Designed by Basawan, painted by Shankar
The Young Emperor Akbar Arrests the Insolent Shah Abu’l-Maali, page from a manuscript of the Akbarnama
Mughal period, c. 1590/95
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Image: 32 x 19.3 cm (12 5/8 x 7 9/16 in.); outermost border: 33 x 19.6 cm (13 x 7 11/16 in.); page: 34.4 x 20 cm (13 1/2 x 7 7/8 in.)
Lucy Maud Buckingham Collection, 1919.898
The Akbarnama (History of Akbar) is an illustrated book that was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar (who ruled from 1556 to 1605) and is considered his official biography. It was written by his close friend and biographer, Abu Fazl, and was designed and painted by masters of the imperial workshop. In this page, the spiral composition, with horses defining the outer edges, skillfully draws the viewer's attention to the young emperor depicted at age 13. He is portrayed in a powerful central position from which he exercises his first imperial act: the arrest of an unruly courtier, who was once a favorite of Akbar's father. The prime minister, shown on Akbar's right, reinforces the emperor's authority. Basawan's use of portraiture in these illustrations was an innovation in Indian art. Although the idea of any likeness was a radical concept contrary to Islamic doctrine, Akbar defended it eloquently, asserting in his memoirs that the artist's need to observe living people and things brought him close to the miraculous nature of God's creations.
To maintain unity and control over his territories in India, Akbar, a Muslim, adopted policies, including religious tolerance, that appealed to the non-Muslims under his rule. He never renounced Islam, but he studied and supported other religions, including Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity. He was a great supporter of scholarship, poetry, painting, and music. Though illiterate, Akbar amassed an enormous library. He was read to by his courtiers and discussed literature with scholars.