as we know it.

Akbar himself makes an appearance in one of the Tuti-Nama miniatures. This became the earliest known portrait of the emperor. After all, it was not uncommon for artists to depict their patrons in their paintings as a means to flatter them.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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