Muhammad Ibrahim, the Khan Alam

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Kishangarh, Rajasthan, India, Asia

c. 1700

Transparent and opaque watercolor, gold, and silver-colored paint on paper

Image: 15 1/2 × 9 3/4 inches (39.4 × 24.8 cm) Sheet: 16 13/16 × 9 3/4 inches (42.7 × 24.8 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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Barely visible in the background, a great army marches at the command of Muhammad Ibrahim, who was given the title Khan Alam (Lord of the World). Once a senior official at the Mughal court, he switched his allegiance to the Rajput enemy he had been sent to subdue. This Kishangarh artist portrays Muhammad Ibrahim as a hero in the Rajput fight against Mughal domination, yet he paints the Khan Alam in a style and format firmly rooted in Mughal portraiture. The hips-and-above portrayal, the receding landscape, the varied palette, and the details of dress and pose are typical of paintings from the workshop of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (reigned 1658-1707). The abstraction of the figure's large forms and the thin application of paint, however, foreshadow the distinctive Kishangarh paintings of the following decades.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    Muhammad Ibrahim, entitled Khan Alam (Lord of the World) and later Ghairath Khan (Lord of Courage), stands on a high parapet, framed by a bird’s-eye view of his marching army. The deep green of the distant landscape, and the bright red of Muhammad Ibrahim’s turban and sheath, accent the whitened paleness of the surrounding color. For all practical purposes, this painting is really a colored drawing. The entire surface is covered with paint, but the eye focuses on its carefully drawn outlines.

    Muhammad Ibrahim was a senior officer of state during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1658 - 1707), also known as ‘Alamgir. A Persian inscription along the top of the painting states that he led the vanguard of troops against Prince Dara Shikoh (1615 - 1659), Aurangzeb’s elder brother.1 The siblings fought two great battles to determine the succession to the Mughal throne: the first took place at Samugarh, eight miles east of Dholpur, in 1658; the second at Deorai, four miles south of Ajmer, in 1659. The inscription must refer to the battle of 1658, since Muhammad Ibrahim would not have led the troops in the 1659 battle, when he was described as being “attached to [Aurangzeb’s] stirrups,” that is, kept near to the emperor’s person.2

    Following the battle of 1658, Muhammad Ibrahim was awarded the title Khan Alam and elevated to a high rank. In the third year of Aurangzeb’s reign (1661–62), he was awarded a new title, Ghairath Khan, and reconfirmed in his already lofty standing. In the next decades he fought with Prince Muhammad Muazzam (1643 - 1712), Aurangzeb’s second son, in the Deccan, and served as fawjdar (military superintendent) at Jaunpur in the Gangetic plains.

    This portrait commemorates the years Muhammad Ibrahim spent in Rajasthan, that is, the period 1680-81, when he became a hero to the Rajputs and a villain to the Mughals. Muhammad Ibrahim went to Rajasthan with Prince Akbar (1657 - 1707), Aurangzeb’s fourth son. They had been sent to subdue the rulers of Marwar and Mewar, but ended up joining with the rebels to wage war on Aurangzeb. On the evening before a critical battle, when the suddenly suspicious Rajputs abandoned the field, Aurangzeb’s triumph was ensured. On the following day Prince Akbar was driven to the far corners of India; the Rajputs were pursued with redoubled fury; and Muhammad Ibrahim was captured and thrown into prison, where he remained for some twenty years.3

    Muhammad Ibrahim’s turncoat defiance of Aurangzeb did little to affect the ultimate outcome of the Mughal-Rajput wars. But it made him a hero in Rajasthan. In this aggrandizing portrait, the eye focuses not on Muhammad Ibrahim’s ageless features, but on his curiously youthful torso and leaflike hands. His body has an oversize largeness that mocks the bird’s-eye smallness of the soldiers and elephants in the distant background. Masterfully depicted in aerial perspective, the background army marches to Muhammad Ibrahim’s sole command.

    Another painting by this same artist can be identified: a stately head-and-shoulders portrait of Prince Azim ush shan (1664 - 1712), the son of Prince Muhammad Muazzam.4 Both paintings have carefully balanced compositions and firmly drawn outlines, but their color is so thinly applied it fails to conceal the numerous pentimenti, or corrections to the underdrawing, that are visible beneath the painted surface.5 (Note the ghostly smudge to the right of Muhammad Ibrahim’s face and the penumbra of lines around his hands.)

    The two paintings are closely related in figure drawing, palette, and scale, but differ in date. As Azim ush shan is framed by an imperial halo, his portrait must postdate 1712. (He declared himself emperor in 1712, but was killed the same year.) The portrait of Muhammad Ibrahim is less typical of the Kishangarh style, suggesting an earlier stage in the artist’s development, a period when his understanding of format and space was more firmly rooted in Mughal aesthetics. This, together with the faultlessly painted background vista, suggests a date of c. 1700.

    Both paintings portray Mughal grandees with important Kishangarh connections. Muhammad Ibrahim was the champion of the Rathor clan, to which the Kishangarh royal house belonged. Azim ush shan was the son of a Kishangarh princess, and the nephew and cousin of two Kishangarh rulers: Man Singh (reigned 1658 - 1706) and Raj Singh (reigned 1706-48), respectively. According to legend, Raj Singh carried Azim ush shan’s corpse to Kishangarh for burial.6 As both paintings are roughly equal in size, and closely related in subject, they might have been painted for the same family album. Darielle Mason, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 124-125.

    1. The painting is inscribed as follows: in Persian along the top, “A painting of Khan Alam, the son of Najabat Khan, who led the vanguard of ‘Alamgir’s army in the battle against Dara Shikoh”; in Rajasthani along the top, “A painting of Khan Alam, the son of Najabat Khan”; in Persian on the reverse, “Son of Najabat Khan, [who] fought in the war of succession.” I am grateful to B. N. Goswamy for this translation.
    2. Nawwab Samsam-ud-Daula Shah Nawaz Khan and ‘Abdul Hayy, The Maathir-ul-Umara, 2nd ed., trans. H. Beveridge, ed. Baini Prashad (Patna: Janaki Prakashan, 1979), vol. 1, p. 578. For an account of Muhammad Ibrahim’s life, see ibid., pp. 577–79.
    3. He was released in the forty-third year of Aurangzeb’s reign (1699-1700) and sent to his old post in Jaunpur. He was still alive in the year 1706, but the date of his death is unrecorded. See Saqi Must‘ad Khan, Maasir-i-‘Alamgiri: A History of the Emperor Aurangzib-‘Alamgir (Reign 1658 - 1707 A.D.), trans. Jadunath Sarkar (Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1947), pp. 246, 305.
    4. Both paintings have a known Kishangarh provenance. For the portrait of Azim ush shan, see Toby Falk and Simon Digby, Paintings from Mughal India (London: Colnaghi, 1979), pp. 68–69, no. 32.
    5. For another Kishangarh painting, or colored drawing, with the same type of surface, now in the Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, see Stuart Cary Welch. “A Matter of Empathy: Comical Indian Pictures.” Asian Art and Culture, vol. 7, no. 3 (Fall 1994), p. 97, fig. 16.
    6. William Irvine, Later Mughals (New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1971), vol. 1, p. 177.