“The Composite Artist,” Salman Rushdie’s Indian Studies lecture as writer in residence at Emory Univrsity, was a distinctly Rushdiean art history presentation regarding the Hamzanama, a fundamental collaborative project commissioned by the teenage Emperor Akbar that required a hundred artists and twenty years to complete. In its immensity, it accelerated the evolution of Mughal painting out of the Persian tradition and into new modes of rendering three-dimensional figures and the fluidity of clouds and water.
It is worth noting that this is strictly a visual epic; the long story of Hamza apparently never found its definitive storyteller, and the text on the back of these superb images seemingly has no literary pretensions, so these 1400 paintings are, as much as anything, another high-art predecessor of the comic book; not that Rushdie said any such thing, for he did not.
He did say that the plethora of dragons and magical battles may have been tailored to a teenage monarch’s love of fantastic stories, and that, given the ubiquity of such tasles of derring-do across world cultures, “it may well be that in our dream lives, and in our waking imaginations, we are indeed of one kind.”
Rushdie went on to discuss the European and Asian explosion of creativity in the second half of the sixteenth century, pointing out that Akbar and Elizabeth I were roughly contemporareous, and that the Hamzanama therefore was being turned out by the artists of India at the same time that Shakespeare and Cervantes were engaged in their respective enterprises. China was in the latter part of the Ming Dynasty. Rushdie points out that the Americas were not engaged in anything comparable, but given the stresses the various local cultures were under, I would say they were entitled.
In any case, Rushdie’s multiple intentions were to mount a defense of the creative integrity of early Mughal India against the animadversions of latter-day Hindu nationalists, and not incidentally to give us a few clues regarding his next novel, which is set in Renaissance Florence, Mughal India, and a good many of the places in between.
The Hamzanama is already discussed in which of Rushdie’s novels? just seeing if anyone is paying attention and/or reading this.