Nawab Muhammad Riza Khan Smoking a Huqqa

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Murshidabad, West Bengal, Bengal Region, India, Asia

c. 1780-1790

Opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Image: 11 9/16 × 9 5/16 inches (29.4 × 23.7 cm) Sheet: 12 1/16 × 9 5/8 inches (30.6 × 24.4 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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As the Mughal empire disintegrated in the early 1700s, regional rulers abandoned their emperor and established separate courts, especially in eastern India. One of these, Murshidabad, became such a bustling mercantile center that by the mid-eighteenth century European visitors likened it to London. This painting typifies the Murshidabad variant of the Mughal style. It features a sparse composition, deep vista, and cool gray palette. Muhammad Riza Khan smokes his huqqa but, rather than reclining on a rug, he rests on a European-style bench. The bench is drawn using a Western-influenced perspective that contrasts with the flatness of the woven-grass floor covering. Known as a haughty spendthrift, Muhammad Riza Khan's career ricocheted back and forth between the exalted roles of governor and minister, and the depths of financial and social ruin.

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

    By the early eighteenth century, the heyday of the Mughal empire had passed. As centralized authority waned, strong men seized the opportunity to transform their governorships into independent fiefdoms with only a nominal attachment to the Mughal court. The emergence of regional courts was particularly pronounced in the remote eastern part of the empire, where Delhi’s grasp on power had traditionally been subject to challenge. One important regional court was based in the wealthy state of Bengal, where the first of these ambitious nawabs, Murshid Quli Khan, renamed the new capital Murshidabad in his own honor. When Murshidabad reached the height of its prosperity and power about mid-century, English visitors placed it on a par with London. By the late eighteenth century, however, catastrophic political miscalculations and relentless British expansion caused Murshidabad to be eclipsed by Calcutta, a new economic and political powerhouse 120 miles to the south.

    This precipitous political decline naturally had artistic repercussions. Murshidabad was home to an interesting variant of the late Mughal style, distinguished primarily by its spare compositions, deep vistas, cool grayish palette, and dark-featured figures. But as the court patronage that had attracted artists to Murshidabad began to atrophy, many artists left to seek employment elsewhere in the region or adopted a heavily Europeanized style favored by a new class of British patrons. However, some of the anonymous artists who lingered on at Murshidabad must have been among the very best talent available, for this relatively late portrait is among the most compelling paintings ever produced at this court.

    An inscription written on the reverse of the painting in an eighteenth-century English hand identifies the subject as a “Portrait Nawab Mahomed Reza Kaun of Cossimbazaar.”1 The portrait depicts Muhammad Riza Khan at one of the high points of an unusually checkered career. Once governor of a region in eastern Bengal, Muhammad Riza was arrested and brought in ignominy to Murshidabad; once there, he rebounded in equally dramatic fashion, gaining first the favor of Lord Clive and then that of Nawab Najm al-Dawla of Murshidabad. He was appointed minister by the latter, and enjoyed complete control of revenue collection. The temptations of such a position plunged him inevitably into court intrigues, which led not once but twice to disgrace and financial ruin. Muhammad Riza Khan apparently needed little encouragement to stray down this path. A contemporary account describes him as an incorrigible spendthrift, squandering time and money on games of chance and extravagant houses. Such financial irresponsibility made Muhammad Riza Khan a target of scathing social reproach, a state he exacerbated by the pretentious airs he assumed personally and encouraged in his sons. He and his family were roundly condemned by a contemporary observer:

    It is in the middle of such a court of famished wretches, that those hopeful noblemen firmly believe themselves equal to Assef-dja [Asaf Jah], and have such high notions of themselves, that they think it a sin to bow the head of modesty and civility to any man, or to go to visit any one; and although he should be of an illustrious family, they think it a reflection upon themselves, whilst at the same time, the smallness of their means and income is such, that they have not one gentleman to attend them, and to keep them company. Hence they are desirous of seeing their houses frequented; and this is so far true, that whenever any one chances to fall into their hands, they lay hold of him, and detain him so long by prolonging the conversation, that he is ready to lose his temper. With all this, they will not suffer any one to smoke his Hocca [huqqa] in their presence, nor to ease his legs by altering his respectful posture. On all these accounts the few that frequent their houses are discontented; but no man of rank chooses to go there.2

    Perceiving his subject’s innate haughtiness, the painter sets Muhammad Riza Khan alone at one end of a lacquered seat broad enough to accommodate two, his only companion the huqqa whose mouthpiece he raises broodingly to his lips. Man and waterpipe rest lightly on a grass mat, its busy rhythmic weave contrasting deftly with the starkness of the chilly blue wall. Against this backdrop of geometric and textural equilibrium, Muhammad Riza Khan strikes a remarkable pose—aquiline head and massive arms angled one way, powerful rump and legs turned the other—conveying, perhaps inadvertently, not a sense of a mind and body at ease, but one of a vain man beset by contradictory and disquieting impulses.

    Although many painters follow the contours of the primary forms when they apply paint to the background, this artist does so in a manner that goes well beyond mere expeditiousness. He deliberately darkens the strokes immediately adjacent to his sitter’s face and white robes, as well as those around the very perimeter of the blue-gray wall. The result is a kind of solarized effect that imparts a slightly sinister cast to both Muhammad Riza Khan and his domain. The painter displays his virtuosity with paint elsewhere as well, using concentrations of tiny dots of paint to render a discreet embroidered pattern on the white jama, and long rivulets of paint to suggest the clinging folds of the gauzy garment. John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 184-185.

    1. Cossimbazar, a town located five miles south of Murshidabad along the Hooghly River, was an important center for the production and trade of cotton and raw silk.
    2. Seid-Gholam-Hossein-Khan, The Sëir Mutaqherin; or, Review of Modern Times: Being an History of India . . . as Far Down as the Year 1783 (1789; reprint, Lahore: Sheik Mubarak Ali, 1975), vol. 3, pp. 149–50.