The illustrations of the Hamzanama

The illustrations for the great epic Hamzanama changed the culture of a continent. Now they are all on show for the first time in 300 years. William Dalrymple is delighted

When I first lived in India in the early 1990s, all life would come to a halt for an hour on Sunday mornings. This was not for any religious reason. Instead, this was the time when the great Indian epic, the Mahabharat, was broadcast on Doordashan, the state-run Indian TV channel. Two and a half thousand years after it was composed, the Mahabharat 's sprawling epic was still the common property of every Hindu in the subcontinent, from the highly educated Brahmin rocket scientist to the most impoverished, untouchable roadside shoe-black. Villages and towns across the subcontinent were deserted during the broadcast; while in Delhi, government meetings had to be rescheduled after one memorable Sunday when almost the entire cabinet failed to turn up for an urgent briefing. Viewing figures for the 93-episode series never sank beneath 75%, and at one point rose to 95%, an estimated audience of some 600 million people.

Although Hindi movies and television dramas have almost completely replaced the oral tradition of the wandering bard as the method of telling and passing on such tales, professional storytellers do still exist in modern India and it is just possible, in very remote places, to find men who know the whole 100,000-stanza epic by heart. An anthropologist friend met one such wandering storyteller in a little village in Andhra Pradesh. My friend asked how he could remember so huge a poem: after all, the Mahabharat is the longest composition in the world, eight times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey put together, and four times the length of the Bible. The bard replied that, in his mind, each stanza was written on a pebble. The pile of pebbles lay before him always; all he had to do was remember the order in which they were arranged and to read from one pebble after another. Astonishingly, he said this was not the only epic he knew.

For while the Mahabharat is today the most famous of the epics of the east, it was only one of a great number of such orally relayed sagas that were once told by bards not only in Hindu India, but also across the wider Islamic world, from Morocco to Malaya. During the Mughal period, the most famous and popular of these was the Hamzanama ("Story of Hamza"), a rollicking action-filled Persian epic a world away from the mystical subtleties of the poet Rumi, and much closer to the yarns of The One Thousand and One Nights .

The epic was composed in the 9th century, in the early days of the new Islamic faith, but contains much material from the wider and more ancient culture-compost of the pre-Islamic Middle East and central Asia. Such was the popularity of the story that it became known in many different versions and was quickly translated into Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Urdu and even Malay. Today, however, the Hamzanama is more or less extinct as an oral epic: while children in Persia and Pakistan are still familiar with many of the episodes of the tale, its last recorded recitation as a whole was in the early 20th century.

Like the Mahabharat, the Hamzanama is a great miscellany of folk tales, legends, religious discourses and entertaining fireside yarns, which over time came to gather themselves around the story of the travels of the hero Hamza ibn Abdul-Muttalib, the father-in-law of the Prophet. As befits an epic, the factual backbone of the story was in due course swamped with subplots and digressions involving a Narnia-like cast of dragons, witches, monsters, giants, sorcerers, demons, princesses and, if not flying carpets, then at least a great number of flying pots (apparently the preferred mode of travel of magicians in the Hamzanama ). Above all, as a counterpart to the handsome, courageous and chivalrous Hamza, and his chaste and beautiful Persian princess lovers, there developed their nemesis, the cruel necromancer and archfiend, Zumurrud Shah, "The Lost", shown in the book as a suave black-bearded giant with a huge nose and a cruel, malevolent expression in his eyes.

In the words of the great Hamzanama scholar John Seyller, the epic is "literally and figuratively a fabulous book". To read the tales of the Hamzanama is to come as close as is possible to the world of the Mughal campfire - those night gatherings of soldiers, sufis, musicians, traders and camp-followers that one sees illustrated over and over again in Mughal miniatures, a storyteller beginning his tale in a clearing of a forest as the embers of the blaze glow red and the eager fire-lit faces crowd around.

The 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar - the most sympathetic and tolerant of the Great Mughals - was himself illiterate, but so loved hearing the tales of Hamza (especially, so it is recorded, after an exhausting day's hunting) that he not only learned to tell the stories himself, but while still in his teens commissioned a huge volume of illustrations to be used as a visual aid to the public recitation of the story. As the tale was the preserve of the oral tradition and varied with each storyteller, no final agreed canonical version of the Hamzanama has ever existed. But few would dispute the claim of Akbar's illustrations of the epic to be the definitive images of the story - as well as one of the great masterpieces of Indian art.

Akbar's idea for illustrating the tale was characteristically ambitious. Before commissioning the Hamzanama, the Mughal miniature painting atelier seems to have contained only two artists, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad, whom Akbar's father, the emperor Humayun, had lured from Persia and who had between them produced only a handful of pictures since their arrival in India. Akbar changed that for ever by commissioning no fewer than 1,400 huge illustrations to the Hamzanama - the largest single commission in Mughal history. The project forced the atelier to train more than 100 Indian artists (many of them apparently Hindu painters from Gujarat) in the Persian miniature style, as well as troops of poets, gilders, bookbinders and calligraphers. The resulting volumes took more than 15 years to produce and in the process effectively gave birth to an independent Mughal miniature tradition, a wonderful combination of Persian, central Asian and Indian styles, and a revolutionary leap forward from all the artistic currents that preceded it.

