The Mughal Emperors of India were a progressive crew. Ruling a huge swath of India from 1526 to 1857, they brought centralized governance and trade to India, and funded the construction of architecture like the Taj Mahal. The Mughal emperors also loved to get their portraits painted.
Enter Bichitr, a court painter for two of the great Mughal Emperors: Muhammad Salīm, who called himself Jahangir “Conqueror of the World” and Jahān Shāh. Bichitr’s earliest works date from 1615, and that’s all we know of the artist’s life — but we get a rare glimpse of the artist himself in a strange portrait collage known as Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings.
In this work, Jahangir presides over a Sufi Shaikh a Muslim holy man, an Ottoman Sultan, and oddly, King James of England, who had contacted Jahangir through his ambassador Sir Thomas Roe. The last figure in the painting, included in this royal array, is Bichitr. He wears a red turban, showing himself to be a Hindu in the Muslim court, and presents a miniature to Jahangir.
Bichitr worked during a time of change in India. Progressive rulers had elevated the status of artists, and the beginnings of European influence are visible. Bichitr’s technically refined portraiture and ability to render hands won him the respect of the Emperors, but his blended use of Indian iconography and European symbolism has us pouring over his work to this day.