- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

Hamza, uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, and his friends are enlivening Washington in the spectacular "Adventures of Hamza" exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian and Near Eastern Art.
Sixty-one folios from the surviving 200 "Hamzanama" ("Story of Hamza") pages illustrate one of the great adventure stories.
Visitors will come away with memories of heroes killing giants, slitting throats of the enemy and beheading a rhinoceros. They also will remember the radiant golds, turquoises, plums and blues of the paintings that the exhibit walls brilliantly reinforce.
The teenage Mogul Emperor Akbar (who lived from 1542 to 1605 and at age 13 took the throne of Hindustan, a kingdom in northern India) loved these action-packed tales about the legends of the figure Hamza that helped spread Islam's teachings.
Akbar recited the stories and had them produced as the subject of the first illustrated manuscript created in India during his reign.
These manuscripts stand more than 2 feet high. The storyteller's assistant would hold them up and turn the pages. By contrast, other texts could easily fit into the palm of a hand and contained only about 12 images. The young prince commissioned the original 1,400 paintings that took some 100 artists 15 years to produce. The texts originated from Persians telling stories around nomadic campfires and in city coffeehouses.
Mogul-art experts consider the "Hamzanama" the most significant manuscript of unbound illustrations and text it is the largest with the greatest scope of the many created at the wealthy Mogul court. The intensity of the mineral colors have held up well on the cotton supports, and guest curator John Seyller of the University of Vermont helpfully displays a group of the mineral colors used. Outlines of the forms appear to dance and sing. The theme is religious to spread the teachings of Islam but entertainment also is important.
One of the most fantastic of the many far-out images is a monster rearing up from the sea to attack Hamza and his seagoing men. The leviathan threatens to overwhelm Hamza's two ships despite the menacing wolf-headed boat prow. The monster's mouth is deep enough to swallow both boats. Hamza maddens the beast by shooting an arrow into its eye. A prince also aims for its eye and Umar, Hamza's helper, gets ready to hurl a stone into its horned snout.
Despite the wonderful details, nothing competes with the beast. Mr. Seyller says he has seen sea creatures like this in the rivers of India. He enthusiastically describes it:
"This creature was a type of indigenous Indian crocodile called a 'siyahsar' with fangs projecting like horns from the front of the snout. In this case, Basavana (the artist), like many a fisherman, is unwilling to let even impressive facts get in the way of a good story, and exaggerates the scale with such relish that an already fierce sea creature becomes the whopper of all Mughal painting."
Babur, Akbar's grandfather, founded the Mogul Empire in northern India in 1526. Humayun, Babur's son, returned to India after a temporary exile and brought several important Persian artists with him. He died from a fall down the stairs in his library.
Persian artists whom Humayun brought with him from Iran included Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdul-Samad, who at different times directed the large studio of Persian-born and Indian-bred artists who produced Akbar's "Hamzanama."
Although physically strong, Akbar stayed illiterate despite the efforts of his tutors. Nevertheless, he recognized a good thing when he saw it and correctly determined that supporting the arts would help his military and political efforts.
Early in the show, Mr. Seyller compares texts of the style of the founding Iranian masters with those of the Mogul painting school that flourished under Akbar. Artists developed this distinct style by combining the boldness and energy of the Euro-Indian painting tradition with that of 16th-century Persia's fine draftsmanship and meticulously applied color routines.
There are wonderful sequences and stories in the exhibition. One is Hamza's abduction during his wedding to the daughter of his friend Prince Unug. Basavana and Shravana, two of the finest Mogul court painters, show, as the catalog says, the "infidel spy Shahrashob" stowing Hamza away in a boat. Umar, another of Hamza's friends, then sails in search of him. The artists have purposely activated the water in both paintings, creating ink-blue aqueous rolls and eddies that contrast with the flatter forms of the figure groups. Other folios illustrate Shahrashob reaching the city of Takaw with Hamza bound in chains and, later, leading the hero in chains through the city.
Another folio shows one of Hamza's religious miracles, "Lifting an Elephant Single-Handed, Farrukh-Nizhad So Astonished Two Brothers That They Convert to Islam." The curator explains in the catalog that two brothers, Jang-Fil (War Elephant) and Sarab-Fil (Mirage Elephant), strut onto a battlefield of Hamza and his enemies. They grab an elephant and throw him through the air saying, "O God-worshippers, can any of you perform such a feat?" Prince Farrukh-Nizhad succeeds in converting them to Islam by lifting the elephant by himself, swinging it in the air and throwing it to the ground.
In looking at the folios, visitors need to remember the artists employed "continuous narration" in which several scenes take place at once. Look at the jewel-like, faceted "Hamza's Spies, Sent to Locate the Missing Malik Bahman, Sneak into the City of Qimar, Where They Kill the Sleeping Guards" by Dasavanta and Mukhlis. Dasavanta paints two spies using a lasso to scale a watchtower and slitting the throats of the sleeping guards (the bloodletting through beheading is particularly graphic here). He also shows a fantasy garden area in great detail in another area of the painting. In still another section, Muklis illustrates the rest of the sleeping guards.
Mr. Seyller succeeded in gathering this number of folios through extensive sleuthing and 25 years of research. The works are borrowed from a number of collections, but the loan of a core group of 28 paintings from the MAK-Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art in Vienna made the exhibit possible.
The paintings were shown at the 1873 World's Fair in Vienna, and MAK snapped them up from an Iranian official. It is not known how the Iranian became the owner. The curator says it was common in Europe at the time to look to the East for examples of fine crafts traditions lost in the West through the Industrial Revolution.
"Indian art has just become collected in the West during the last 30 years because of the drying up of sources, greater wealth in Islamic countries and after the 1973 oil crisis," Mr. Seyller says. Fortunately, these beautiful paintings from collections such as MAK and others are being dug up and brought to public attention.

WHAT: "The Adventures of Hamza"
WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian and Near Eastern Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, until 8 p.m. Thursdays during "Art Night on the Mall," through Sept. 29
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 202/357-4880


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