Because of the scale of the project, and the wonder that the new images caused in the court, the court chroniclers recorded the progress of the project. As one of these, Mir Ala al-Dawla put it, "Verily it is a book the like of which no connoisseur has seen since the azure sheets of the heavens were decorated with brilliant stars, nor has the hand of destiny inscribed such a book on the tablet of the imagination since the discs of the celestial sphere gained glamour with the appearance of the moon and the sun." According to the Mir, by the late-1560s four volumes of the intended 12 had been completed and 30 painters were labouring on the project at any one point: "May God bring their work to completion under the sublime and majestic shade!"

Akbar's hagiographer, Abu'l Faizal, recorded extensive details about individual artists, and was especially proud of the way that the Persian masters of the atelier had trained up ordinary Indians so that "novices have become masters". One of these, Daswanta, "was the son of a palanquin-bearer who was in the service of the court. Urged by natural desire, he used to draw images and designs on the walls. One day the far-reaching glance of His Majesty [Akbar] fell on those things and, in its penetrating manner, discerned the spirit of a master working in them. Consequently, His Majesty entrusted Daswanta to the master of the atelier. In just a short time, he became matchless in his skills." There was, however, a sad ending to this prodigy: "Insanity shrouded the brilliance of his mind and he died a suicide."

Over the centuries, the different volumes of the manuscript were dispersed and became detached from each other: indeed, most were apparently stolen from the Mughal library in the Delhi Red Fort by the Persian emperor Nadir Shah at the same time as he removed the Koh-i-Noor (now in the Queen Mother's crown in the Tower of London) and the Peacock Throne (now in Tehran). From Persia, a large number found their way to Austria, where they are currently in the MAK, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, while others drifted around the Middle East and the subcontinent. The beautiful leaves now in the Victoria and Albert Museum were found 100 years ago, being used to line the window of a junk shop in Kashmir.

This week, for the first time in 300 years, the 200 surviving leaves of the Hamzanama will be reunited and reassembled in a major exhibition in the V&A. Together they will form the most exciting opportunity to see a Mughal masterwork since 1997, when the Queen exhibited her great Padshahnama, the supreme masterpiece of Mughal art, commissioned by Akbar's grandson Shah Jehan. If the Padshahnama provided an opportunity to see Mughal art at its triumphant climax, the Hamzanama show will provide a much rarer opportunity to see Mughal art at its birth.

For although the pre-Mughal sultanates of north India did have a tradition of painting, it was not until the creation of the Hamzanama that the Indian miniature tradition really took root. In the illustrations of the book one can see the two worlds of the Mughals - India and the Persianate world of Timurid central Asia - coming together for the first time in a fascinating artistic fusion. Some of the illustrations are very Persian in style: flat linear forms remarkable for their precise, angular, geometric perfection. Other pages are pure Indian in spirit: there are Indian clothes and Indian gestures, the palate is brighter and more dramatic than is common in Persian art, and there is a love of the natural world that is very specific to the subcontinent. The playful elephants that charge across the canvases of the Hamzanama seem to have arrived straight off the walls of the Hindu rock sculptures of Mahabalipuram. But already in the canvases of the Hamzanama you see the two worlds beginning to fuse, hear the soft ripping of gossamer as wholly Mughal images emerge fully formed from the chrysalis of Akbar's atelier.

What is perhaps most attractive about the Hamzanama illustrations is the way the images reflect the dramatic narrative vigour of the story. Other later Mughal productions would have more subtlety and beauty, but none compare with this first rapturous production for swirling energy, immediacy and sheer gusto. Yet for all this, as so often with Mughal painting, much of the pleasure lies in the pastoral background detail: the brushwood fence ringing a small cluster of village huts, the exhausted labourers slumbering on their rope-strung charpoys.

The exhibition is important for reasons beyond mere aesthetic enjoyment, opening as it does on the eve of the expected war with Iraq. The narrative of the Hamzanama opens in Ctesiphon, not far from Baghdad, and encompasses places now in modern Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, most of which the west now seems to regard as little more than breeding grounds for terrorism, places to be tamed and subdued. At this perilous moment in history, with an Islamophobic US government apparently intent on declaring a crusade on the wider Muslim world, the Hamzanama , with its mixed Hindu and Muslim styles and its fusion of different worlds, is a reminder of the cultural greatness and brilliance of an Islam of which George Bush seems wholly ignorant: one that is tolerant, syncretistic, imaginative and compassionate. Rarely has an exhibition been more timely.

· The Adventures of Hamza is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, from March 6 until June 8. Details: 020-7942 2000.


William Dalrymple

The GuardianTramp

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