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Sultan 'Ali 'Adil Shah II

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Bijapur, Karnataka, India, Asia

c. 1670

Opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Image: 10 × 5 9/16 inches (25.4 × 14.1 cm) Sheet: 10 3/8 × 6 1/8 inches (26.4 × 15.6 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

* Gallery 229, Asian Art, second floor

Accession Number:

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

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During the reign of Sultan 'Ali 'Adil Shah II of Bijapur (reigned 1656-72), ruler of one of the five Islamic kingdoms of the Deccan, the threat of Mughal military domination increased. In painting, however, the Deccani preference for fanciful, decorative compositions reasserted itself over the Mughal naturalism that had filtered into Bijapuri painting during the previous three decades. The sultan stands in a strange landscape; a small hill gives way to a mysterious field of gray that ends abruptly at a group of pink and blue rocks where birds perform aerial tricks. 'Ali 'Adil Shah is oddly drawn, his fingers distorted to follow the shape of his shield, rather than the form of human anatomy.

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

    At the southern frontier of the Mughal empire lay the Deccan, a region whose wily rulers, inconstant alliances, and rocky terrain frustrated Mughal designs on its wealth and territory for more than a century. But the Mughals persisted, and when the political winds were right, their armies managed to subjugate each of the five Islamic kingdoms of the Deccan, a process that culminated in the capitulation of the two largest states, Bijapur and Golkonda, in 1686 and 1687, respectively. Before this time, however, the Deccani sultanates enjoyed the fruits of a cultural amalgam very different from that of the Mughal colossus to the north. Their location at one of the major crossroads of the subcontinent encouraged a continuous influx of people and goods from adjacent Hindu kingdoms as well as from more distant lands, including Portugal and Central Asia. Regular direct contact with Iran and Turkey led the sultanate of Bijapur in particular to embrace Shi’ism as its state religion and to promote artistic styles with a subtle West Asian flavor.

    Painting assumed a distinct character under each of the major Bijapuri rulers. During the reign of Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II (1580–1627), a great flurry of artistic activity formulated and then rapidly refined a style that blended elegant figural detail with lyrical, even fantastic settings. The pace of stylistic change slowed under Muhammad ‘Adil Shah (reigned 1627–56). The genre of portraiture became ever more prominent and showed the heaviest concentration of naturalistic features derived from Mughal painting. The steady infiltration of a Mughal visual aesthetic accelerated in the late 1630s, when renewed Mughal military activity in the region brought nobles from all parts of the Mughal empire into the Deccani cultural orbit. Conversely, at the beginning of the reign of ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah II (1656–72), when Mughal bluster turned into a real military threat, the underlying decorative conception of form in Bijapuri art reasserted itself once more.

    This portrait of ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah II holding a falcon represents this last stage of Bijapuri art. The eyebrow, rising in a high arc from near the bridge of the nose to the very edge of the swept-back eye, is the most obvious of the many figural abstractions. This feature occurs in every portrait of this ruler, but here it completely dominates the face, for the hitherto long straight nose has become a hooked extension of the eyebrow. In other portraits, this figure’s massive shoulder is distinguished from his powerful arm by a change in dress or tone; here, the artist exaggerates that discontinuity, hardening the rumpled brownish cloth encasing the arm so that the limb has all the pliancy of a cornucopia. Likewise, the hand that rests on the large black shield is bent downward at an impossible angle, an effect fostered not by an inability to render anatomy accurately, but by a willingness to subordinate prosaic physical description to the aesthetic appeal of an abstract reflex curve. Indeed, so far removed is this portrait from being a careful visual record of an individual at a specific time and place that the very pose of holding a falcon appears to have been arbitrary. A pentimento visible between ‘Ali’s right arm and body indicates that a thinner right arm was formerly upright and very near to the body. To hold a bird of prey so close to one’s face would be both practically and visually undesirable, so the artist must have originally intended to have the Bijapuri ruler tender a fragrant flower instead. Once he altered the gesture and attribute, he had ample room to endow ‘Ali with a solid gold nimbus, a form almost never seen in Bijapur painting.

    The oval nimbus insulates ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah II from a strange environment. The space immediately around him is an abstract field of gray, its ostensible uniformity marred by rather scrubby brushwork and modern abrasion. The dark green mound on which ‘Ali stands caps a compressed foreground in which waterfowl alternate with rocks of similar size and color. When the landscape resumes after the long gray hiatus, it begins and ends abruptly, terminating in a cluster of solid trees on one side and an upswept outcrop of brightly colored rocks on the other. Beyond this is a sky whose three discrete bands of color are disturbed only by the graceful arcs of willows and a pair of birds performing aerial tricks. John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), p. 110-111.

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