This striking painting of Sultan Ali Adil Shah II hunting tiger is one of the most glorious, rich and mesmerising of Deccani portraits. Despite the fragmentary nature of the painting, it retains a majestic power and presence. Indeed, the loss of the lower part and corners almost enhances its impact, focussing the eye of the viewer on the glittering, radiant, almost dreamlike figure of the Sultan as he looses his arrow towards the tiger crouching on the rocks in front of him.
The paintings produced in the Deccani states of south central India present one of the most enigmatic and alluring cultural phenomena in the history of the Indian subcontinent. Mixing influence from outside traditions, such as those of Iran and the Mughal court, with an intense, idiosyncratic pictorial idiom, Deccani artists and patrons of the 16th and 17th century produced a distinctive style that was all their own, characterized by exquisite quality, accentuated forms and colours, lyricism, sensuousness, heat, languid romanticism and an almost dreamlike atmosphere that verges at times on the surreal, magnifying the technical virtuosity of the artists. It is an alluring and heady mix, drawing the viewer in and rewarding them with a sense of intimacy with the characters and landscapes that one rarely gets from the more formal Mughal style.
Zebrowski has attributed the present picture to an artist dubbed the Bombay painter, who was responsible for around eight known works (Zebrowski 1983, pp.139-144, fig.110). One of the paintings attributed to his hand bears an inscription naming the artist. Unfortunately it is rubbed and unclear, leaving the exact identity of this artist unconfirmed, but Zebrowski read it as either 'Abd al-Hamid naqqash' or 'amal-i Muhammad naqqash'.
In the present work it is worth noting the disproportion in size between the central, haloed figure of the Sultan, and the diminutive tiger, and there is surely a symbolic message in this, relating perhaps to the sultan's political and military conflicts with the Maratha chief Shivaji, which were at their height around 1660. Shivaji was a formidable enemy, and in the composition of this portrait, with the large, proud, confident, gold figure of the Sultan, the radiant halo round his head, and the small, crouching figure of the tiger, Ali Adil Shah was perhaps making a statement about his power and majesty, and his own legitimacy to rule in the face of Shivaji's threat.
The painting was exhibited in the monumental 1985 exhibition India, Art and Culture 1300-1900, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and in the accompanying catalogue Cary Welch described it in the following terms:
"As if in a glittering tableau vivant, Sultan Ali, resplendently dressed in gold, orange, and blue, smiles victoriously in his portrayal as a tiger hunter. The likeness is intensely Indian, bringing to mind gold coins of the Gupta dynasty in which deified heroes slay evil in the form of lions. His lips are stained red from chewing betel nut (pan), and his eyes are shaped like pipal leaves as he speeds a well-aimed royal shaft into the vitals of a beastly force of darkness – an inadequate surrogate for the encroaching enemy. The wicked tiger snarls from a rocky outcropping in which the artist has hidden amusingly dastardly grotesques. This heart of a miniature, the corners and lower section of which are missing, once included Ali's royal barge, of which only two finials remain. It was painted by the same hand as several wall-paintings – large bouquets of flowers in splendid vases adorned with gold and lapis lazuli arabesques – in the Athar Mahal (Palace of Relics). Despite the frustration of ruling a doomed state, Sultan Ali was an important and inventive patron" (Welch 1985, pp.306-7).
Cary Welch's handwritten notes on the backboard of the frame are as follows:
"Ali Adil shah II of Bijapur 1652-1672"
"Ali died Nov. 24, 1672. Succeeded by Sikanda, aged 4. (I.Sankar, Shivaji & his times p.192)"
"Ali came to throne at 15 in 1656 (D.C. Varma, History of Bijapur, P.30)."
"Quick swoop of eye and arrows -
Is gold in form of leaf? or pigment?"
"Pan-caked lips- "
"Leathery" pigment - built up like jewels or enamel. Bowstring & shaft of arrow politely disappear in front of face and feathery beard."
"Turban: lapis-lazuli, with canary yellow, 'slashes' of linen"
"Optimism, victory over tiger hardly parallelled in his struggle against Mughals."
"Rocks suggestive of grotesques."
"A damaged picture, lacking lower corners, which seems to have been remounted at Kishangarh, presumably the ruler of Kishangarh had captured it in Deccan during the 17th century. Other Deccan pictures known to have been at Kish. court."
India, Art and Culture 1300-1900, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985
Miniature: 21.8 by 31.5cm. (8½ by 12 3/8 in.) Album page: 31.1 by 43.3cm. (12¼ by 17 1/8 in.)
Zebrowski 1983, no.110, p.142
Welch 1985, no.205, pp.306-7
Michell and Zebrowski 1999, fig.138, p.188
Christie's, London, 24 April 1980, lot 55