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. Read More