The Art of Termez Painters Mir Musavvir and Mir Saeed Ali

Issue #3 • 1981

Mir Saeed Ali. Prophet Elijah Saves the Drowning Nur ad-Dahr. London, British Museum. Workshop of Akbar Hamzaname

The fourth 2005 issue of “Tafakkur” magazine published my story titled “Kamoliddin Behzad”, telling about a meeting of two great artists – Behzad and Mir Saeed Ali from Termez. My fellow-countrymen, having read it, often asked whether the painter was indeed native of Termez, or was it imagined. This question prompted a return to the personality of Mir Saeed Ali.

I first learned about him and his father, artist Mir Musavvir, in 1980 when I was working in the “Soviet Uzbekistoni Sanati” magazine. One of my colleagues, specialist in drama study Sirojiddin Ahmedov said, “Oriental scholar Ilyos Nizomiddinov is writing an article about your renowned compatriot – miniaturist Mir Saeed Ali. It would be nice if you included that article into the unit’s plan”. After some time this article was published in the second issue on the magazine in 1983. According to the information it contained, Mir Saeed Ali (in the court of Akbarshah, the ruler of Mongolian India, he was also known as Nodir ul mulk – the gem of the nation) and his father Mir Musavvir (also known as Mir Mansur) were from Termez. The author provided this information referring to the work of a contemporary painter and memorialist Ainuddavla bin Yahyo as-Saifi al Husain “Nafois ul Maoris” written in 1570s, where he noted, “Judoyi, whose real name is Mir Saeed Ali, the son of Mir Mansur, is a gentleman born in Termez; he lived in Badakhshan for some time. Mir (Saeed Ali) has excelled in the art of painting that he inherited from his father and in which he is unsurpassed. A connoisseur and master of poetry”.

Mir Saeed Ali. Father's Portrait

Nizomiddinov also wrote that brief information about the painter is contained in a “Treatise on Calligraphers and Artists” by a medieval author Kazi Ahmed (1597), in a monograph by an English art historian Percy Brown “Indian Painting of Mongolian Period” (Oxford, 1924), in a book titled “Kamoliddin Behzod va uning nakkoshlik maqtabi” by an Uzbek scholar Orif Usmanov (Tashkent, 1977), in a monograph “Artistic Design of Azerbaijani Manuscript Book of 13th-17th Centuries” by Azerbaijani scholar A. Y. Kaziev (Moscow, 1977). Based on these data, one can construct the most comprehensive biography of the artist.

Mir Saeed Ali was born in Termez, approximately in late 15th century. His first lessons in miniature painting he received from his father. It is not known who taught Mir Musavvir himself. Yet his works in portrait genre are very well known. For instance, “The portrait of Sarhan-bek sufrachi” (manager of the palace cuisine) performed in a peculiar manner and a remarkable colour range shows the image of the hero of that time. According to a scholar and painter Sodik Kitobdor, Mir Musavvir productively worked in India and held high-ranking positions during the rule of Akbarshah (1556-1605). Oriental student Ilyos Nizomiddinov wrote: “Mir Musavvir or Mir Mansur was known as a painter during the time when he lived in Termez and Badakhshan” (“Soviet Uzbekistoni” magazine, No.2, 1983). He worked in art in Tebriz in 1510s-1540s, later in India, and died in 1555. A Persian author Dust Muhammad (1544) said in his book “Musavvirlar va hattolar hakida risolalar” that Mir Musavvir and Oko Mirak were artists in the court of shah Tahmasp I and painted walls and mirrored halls in the palace of the shah’s brother Some Mirza. Following the order of Tahmasp I, Mir Musavvir created book miniatures for the design of “Hamsa” by Nizami Gyanjevi and “Shahname” by Firdousi. The author argues that Mir Musavvir was so strong that if Mani saw his works, he would through away his painter’s brush. Particularly famous is his miniature “Anushirvan and the Owls” (1539-43) performed for a Gyanjevi manuscript “Mahzan ul asror” (“The Treasury of Mysteries”) and a miniature “Nightmare of Tyrant Zahhak” for Firdousi’s “Shahname”.

Mir Saeed Ali. Hamsa. Nizami. 1540

Sodiki Kitobdor emphasizes that the son of Mir Musavvir, Mir Saeed Ali, went far beyond his father-teacher in the skill of painting. Hence a legitimate question: what were the merits that earned Mir Saeed Ali the highest title of “Nodir ul mulk” in the court of Akbar? To answer it, one has to recall how the artist ended up in the court of the Indian ruler.

