Specialist Sara Plumbly examines a rare and bewitching page from a hand-painted copy of the Hamzanama — a 16th-century tome depicting mythical exploits — offered in our Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds sale on 20 October 2016
‘It’s a fantastic story full of giants, monsters, heroes and villains,’ says specialist Sara Plumbly, discussing the Hamzanama, a text which recounts the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad.
This page is taken from an exceptional copy of the work made in India, commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in around 1564. It was, says Plumbly, a ‘huge project, both literally and physically’. More than 60 cm high, the manuscript took 15 years to complete, and was illustrated by a skilled team of painters brought together from across India, Iran and Central Asia.
‘The complete text is known to have had around 1,400 paintings,’ says Plumbly, who believes the images may have served as a visual aide for public recitations of the story — an experience not unlike an early form of cinema. For the illiterate Emperor Akbar, it would also have been a way to ‘read’ one of India’s most popular tales.
This colourful page from the original work is typically fanciful: it shows Amir Hamza, the book’s hero, carried in the claws of the rukh, or roc, a giant mythical bird. Finding himself in a land far from home, Amir Hamza had hidden in the bird’s nest and then clung to its legs when it crossed the sea. The rukh tries to shake off its unwanted passenger, pecking at Hamza’s hands. Eventually he can hold on no longer and plummets towards the sea, where he is miraculously rescued by the Prophets Khizr and Ilyas.
This page is incredibly rare. ‘Only around 10 per cent of the Hamzanama’s original pages survive, with the largest group in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum,’ explains Plumbly. Remarkably, many of the V&A folios were discovered by chance, when English museum director Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke spotted them lining the windows of a curiosity shop in Kashmir.
Today, the work’s importance in India’s art history is considerable. ‘This may have been one of the first texts of its kind to have been produced in Mughal India,’ concludes Plumbly. 'With the combination of Indian artistic traditions and Persian decorative elements brought in by the foreign artists, it certainly played a part in paving the way to a new Mughal style.’