By Mohammed Kamran
As the tiger and the clothed feminine figure looks directly at the observer of the portrait, the question whether of perception becomes tantamount indeed. Are the figures in the portrait perceiving something that are out ‘there’, out of the portrait, in the real world, the world of the artist? What is the role of the fountain behind, shaped like an old bearded man; is he the reflection or the representation of the observer? One can make that point because when we consider the temporal distance between the two figures that are represented in detail is actually the same as the distance between the figures and the observer of the painting. Regardless of that fact, the nature of representation of ‘the personified fountain’ is given a purpose when the water discharged from its orifice contributes to the figure of the river that seems to be flowing out of the painting. If one sets his perception solely on the river, one takes an annalistic approach; however, even in this annalistic approach, we are provided with the peripheral presence of the tail of the lion, which is portrayed as beautifully dipped into the water, while the woman’s legs gently extend over the fountains. A fetish is evoked, an indirect union of phallic tail suspended in the liquefied rivers. The personified fountain or the ‘fountain man’ is the beholder of this fetish. The gaze of the fountain man is perhaps more profound than the gaze of the woman. The gaze of the fountain man is upon the legs of the woman. The huts in the background, the white mountains, the green terrains along with the fertile river, fertile because it is pure enough to reflect the colours of the flowers and the greenery as can be seen in the painting, evokes a setting — a rather picturesque setting in the hinterlands.
The figure of the female is undoubtedly the figure of the lioness. The lion and his cub, in close consortium to the royally dressed woman, is an attestation to this fact. The figure of the woman becomes as misplaced in the setting of the hinterland as the lion. The lion is not a fierce one — not a ferocious lion king with heavy mane and thickset jaws that hold the sharp deadly canines. The figure of the lion is domesticated by the presence of the woman. The woman is domesticating the lion, and is subsequently a prime figure. The lion, on the other hand, servers as the resting place of the woman, her respite from something. It is almost as if the dress worn by the woman stands in contrast to the yellow-brown hide of the hide of the lion, which is painted rather ordinarily, as compared to the flowered gown he maiden is wearing. One can also make the point that the flowers on the ground under the lion, and the oddly colored shrubs behind the woman further mystify the tone and the tenor. There is no precept or classical logic with which one can approach the portrait, and so it is fairly impressionistic in its own right, not simply on a technical level but on the thematic level as well. To say that the following portrait is impressionistic as a whole would be forcing this portrait into a Western and Eurocentric frame of analysis. In the traditional art of Mughal poetry, hybridized by the other Indian forms of art, color used not as a medium for a form but as an expression. Hardly though, one would categorize this portrait as expressionistic, because the traits that define expressionism are too Germanic to apply and an expressionistic perception of the above picture would reduce it to produce an exotic awe out of it, an aura procured not by proper engagement with the portrait’s meaning, but by its Orientalization. The use of flowers that almost delve into the woman from the scenery, into the figure of the woman-an attempt to further feminize the lioness, while the lion figure stands as a guardian portends to a symbolic moral.
‘A lion of a man has to guard a royal beauty, and that is how he will have beautiful family life’ can be gathered if this image is an evocation of one of the stories of ‘Arabian Nights’. All these associations and more bear there meaning if the woman is taken to be the figure of prime importance. The features of the woman beautified by the artist are the hips, the lips, the thighs, the legs and the fair skin. The head and the neck are ornamented with a stone-studded headpiece and necklace respectively. The hair of the female, a subject used creatively by every other artist is shown only partly as black and covered with a colorful. The salvar kameez and the dupatta are two major apparels that highlight the Mughal fashion sense. However, we are attempting at a displacement of the traditional motifs that bind the painting into a restrictive sense. With the one hand resting on the head of the lion, the other hand rests on the cub, and thus we can drive away a fair bit of erotic interpretations of the text, unless they be incestuous in nature. The woman on the top, if we are to comment on it, is suggestive of matriarchy, a matriarchy that keeps the entire family in balance that keeps the forelimbs of lion benevolently crossed, and the cub content with the love for his father.
Why, then is there the disturbance of the old personified figure of the fountain? Is it a man or an animal, or a specter? His figure destabilizes the meaning of the painting as a whole, raises questions, if not upon its aesthetic merit, then definitely upon the subject matter? Is it a simple moralistic painting or a complex divine vision that is almost Medieval, be it Vedic or Islamic. Its presence as a source of the water binds him to the overall thematic construct of the portrait. The symbolic construction of the painting might reduce him from a man into a lion. Is he the figure of the patriarch? Is he the voyeur, or is he both? If we notice the discoloring effect with which he is painted, in contrast to the color the artist has taken much effort to give, even to the fragments of hut barely visible in the background, more meanings can be derived for this figure.
There is a triad of transmogrification. The natural, that is the personified fountain or the monsoon, is the one force, the animal, the lion and the cub are the second, and the woman is the human. The color between the monsoon clouds and the ice hilltops represent abstract phenomenon, from being to becoming, from ice to a form of life, and a journey, from isolated mountain peaks to grassy flowered meadows. This comes especially into effect if we view this portrait from left to right. The union of the animal and the human represents spirit de corps of the coming of the season of rain and bounty. It is important, in this case, to ferment this argument of symbolism, that India has had a history of famines and draughts and rain was always celebrated, and with the intermixing of Persian and Arabic culture, the monsoon season was predominantly seen as the season of harmony and fertility. The perceiver is left with choices, as there is an attempt to be covert, attempt to lure towards deceit, probably artistic metaphysical conceit, wherein the other looks at you whence the one watches away. The plane of the painting is definitely horizontal. There is the bearded man, fountain man, man of the clouds, monsoon on the far right; a young cub, not yet come of age, on the far left. The artist brings the concept of transformation to manifest in and through all forms of life. The cub, is not given the sense of perception, rather it is a figure that portrays affection, a microcosm in a large assemblage, an assemblage which in the greater order of things brings into question the rigidity of landscape painting on the one hand and the very sense of perception of the observer on the other. Like monsoon, each meaning falls as a distinct drop to quench our thirst of curiosity arising from the arabesque aesthetics of the portrait.
Mohammed Kamran is a final year student of Literature from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.