Mir Saeed Ali. Self-portrait. Approx. 1540. Freer Gallery. Washington

It is known that before coming to India Mir Saeed Ali and his father Mir Musavvir went through a lot of hardships. Already as a young man, Mir Saeed Ali moved to Badakhshan due to a complicated situation in Termez. Later on, having learned that a famous painter Behzad moved from Heart to Tebriz (1501-1524) and took charge of a library in the Sefevid court, the father and son started heading his way. In Tebriz, Behzad was surrounded by a circle of devoted students, including painters Kosim Ali Hirotiy, Oko Mirak Isfahoniy, Haidar Ali Turbatiy, Muzaffar Ali Turbatiy, Rustam Ali and others. At that time Tebriz was a place of temporary refuge for Humayun, the second ruler of the Baburid nation, who escaped from internal conflict in his home country. Over the 3-4 years Humayun spent in the Sefevid capital he was charmed by the art of Mir Musavvir and Mir Saeed Ali. Having regained his throne in Delhi, he summoned the artists. By that time Behzad, the most prominent artist of the epoch, died, and the situation in the Tebriz workshop was no longer attractive for the father and son. Their financial situation also worsened. These changes were recorded by Kazi Ahmad in his “Treatise on Calligraphers and Artists”: “Both father and son grew unhappy and, therefore, went to India”.

Mir Saeed Ali. The Portrair of Young Scrivener. 1550. Los Angeles. County Museum

Azerbaijani scholars A. Kaziev and K. Kerimov studied the Tebriz period in the art of Mir Saeed Ali. According to A. Kerimov, Mir Saeed Ali created quite a number of miniatures and poems under the alias Judoiy (see K. D. Kerimov, “Azerbaijani Artist of the 16th Century Mir Saeed Ali” // Collection “Research and Materials on Architecture and Art of Azerbaijan”. Baku, 1966). Probably, due to the fact that it was predominantly Azerbaijanis who worked in Tebriz, the scholar refers to Mir Saeed Ali as Azerbaijani artist.

The Indian period brought fame to Mir Saeed Ali. Following the order of Akbar I, he created large format miniatures (55 by 77 cm – in Europe this format was used by the “small-form Dutch”) for the work well-known in the East – “Dostoni Amir Hamza”, the “Hamzaname” (Hamza is the uncle of Prophet Mohammed). After a while it was decided to begin the illustration of a 12-volume collection to include 1200 miniatures. To implement this project, an international team of 30 artists was convened; they came from India, Iran and Central Asia, and their leader was Mir Saeed Ali. His first lieutenant and assistant was Hoja Abd as Samad from Shiraz. Apprentices from India, Dasvanth and Basavan, later became the true masters of their profession too. For seven years Mir Saeed Ali had been leading the group. In 1569 he went to Mecca where, presumably, died. The illustration of the collection was completed under the guidance of Hoja Abdusamat. Of the 1200 works, 140 miniatures have survived in different museums worldwide.

Mir Musavvir. The Portrait of Sarhan-bek sufrachi. 1530-40. British Museum

From the notes left by Percy Brown we know that part of Mir Saeed Ali heritage – about 60 paintings – are kept in the Industrial Museum in Vienna (Austria), and 25 paintings in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England.

Mir Saeed Ali’s miniature called “Mejnun by Leila’s Yurt” (an illustration for Nizami’s “Hamsa”, 1539-43) is conquering by its spatial span, smooth transition of episodes, and firm subordination of characters and details to the main subject line. The same structure can be seen in the miniatures “Nomads’ Camp” (approx. 1540, Sackler Museum, Cambridge), “Night Life of the Palace” (approx. 1540, Sackler Museum, Cambridge), “Self-portrait” (approx. 1540, Freer Gallery, Washington), and “The Portrait of a Young Scrivener” (approx. 1550, County Museum, Los Angeles).

Mir Saeed Ali. Saitelake Museum

Mir Saeed Ali also won glory for his participation in the illustration of a famous “Shahname” manuscript by Firdousi. He is also known to create many albums on selected themes and subjects. His great mastery is particularly manifest in works performed during his last years: the portrait of a father Mir Musavvir (1565-75, Guimet Museum, Paris), “Prophet Elijah Saves the Drowning Nur ad-Dahr” (British Museum, London), “Wise Man Pondering over a Book” (1570-80, Guimet Museum, Paris). Abu-l Fazl, the minister of Emperor Akbar I, in his book “Akbarnoma” mentioned Mir Saeed Ali with words of praise and admiration: “He learned his art from his father. From the moment he entered the palace the ray of king’s benevolence was shining on him. He earned his own fame with his art…”. Of more than a hundred artists who arrived from Tebriz to the palace in Delhi, he believed Mir Saeed Ali was the best. One can argue that during the Baburid rule in India, Mir Saeed Ali actually set the foundation for a new school of miniature painting.

Once I showed two Mir Saeed Ali’s miniatures from the “Persian Miniatures” book to the artist Ruzi Charyev. In response the contemporary master said in amazement, “This artist is no second in skill to the great Behzad as shown by the precise choice of colour, fine contours and lines, and unordinary compositional solution”. His amazement grew when he saw “The portrait of Sarhan-bek sufrachi” by Mir Musavvir: “Look, there is character, plasticity, pure colours…”. When I mentioned that both artists are native of Termez, he was elated: “Apparently, what a fellow countrymen we have! Why haven’t we known about them yet? They need to be told about. Their albums have to be issued in Uzbekistan. Their names have to enter the history of their motherland – Termez. Their art is a heritage of all mankind. Our duty is to revere them and restore their fame in their home country. I beg you, please write about them”.

These words of the artist are still fresh in my memory, as if they were said yesterday.

Nodir Normatov

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