Editor’s note: close looking by Matthew Brown ’24 led to new, or rediscovered, associations between a portrait in the Colby Museum’s collection and several others in museums worldwide. The visual connections Brown made were confirmed by Alaleh Naderi ’21, who read the Colby work’s inscription. The painting studied by Brown was one a handful of Colby collection works that supplemented the exhibition The Sea in a Jug: The Welch Collection of Islamic and Later Indian Art.
Rushing into Bobs after midnight on a Thursday to a bleak, dimly lit, but thankfully unlocked room, I tilted open my computer screen to a familiar, welcome face and an established newfound acquaintance of recent months. This acquaintance, part of The Sea in a Jug exhibit at the Colby College Museum of Art, was Man with a Flowered Coat.
It had been several months since the start of my Reading Images W1 course (also known as the mandatory seminar-style writing class for first years at Colby), which focused on translating visual experiences of art into verbal descriptions. The course mainly concentrated on Indian and Islamic art of the fifteenth century onward, and we worked closely with the exhibition The Sea in a Jug at the Colby Museum. The exhibition closed in November, but an online version is accessible here. At the start of the course, Assistant Professor Marta Ameri of the Art Department assigned each student a work from exhibit, such as fish-shaped metal ornaments, statues of lions, and beautiful calligraphic plaques. I was paired with Man with a Flowered Coat. The miniature painting seemed relatively unremarkable at first sight. It was similar to the paintings that surrounded it, many of which featured an individual subject.
As the course moved forward, my knowledge of the time period and the painting itself deepened. I began to consider it a companion and, slowly but surely, started to understand its subject more. Yet as much as I enjoyed exploring the techniques used, the ways the subject’s clothing related to other examples of Mughal portraiture of the period, and the significance of the calligraphic tool and scroll he carries so confidently, I lacked the one piece of the puzzle I most wished to know: his identity.
Part of the reason so little is known about Indian art history is that the deceased were not buried with sacred belongings, mementos, or art. Professor Ameri emphasized in class many times the importance of drawing connections in history between artworks, and when the time came for our final research paper, I felt prepared to engage in my self-set challenge of the semester to discover the identity of Man with a Flowered Coat.
Searching for a starting point to commence my research, I listed each characteristic of the painting that could lead to a further understanding and potentially the identification of its subject. Many things immediately stood out to me: his face, his literacy (indicated by the scroll in his hand), his clothing, the approximate time of creation, and the calligraphic element in the upper left portion of the piece. I began searching Internet galleries of similarly dated Mughal portraiture, with no hope in sight of discovering the truth about the man who had intrigued me for months.
I soon directed my search toward the fur on the subject’s coat, the flowered clothing, and the scroll he carried; each of these elements was infrequent in similar paintings, limiting my search and simultaneously lowering my hopes of identifying the man.
At the lowest point in my search, though, my eyes widened at a certain portrait. Featured in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) museum in Mumbai, India, with a date of production of 1680, this painting displays Abul Hasan Tana Shah, the final sultan (ruler) of the Qutb Shahi dynasty in Golconda, a port of the Mughal Empire at the time. This portrait, though without a direct link to Man with a Flowered Coat, captured my attention, as the leader was dressed in strikingly similar clothing.
Examining the pieces side by side, there are many comparisons to be made. The blue backgrounds and green, grassy bottoms of the two artworks are remarkably similar. Each man sports a turban, facial hair, faces right, and wears a patterned coat adorned with a tri-pronged fur in addition to a coat collar that arches back near the neck. Most notably, the men wear flowered dresses with nearly identical patterning. Yet, despite these similarities, it was woefully clear that Man with a Flowered Coat was not Abul Hasan.
Many of the visually and stylistically comparative aspects of the paintings are relatively typical of Mughal portraiture of the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, and helped me draw a connection between Abul Hasan and Man with a Flowered Coat. The portrait of Hasan was the one most similar to Man with a Flowered Coat that I found. The tri-pronged fur worn by each man also acts as a clue to the identity of Man with a Flowered Coat; fur in Indian society was indicative of wealth and class. There is also some evidence that this specific tri-pronged fur could have been significant, pertaining specifically to royalty in Golconda during the Qutb Shahi dynasty. Though not featured in portraits of each of the sultans of the dynasty, the same tri-pronged fur is present in portraits featuring others of the eight Qutb Shahi sultans.
