A time-traveller’s ticket to Akbar’s art studio


Rama cover

The nice part about reviewing kids’ books, is that you get to keep the copy. Which is fun for a while….for as long as that book is relevant to the kid in the house. But sometimes you get sent a timeless classic. Mapin Publishing’s glossy, hard-bound ‘The Story of Rama’ (for kids) is one such gem.

This book is as much about Rama as about life during Akbar’s rule. The illustrations are from an actual 16th century manuscript that’s now in the Freer Gallery of Art (part of the Smithsonian Institution), in Washington DC. This is a 21st century English translation of a 16th century Persian translation of a Sanskrit ‘Ramayana’. Phew! Emperor Akbar himself had ordered the Persian translation, to gift to his Chief of Staff, Abdur Rahim.

As king, Akbar, who never learnt to read, had officials read out important books to him from his vast library of 24,000 manuscripts!

Akbar had set up a huge Department of Translations. A lot of Sanskrit books were translated into Persian, the court language and Akbar gifted these books to his cabinet members and other noblemen so that those ruling Hindustan were more aware of the local culture. Similarly, Greek and Arabic classics were translated into Persian and Sanskrit; Portuguese science and Christian books into Sanskrit and Persian, and so on.

No Mughal manuscript was complete without illustrations. Akbar’s vast studio or kharkhana, had 100s of artists training under 18 master artists. Only the latter were allowed to sign their names in the margins of the paintings. This copy of the Ramayana shows the signatures of  Mughal artists Govardhan, Nadim, Mushfiq, Mohan, Fazl, Qasim and a few others. You’ll find them at the end of the book.

Quite a handsome Ravana

Akbar had a piquant relationship with the person he gifted this manuscript to – Abdur Rahim. When Humayun died, Akbar was only 13, under the care of Bairam Khan, Humayun’s Chief of Staff or Khan-i-khanan. Bairam Khan’s fierce loyalty to Babur and his descendents ensured that 13 year old Akbar grew up protected from all those who wished to grab the throne. Sadly, as Akbar grew older (and stronger) his relationship with Bairam Khan turned sour and the older man was exiled from Hindustan. On his way to Mecca, he was ambushed and killed, and a bitterly repentant Akbar adopted his infant son –Abdur Rahim.

This boy grew up to be as smart as his father and also became Akbar’s trusted Khan-i-khanan! He himself was a linguist and translator, reading and writing in Persian, Arabic, Turki (the language spoken by Babur’s family in Central Asia, present day Khyrgistan), Sanskrit and Hindi. Abdur Rahim is known today for his excellent translation of Babur’s autobiography from Turki into Persian.

This illustrated  Ramayana is a retelling by Milo Cleveland Beach, a renowned expert on Mughal art, and earlier director of the Freer Gallery. If you wonder why the characters looks so Central Asian’, it’s because in Akbar’s studios, artists brought back from Persia by Humayun, were training Indians in the Miniature style — the Persians themselves having been heavily influenced by Chinese painting.


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