Bichitr - "Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings” from the St. Petersburg Album,1615-18, opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper (borders by Muhammad Saddiqi)
"One of my favorite paintings from the series [of four allegorical portraits commissioned by the Mughal emperor Jahangir] is Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings. What I find so striking is that key individuals, the international powerbrokers of the 17th century, so to speak, are brought together in a single moment. There is something audacious about the way Jahangir had his court artist depict these eminent leaders as mere courtiers at Jahangir’s darbar (court). He manages not only to bring together an Ottoman Sultan and King James I of England (neither of whom ever visited India), but also makes the painting clearly favor the Sufi Shaikh Hussain (a religious scholar) over the foreign rulers. The white bearded figure is first in line, receiving a book from the emperor. Here the custodian of religion extends part of his garment to receive the book; it is an act of submission in front of the Mughal emperor, clearly placing Jahangir at the helm of authority. Make no mistake: The painting is a bold statement by Jahangir. Some of the most powerful political figures of the early 17th century appear lined up below the emperor. The massive scale of Jahangir’s figure compared to the rest, coupled with his larger-than-life halo, further solidifies how this Mughal emperor saw himself as a world ruler.” — Najiba H. Choudhury [***] / [***]
"The emperor is seated on a raised platform suspended above an oversized hourglass. This symbolizes his mortality—as well as that of the other people in the image—yet the cherubs write in Persian on the hourglass "Oh Shah, may the span of your life be a thousand years." The emperor’s halo and the cherubs above and below him are evidence of the influence of European artistic motifs in Mughal painting during the reign of Jahangir." —Usha Bhatia [***]
Bichitr. Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Sheikh to Kings. 1618.
In the painting, we see Jahangir sited on a hourglass throne. Cupids write in it the wish of the king of living for 1000 years. The halo that covers Jahangir is a mix between the sun and the moon, indicating that he is the centre of the universe and that he is the source of all light. Just with these two symbols we can see the fusion that Bichitr makes between the east and the west: the cupids are purely western while the halo is a symbol purely eastern.
There are 4 individuals at the left. Below we find Bichitr himself, our own artist, and this was the first time that a painter from the east included himself in his painting. This was very bold, considering that he is in front of the emperor. Here Bichitr holds a miniature and, inside it, we can see him again, deeply vowing the emperor. Above Bichitr is the king James I of England, who was copied by the artist from a painting that was given to Jahangir. Over James I, there is a Turkish sultan and, above him, we find an old Sufi sheikh, a mystical saint that gives Jahangir a book with an inscription that says “although to all appearances kings stand before him, Jahangir looks inwardly toward the dervishes (holy men)”. Bichitr signs the work in the step the emperor uses to climb to the throne, which means that Jahangir walks over Bichitr’s name, indicating the awareness the artist has on his own lower status.
Bichitr Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to Kings, 1615 Gouache
"Though outwardly shahs stand before him, he fixes his gazes on dervishes." Jahangir the 4th Mughal Emperor (1605-1627) is seated on an hourglass throne. Below him cherubs are inscribing the wish that he might live a thousand years but the sands of his time are running out… Jahangir is offering a book of his life to the Sufi Shaikh Husain rather than the Ottoman Sultan, King James 1 of England or Bichitr, the painter himself as a representative of art. Jahangir wasn’t particularly religious and was known for his addiction to alcohol, opium and women. As he approached death however, he is depicted as turning to the quest of spiritual awakening. He has lost interest in power (rejects Ottoman Sultan and King James 1) and in aesthetic beauty (rejects the arts as represented by Bichitr). He has put his life in the hands of a Sufi to judge. A Sufi is one who chooses to avoid the pleasures and indulgences of human life, especially of marriage, and instead is devout to seeking spiritual wisdom. Sufis believe that it is possible to draw closer to God and to fully embrace the Divine Presence in this life after the process of purifying the heart. This is achieved in terms of two types of law, an outer law concerned with actions (marriage, worship, criminal law) and an inner law concerned with the heart (repentance from sin, good character, virtues). Perhaps as Jahangir approached death he sought to find answers to questions about the divine and his afterlife from a Sufi who has dedicated his life to this experience.
Leaders have adopted various religions mostly for strategic reasons concerning the religious practices of allies and to serve personal interests, like Henry 8 who adopted protestant Christianity after he couldn’t get a divorce. Jahangir here, is interested in Sufism after having a long life of sin, just as he approaches death, ut of purely selfish reasons. A Sufi, gives up everything from the beginning of his career and spends his life trying to get to the purest state before death.