The Sultan who painted his nails

(Excerpt from Rebel Sultans in Mint Lounge, June 16 2018)

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Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur was a man full of surprises, and not only because he coloured his nails red. As a boy, he once came across a party of Shaivites and was so profoundly influenced by their exchange that it opened a lifelong fascination in him for Hindu traditions. Indeed, though formally a Sunni Muslim, when he died, such were the suspicions around his true loyalties that his epitaph served primarily as a reassurance to all concerned: “No, Ibrahim in truth was not a Jew, neither a Christian; but he was a Muslim, and one pure of faith; certainly he was never of the idolators.” The last line was, of course, insincere, for the Adil Shah’s universe was bursting with Hindu influences, and his career, one that saw him endow temples, affirm the rights of pilgrims at popular shrines, and consciously exalt Hindu gods to the heights of kingly devotion.

This is not, of course, to ignore this gentleman prince’s military avatar where brothers could be killed and overpowering regents blinded. But when he was in his gentler, more constructive mood, Ibrahim could charm the world. Calling himself Adil Shah Sufi, a number of his farmans begin with an invocation of the Hindu goddess Saraswati. It was, in fact, such unconcealed devotion to this deity that eventually convinced a section of his court that the Adil Shah, if he was not already secretly a practising Hindu, was flirting dangerously with apostasy—at one point, he renamed Bijapur (originally Vijaypur, the City of Victory) as Vidyapur (City of Learning). In a poem Ibrahim composed, he expresses ideas that to the conservative looked dangerously heterodox and antithetical to their brand of puritanical Islam. Thus, for instance, we have the prince declare:

There are different languages;
But there is one emotional appeal.
Be he a Brahmin or a Turk,
He is only fortunate on whom
The Goddess of Learning [Saraswati] smiles.

Indeed, when Ibrahim produced his celebrated Kitab-i-Nauras, what he offered the world besides “an engaging text that is…highly visual in its imagery and metaphor” was a glimpse of the splendid syncreticism of his age. The Kitab refers to the world of politics as much as it does to his royal household, featuring characters such as the warrior queen Chand Bibi, not to speak of his pet elephant, Atash Khan. There are Hindu gods like Shiva and Parvati, alongside influences from the great Sanskrit epics. More beautifully, among the several paintings he commissioned, is one of Saraswati where she appears on a golden throne, with all her traditional instruments and symbols—the peacock, the conch, a veena, a lotus and so on. But unlike her familiar representations today or even in ancient sculptures, Ibrahim’s Saraswati is dressed in white robes, appearing more “in the form of a royal [Muslim] princess” than in any immediately recognizable “Hindu” style. Equally striking are the words that appear within the painting embodying the depth of the Adil Shah’s love for the goddess: Ibrahim is described as he “whose father is guru Ganapati, and mother the pure Saraswati”. No wonder some at court were apoplectic.

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While the Adil Shah—often painted with rudraksha beads and proclaimed, in Sanskrit, on his coins as “protector of the weak”—thus embraced Hindu traditions in all their richness, his policy had practical repercussions too. Following the fall of Vijayanagar during his uncle Ali’s reign, large numbers of Hindu artists were set adrift, and Ibrahim opened his heart and his treasury to support them in Bijapur. Where Marathi Brahmins were powerful in the bureaucracy, Ibrahim introduced Telugu and Kannadiga professionals into the fields of art, music and architecture. The Adil Shah himself, a Mughal envoy was surprised to discover, preferred speaking Marathi in court, and one of his harem favourites was a Maharashtrian dancer called Rambha. It was also well known that Ibrahim had an excellent grasp of Sanskrit, far superior than his grip over Persian, the language of his Iranian ancestors and of the emperor’s durbar in the north. To the more orthodox, the Adil Shah’s “native” preoccupations looked almost like a betrayal, when it is remembered that only some generations before, his forbears were an exact contrast in conduct, exalting Persian, banishing local influences with a vehemence and even having soldiers imitate Iranian patterns in their uniform and drills.

It was not surprising, then, that reaction from the orthodoxy awaited only round the bend in Bijapur. In the Adil Shah’s case, interestingly, the backlash originated not from conservative clerics as much as from the Sufis. For instance, when one saint arrived in the city, and learnt that the ruler was “enamoured” of “Hindu singing and playing”, he insisted that Ibrahim proactively cease surrounding himself with such ungodly influences. The latter said, like young people do to evade tiresome old men, that he would try—and then, eventually, had the old Sufi shipped off to Mecca with a pension. Another saint’s hagiography has large numbers of people seeking his aid to “rescue” the Adil Shah from the hands of a Hindu yogi—in the story, the Sufi succeeds and not only does Ibrahim return to the right path, but the yogi also converts to Islam. Regardless of the veracity (which is dubious) of the account, the picture is clear: the ruler was surrounded by enough non-Muslim influences to give cause for worry to powerful parties in Bijapur—and to attract the attention of people in the far north, in the capital of the Mughal emperor in Agra.