A day when emperors had talent

This famous portrait of Shah Jahan (then Prince Khurran) when he was in his 25th year (c. 1617) was done when the Indian Imperial camp was traveling, and at the time when the Prince received the title by which we know him and which means ''King of the World.'' The artist, Abu'l Hasan, had also been recently favored with the honorific of Nadir-uz-Zaman in recognition of his leading position at the Emperor Jahangir's court as a painter of outstanding brilliance. His naturalism, and the skill with which he employed European techniques in shading and the rendition of a figure in the round, were highly praised.

Shah Jahan, sumptuously dressed and bedecked with gems, holding in his hand an aigrette made in the European fashion, is shown against a flowery meadow. It was then the convention to represent a noble personage in profile, holding a jewel, before a beautiful background, in this case one depicting the loveliness of nature, which the Moguls adored. For both artist and model the world was still young and fair, but Abu'l Hasan (being adept at painting character as well as a physical likeness) has given us a hint of the nature of this future ruler, of what he might be like when his gilded youth had passed. Under him the Mogul Empire would superficially attain its highest point, and the splendor of his court would be unrivaled, but he died a prisoner of his son Aurungzeb - grief-stricken, helpless, bitter, haughty.

In 1628 Shah Jahan ascended the throne, having killed all his male relatives, save one who escaped to Persia, having rebelled against his father, and being constantly involved in an atmosphere of treachery, intrigue, and cruelty. He remained, however, always a connoisseur of the arts, particularly architecture. All the world knows his supreme success in this field - the Taj Mahal - which he built for his beloved consort the Mumtaz Begum, who died in 1631, having given him 14 children. He was inconsolable; his love and grief for her were probably the worthiest elements of his character.

He reigned till 1658, when he was deposed by his son Aurungzeb, who likewise cut his way to the throne by a series of murders, and who imprisoned him in the Red Fort in Agra. There he languished for eight years, gazing over the Jumna River at the Taj Mahal. This somber path lay ahead, when Abu'l Hasan painted the jocund picture shown here.

The word ''Mogul'' has come to denote an autocrat, as Dickens used it when he has one of his characters remark: ''I don't deny your sister comes the Mogul over us.'' Tyranny is commonplace; what distinguished this dynasty from most autocracies is that it contained a number of emperors who were cultivated, extremely artistic, and intellectually gifted men. Art was then essentially of the court and centered upon the emperor. In its heyday it was a period of magnificence, creativity, pleasure, panache.

The Portuguese, the Dutch, the English and French, the Jesuits, flocked to the Mogul capitals, contrasting their splendor with the little cities they had left in Europe. Here were the fabled riches of the East: forts and palaces, great tombs and mosques, beautiful gardens, a plethora of arts, ceremonies, jewels, and religious passion.

The Moguls, originally Turkic, became through marrying Hindu princesses, Indian. They were Persian in culture, Muslim by faith. Babur (1483-1526), the founder of the dynasty, traced his descent from Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, and was from Ferghana and Samarkand. Unable to establish himself there he descended upon northern India, but he never liked it, homesick for his own land. Martial, a talented writer, a lover of gardens, he left a great name.

The Moguls lived in Kabul, Agra, Lahore, Fatipur Sikri, and Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). The span of their ''Great'' emperors lasted into the 18th century with Aurungzeb, an austere, ruthless, and fanatical Muslim, who revolted from the artistic tradition of his house. The cultural treasury that his forebears had built up, together with their administrative genius and their conquests in the field, made so powerful an impact on India that the shell of their empire endured till the middle of the 19th century, when the British stepped into this power vacuum and took the country.

Jahangir, in whose reign this portrait was made, was the most sensitive to painting of them all, personally occupied with his atelier. This, like those of his father, Akbar, and his son Shah Jahan, was a place that combined many sources of painting: the art of Persia, European ideas brought in by the Jesuits with their ''Christian pictures,'' and the work of the Muslim sultanates of the Deccan and the Hindu kingdoms, like Malwa and Golconda. Some think, however, that it was under Shah Jahan that these arts reached their zenith. ''Many of the artists were endowed with unsurpassed keenness of vision and steadiness of hand, '' according to one authority. ''Some were able to use with success a brush consisting of a single squirrel's hair.'' Even so, no better example of Mogul painting can be found than this very portrait.

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