Other aspects of attire were symbolic of what it meant to be a member of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. In many cases, this was through a farji, also known as a sleeveless jacket (displayed as a kind of shawl over the tri-pronged fur in the portrait of Abdullah Qutb Shah above). Little is known about regional-based clothing specific to Golconda beyond the farji. However, unlike in many other kingdoms of the Mughal Empire, clothing for royalty and those associated with the Qutb Shahi empire became increasingly elaborate over time. While the first sultan, Quli Qutb-ul-Mulk, wore simple clothes, such as a gown with a cuff and buttoned collar, the final sultan, Abul Hasan, wore garments that were extravagant and vibrant.
I pushed onward, restricting my search to portraits concerning the sultan in some way. Perhaps the individual in the painting was a subject of Abul Hasan’s or a noble of sorts. The Witsen Album, a collection of forty-nine portraits of rulers and other upper-class members of the Mughal Empire (many originating from Golconda), proved to be a valuable resource. The album’s owner, Nicolaes Witsen (1641–1717), was a renowned Dutch statesman and thirteen-time mayor of Amsterdam, as well as a cartographer and avid art collector. These pieces, among Indian paintings and other artifacts from similar acquisitions (specifically from the Dutch East India Trading Company, of which Witsen was once administrator) are featured in a wide array of Dutch museums; the Witsen collection is featured at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company was incredibly successful in generating (and controlling) trade with Asia for over two centuries. Importantly, the deployment and return of all ships went through Amsterdam, eventually a powerful trading port. Golconda and the Qutb Shahi empire were important ports for trading between the Indians and Dutch, which helps to establish and clarify the great influence of Indian art in various Dutch museums. As it was vastly different from Dutch paintings, “foreign” art became an important resource in the upper-class secondhand trading network that resulted from the Dutch East India Company. While during the Qutb Shahi dynasty they were most likely intended for display in the featured subjects’ homes, these portraits were often purchased by upper-class Dutch individuals who were fascinated by how different life appeared to be across the globe. The works of Mughal artists from this time thus reached farther than ever imagined, touching the mind (and portraits) of the iconic (and Dutch) Rembrandt, who created twenty-five sketches based on Mughal portraits that he purchased in the mid-1600s.
In the Witsen Album, I found a portrait of Sayyid Muzaffar. At the bottom of portrait #28/49 of Muzaffar, the caption, in Dutch, is “Sayyid Muzaffar, Commander of the Field at the time of Sultan Hasan.” As I later understood, this is the only transcribed account of the relation between Muzaffar and Abul Hasan.
Interestingly, comparing Man with a Flowered Coat to portrait #28 garners a much more fruitful result. While Muzaffar sports a different kind of dress, he wears the same tri-pronged fur, has a nearly identical face to that of the subject of Man with a Flowered Coat, and carries a scroll. I felt reassured in my research, a discovery at my fingertips. Concluding the identity of Man with a Flowered Coat to be Sayyid Muzaffar, I decided to do a mass, worldwide museum search in an effort to locate more examples of the man who had for so long been lacking an identity. Two more examples of Muzaffar are featured in the British Museum Collection, two more in the Bibliothèque Nationale in France.
With every additional portrait I saw, my heart raced faster; I instantly noticed similarities between each new portrait and the initial one. The most comparable, in my eyes, is the one in which the subject sports the exact same flowered dress and a similarly decorated coat.
What I found highlights how much there is still to learn about the art of the past. Through the identification of Man with a Flowered Coat as Sayyid Muzaffar, our knowledge of Mughal portraiture and Indian history grows, however slightly. Piece by piece, his story comes to light, and, similarly, the history of Mughal India is documented and understood. The museum record of the work has been updated to include Muzaffar’s name, and my discovery will pave the way for future research into his life and legacy.
With my newfound discovery under my belt and the research and evidence to draw the connection between the two, I shut my computer, still sitting in Bobs, smiling wide, and walked back to my dorm, excited to discuss it all with my friends. I blinked, checking my phone once more, immediately remembering they had all been fast asleep for hours. Sometimes, as I’ve now realized, breakthroughs are right under our noses; we just have to be willing to take the step to find them. As a result of my work, I feel much closer to Man with a Flowered Coat. Now that I know the name of the man, I believe I can take the leap from acquaintance to friend—though it may be a more one-sided type of friendship.