Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Kanishk Tharoor remembers an Islamic miniature painting.
A turbaned king sits in what looks like a large jar as it is dropped into the sea. His attendants crowd about him in boats, straining at the tethers, peering down at the churning water, while an astrologer holds an astrolabe up to the sky. Some of these figures are styled as Europeans with their black hats, ruffed collars, and clean-shaven faces. Others resemble Muslim sages. A world of cities and cowherds recedes in the background. The king wears a stiff expression, at once stoic and wary as he sinks below the waters.
This single image contains enormous geographic and cultural scope. Here is a miniature painting composed in the late sixteenth century by a Hindu artist in India for a Turkic Muslim ruler with strong ties to Central Asia. The impassive king going for a deep dive is Alexander the Great, a Macedonian warlord recast through the prism of Persian poetry. He is surrounded by many courtiers dressed in the clothes of Renaissance Europe, set against the writhing, rocky landscape of Chinese art. In our era of globalization, it’s easy to forget that the pluralism we cosmopolitans take for granted isn’t just a modern confection but has been with us for a long time.
According to the Persian epic poem that inspired this image, Alexander decides to take his exploits from land to water after leading his armies all over the known world. He orders the construction of a glass diving bell in which he will explore and conquer the sea. There are many versions, varyingly comic and portentous, of this underwater descent. In one medieval German tale, he leaves his wife on the surface to hold onto the chain of his “bathysphere” (a lovely word for that improbable glass bubble) so that he won’t drift too far. Unfortunately for the conqueror, she invites a lover onto her boat and chucks the chain away, and Alexander watches his wife’s infidelity as he sinks to the bottom. In another version, he emerges from his submarine adventures shaken, understanding finally that “the world is damned and lost: the large and powerful fish eat the small fry.” In the story behind this edition, an angel visits Alexander underwater and forecasts his imminent death.
I didn’t know much about Islamic miniature painting, or indeed the various literary and historical traditions it represented, when I first saw this image at the Metropolitan Museum of Art over a decade ago. I was in my second year of college, where, only months before, the future Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk came to give a reading. At the time, I was rather enamored of his historical novel My Name Is Red and its foggy world of Ottoman miniaturists roaming the streets of Istanbul. The day he spoke, I was sick as a dog. Wheezing, I prevailed upon friends to bundle me up and drive me over to see the author. The reading remains a feverish blur, but afterward I edged my way to Pamuk, clutching my crinkled paperback copy of his book. I must have been quite an unpleasant sight—glassy-eyed, pale, and shivering, rasping my admiration as I held forth the worn novel. Graciously (courageously, even), he took it from me and smiled at the thumbed corners and cracking spine. “At least somebody reads my books,” he said.
I haven’t reread My Name Is Red since then and, to be honest, I recall its contours dimly. But the novel sparked in me a real interest in the universe of medieval Islamic miniature. It had to do, in part, with Pamuk’s descriptions of the craft and its old-world specialization; I found something terribly romantic, for instance, in the idea of an artist trained in drawing horses, who for decades would have dedicated his brushstrokes to the shape of a horse’s knee, the rise of a hoof, the drape of the mane, even the flutter of a horse’s eyelashes. I liked the thought of miniature painting as an assemblage—not the genius of a single artist but the work of a collective. The form’s mannered disinterest in realism also appealed to my tastes in fiction. More generally, I think I was moved by the range of this tradition, which swept from the shores of Europe to the eastern rim of the Bay of Bengal; that fused Persian lore, Islamic cosmology, Chinese aesthetics, European technique, and a welter of other influences; and to which I, as an Indian, could feel some kindling of an ancestral claim.
A few months after threatening Pamuk with contagion, I saw that exhibition at the Met. The paintings on display were culled from a single illuminated manuscript from the reign of the famous Mughal emperor Akbar. I remember gaping at an image of a bathhouse keeper so heated with longing for a beautiful man that he bursts into flame (the love of men for other men is quite a common theme in Islamic miniature). Elsewhere, two demons, under orders from the biblical King Solomon, attempted to fill the sea with sand and the desert with water (Solomon was worried, reasonably, that idle demons would get up to no good, so he set them tasks that would keep them busy for a very long time). And then there were the miniatures from the Alexander series, which included the world conqueror’s visit to see Plato in a cave; his defeat of a brave Chinese warrior who turns out to be a woman; his wrathful flooding of a village of disobedient Greeks; and, of course, his descent into the sea.
One section of my book of short stories, Swimmer Among the Stars, retells episodes like these from the Alexander romance. I am, I confess, more than a bit history-minded, and that interest in the past informs my fiction. But what appealed to me about this image—and why it has stuck with me for so long—was that it seemed, in its own way, rather modern. Both the Mughal painting and my story share a suspicion about the will to power and a reluctance to concede too much authority to the figure of the hero. Among other vignettes, I reimagine Alexander’s submarine voyage, his journey to the ocean floor where he finds the body of a once-great whale now mouldering in the murk, horribly alive with new, wriggling life.
Curiously, no Mughal miniatures show Alexander’s time beneath the water. What seemed to matter more was the moment of approach, the glass submarine sunk halfway, Alexander on the precipice of the plunge. I was struck by how much the image contained: the desire to explore, to know the world, but also the loneliness of power, and the appeal of a kind of ultimate self-abnegation. More so than other epics, this account of Alexander’s life is as much a cautionary tale as a wondrous, heroic adventure.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in March 2017. He is the presenter of the BBC radio series Museum of Lost Objects.