Colourful combos

The 16th-century masterpiece that is <em>Hamzanama</em>

The 16th-century Hamzanama (Adventures of Hamza) commissioned by Akbar was one of the earliest and certainly the largest and most ambitious series of paintings commissioned by Mughal emperors. It originally totalled 1,400 paintings on unbound folios measuring approximately 68 x 51cm each, and took 15 years to produce. Long considered among the greatest paintings in the world, it remained until recently almost unknown to the general public. Now, for the first time in centuries, 68 marvellous paintings from the original manuscript have been reassembled from various collections for a touring exhibition and catalogue produced by the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M Sackler Gallery.

The hero of the fabulous Hamza tales, which the Hamzanama illustrates and which were once extremely popular in south and central Asia, is based on two historical figures: Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib (the uncle of Prophet Mohammed) and Hamza ibn Abdulla (a less orthodox late eighth- /early ninth-century Iranian folk hero). These two figures merged into Hamza, an idealised Persian warrior, whose colourful allies include nobles, soldiers and spies (both male and female), multiple wives, a grocer, a caravanserai manager and a winged three-eyed horse named Ashquar. The paintings depict Hamza's encounters with dragons, giants, sorcerers, warriors, princesses and fairies. There are scenes of raging battles, kidnappings, rescues, romance, miracles, drunken revelry, clever trickery and intrigues. The Hamzanama celebrates ostensibly the victories of Islam. But religion only provides the pretext for its depiction of some universal personal qualities, dramas and adventures - those also encountered in such romantic classics as the legends of Hercules, King Arthur, Robin Hood and in 1001 Arabian Nights. Hamza's adventures appear to have much more in common with Bollywood than anything in the Koran.

The Hamzanama's earliest illustrations conformed to the Akbar court's inherited taste for Persian art. Over time, their style coalesced into a wonderfully innovative blend of European, Chinese, Persian, Sultanate, Deccani and Rajasthani pictorial traditions - a blend that proved seminal to later generations of Indian painting. The project's earliest pictures look very Persian in their dainty and formal elegance, pastel colouring, their use of schematic pictorial conventions to define figural details and their overall flat presentation of space. Works executed in the project's middle phase show looser brushwork, bolder colours and experimentation in the use of shading to depict volume. Towards the end, you see a vigorous new style emerging, one deeply influenced by the Indian artists employed by the Mughal atelier. Compositions become more dynamic, at times almost frenetic. They include flamboyant colour combinations, animated figures and lush vegetation. There is an overall greater realism in the depiction of human faces and battle scenes; there are new ways of suggesting spatial volume in architectural settings. They invite you to focus on both the boldly presented action and the plethora of often charmingly irrelevant details.

John H Bowles writes on Indian art and architecture