What these paintings tell us about Jahanara and Shah Jahan

Princess Jahanara is the quintessential #bosslady. Even in a family full of strong female figures, she stands out. Her extraordinary political clout, business acumen and generosity to the arts are just some of the things we remember her for. But alongside all this, Jahanara remained her father, Shah Jahan’s dutiful daughter till the day he died. He too adored Jahanara, who was said to be a spitting image of her mother, Mumtaz. Here’s looking at how art can help us tell their story.

Two versions of Shah Jahan

Jahanara Shah Jahan
Hashim, The Emperor Shah Jahan standing on globe, 1629

We’re used to seeing Mughal rulers depicted in miniature(s). But the size of the painting shouldn’t be equated with the scale of their ambition. You need only look at Shah Jahan’s portrait above to understand what I mean. Armed with a halo and blessed with royal insignia from the angels above, he made a convincing case for himself as a world emperor (living upto his name, perhaps). But of course, he needed to stand on a globe to complete the effect. These images worked as the kings’ PR- the impression they wanted to make on people like you and me, looking at them, years hence. There isn’t much space to depict anything other than their glory, least of all human failings.

Jahanara Shah Jahan
Passing of Shah Jahan, A R Chughtai
Source: Chughtai Museum

In this regard, AR Chughtai’s painting of Shah Jahan above is very different. It invites us into a more intimate moment when the emperor lies on his deathbed. It is difficult to imagine that the same rigid, ‘divinely ordained’ figure from the miniature now lies crippled under the weight of his dying body. But Chughtai liberates Shah Jahan from his pedestal and lets him pursue his humanity. Behind all the regalia, he is after all, only a man.

This image becomes even more poignant by the presence of his daughter by his side. Jahanara, visibly grief-stricken, holds her father’s hand as two other women recite the Quran. It seems they’re in the Jasmine tower at the Agra fort, from where the Taj Mahal is in plain view. In his dying moments, Shah Jahan looks almost longingly at the Taj. Maybe, he remembers his wife, Mumtaz, for whom it was constructed.

The Favourite Daughter

Jahanara Shah Jahan
Jahanara at the Taj, A R Chughtai

Though the painting is obviously the artist’s own imagination, it is quite likely that Jahanara would have been by Shah Jahan’s side when he died. She was his eldest and favourite daughter. As a result, she held particular sway on political matters. She was Shah Jahan’s close confidante and he often sought her for advice. When Aurangzeb had a falling out with him, it was only Jahanara who could make sure he was pardoned.

Unlike other royal princesses, Jahanara also had the special honour of living in her own palace outside Agra fort. She had several important tiles including Sahibat al-Zamani (Lady of the Age) and Padishah Begum (Lady Emperor), or Begum Sahib (Princess of Princesses). When Mumtaz died, Jahanara helped her father with his grief. Similarly when Jahanara took ill, Shah Jahan reduced his appearances at the daily durbar out of concern for her.

Jahanara after Shah Jahan

Jahanara Shah Jahan
Jahanara at the Taj, A R Chughtai

Towards the end of Shah Jahan’s reign, the battle for succession became very intense. Jahanara supported Dara Shukoh’s bid to the throne. Unfortunately, he lost to Aurangzeb. When Aurangzeb came to power, he banished Shah Jahan to the Agra fort. Having lost her pre-eminent position at the Mughal court, Jahanara too joined her father and devoted herself to his care till he died in 1666.

Chughtai’s second painting (of which two variations are presented above) depicts the lone figure of Jahanara. It is set in the same scene as the first- the same angle, the same colonnade. However, the group from the previous painting has now dispersed. Only Jahanara is left behind. She sits in the same bed her father once was, looking wistfully in the direction of the Taj. Chughtai depicts the immense loss and emptiness she must have felt with her father’s passing.

An Earlier Rendition

Did you know Chughtai was not first one to paint Shah Jahan’s death. He was actually inspired by Abanindranath Tagore. He saw his painting but felt that he could do a better job. So he went ahead and created his own version to prove his point. Which one do you prefer?

Jahanara Shah Jahan
Passing of Shah Jahan, Abanindranath Tagore

Both artists were inspired by the Mughal past in different ways, which reflected in their work. Abanindranath was Swadeshi in his outlook and drew upon Rajput and Mughal styles only to modernise them. This was necessary, he thought, to counter the influence of Western art and create a truly Indian style.

Chughtai, on his part, sought a more visceral connection with the Mughals. He belonged to a family of craftsmen, architects, and decorators who used to work for the Mughals. A distant ancestor of his was said to have worked on the Taj Mahal. However, even while drawing on Mughal themes, he infused his own imagination in it.

Symbolism of the Taj

Jahanara Shah Jahan
Taj Mahal, AR Chughtai

Interestingly, even though both these artists were at odds on how best to claim the Mughal past, their combined visuals helped give this chapter of Mughal history a long lasting narrative. In their work, Taj Mahal is a symbol of eternal love, that the hapless Shah Jahan waited on his death bed, waiting to be reunited with his lover. The legend surrounding Taj Mahal may not have been created by the Mughals themselves but it has certainly outlived them.

Jahanara Shah Jahan
Shah Jahan, Amar Chitra Katha

Thus, as Karline McLain writes in her book ‘India’s Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes’, even an Amar Chitra Katha emphasises this aspect of Shah Jahan’s life to immortalise.

Such painterly depictions, as persistent as they can be, do also remind us of human stories of loss which are forgotten amidst the heady drama of politics. Why must Jahanara’s grief remain an afterthought? It seems only the artist cares.

For Women’s History Month, the Heritage Lab in collaboration with Jaypore and Aleph Books celebrates women at the Mughal court. Despite being highly educated and powerful, the contributions of #TheseMughalWomen remain under-represented in history. As part of this campaign, we invite readers, researchers, bloggers to share their encounters with #TheseMughalWomen.

Discover stories and media from the Campaign and find out how you can participate.

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Srishti Sood
Srishti Sood
Srishti is a recent graduate from University College London where she was studying Material and Visual Culture. A museum enthusiast, she is incurably curious with a sense of humour, sensible only to herself.

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