Exhibitions/ Art Object

The Sufi Abu'l Abbas Rebukes the Vain Dervish: Page from a Baharistan of Jami Manuscript

Basawan (Indian, active ca. 1556–1600)
dated 1595
India (Mughal court at Lahore)
Opaque watercolor and ink on paper
Page: 11 13/16 x 7 11/16 in. (30 x 19.5 cm) Image: 7 11/16 x 4 15/16 in. (19.5 x 12.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Lent by The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
Rights and Reproduction:
Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Ms. Elliot 254, f.9a
Not on view
This is one of six superb painted folios, each by a master of the imperial atelier, from an imperial copy of Jami’s Baharistan, prepared for Akbar at Lahore in 1595 illustrating the chapters devoted to Wise Men, Generosity, and Love. Basawan’s creation of courtyard and interior spaces displays a vigorous engagement with linear perspective learned from European painting, capturing the red sandstone architecture of Lahore fort as a staged setting for this moral tale of lost humility. The Sufi mullah gently admonishes the vain dervish for prizing his ascetic’s coat, symbol of humility, more than he prizes serving God. The mullah declares: “Would you consider this robe as your god?”

About the Artist

Active ca. 1556–1600, at the Mughal court; father of Manohar

Basawan joined Akbar’s atelier at Delhi as a young Hindu recruit and was involved in every major manuscript production throughout his emperor’s reign. Abu’l Fazl recorded that Basawan surpassed all in composition, drawing of features, distribution of colors, and portrait painting, and was even preferred by some to the “first master of the age, Daswanth.” The mature Akbar prized Basawan above all others for his gift of faithful representation and also for advancing the Mughal style. He was a pioneer in responding to and absorbing new pictorial devices from European art; naturalistic portraiture, atmospheric perspective, and a painterly approach to landscape are his hallmarks.

Basawan was already an accomplished painter in the early 1560s, when he participated in the Mughal reworking of the Tutinama manuscript. The Origin of Music demonstrates his talent for portraiture and his ability to render rocks and trees with a naturalism not seen before in subcontinental painting. In addition, Basawan was a key contributor to the monumental Hamzanama series, as a painter of portraits, rocks, and trees, and also as a master of composition. In the folio that portrays a night attack on the camp of Malik Iraj, Basawan’s hand is visible in the rock formations and the densely foliated trees, as a comparison with those motifs in his Khamsa of Amir Khusrow Dihlavi page clearly demonstrates. The composition of this Hamzanama folio has an underlying similarity to an ascribed work by Basawan in the Victoria and Albert’s Akbarnama that shows Akbar witnessing the armed combat of Hindu ascetics, made some twenty years later.

Basawan’s most lasting legacy is the response to European art that he brought to Mughal painting. His ability to grasp the pictorial possibilities of both atmospheric and linear perspective was unmatched. His paintings of the later 1590s are a revolutionary fusion of these European pictorial devices into a newly emerging post-Safavid Mughal style. The vain dervish from an imperial copy of the Baharistan dated 1595 displays Basawan’s gift for theatricality combined with an astonishing ability to capture naturalistic detail, as witnessed in every aspect of this masterpiece, from the figures in conversation to the goats and peacocks that inhabit the setting. Basawan routinely used his signature rocks and trees to create receding intercepting spaces in the European mode. Like all imperial painters of his time, he had access at the court to northern European engravings of Christian subjects and cameo-type portraits, and he drew freely on that imagery. Basawan typically placed his European-inspired figures in a visionary Mughal setting with fantastic rock formations of Iranian derivation.
Inscription: Painting ascribed to Basawan; calligraphy by Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri Zarin Qalam (Golden Pen); colophon dated 3 Februrary 1595.
Collection of Sir Gore Ouseley (b. 1770–d. 1884). Acquired by John Bardoe Elliott. Donated to the Bodleian Library by John Bardoe Elliott, 1859.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900," September 26, 2011–January 8, 2012.

Okada, Amina. "Basawan." In Master Artists of the Imperial Mughal Court, edited by Pratapaditya Pal. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1991, 1–16, fig. 5; Okada, Amina. Imperial Mughal Painters: Indian Miniatures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Paris: Flammarion, 1992, fig 78; Topsfield, Andrew. Indian Paintings from Oxford Collections. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1994, no. 6; Topsfield, Andrew. Paintings from Mughal India. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2008, no. 12; Welch, Stuart Cary. "The Paintings of Basawan." Lalit Kala 10, 1961, 7–17, fig 3.