The Hamzanama was one of the earliest important commissions by the third Mughal emperor Akbar (r.1556–1605). It tells the story of the adventures of Amir Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, and in its original form consisted of approximately 1400 folios. These were unusual for their large format and because they were painted on cotton cloth rather than paper. Each page had a painting on one side and text on the other, and the paintings were unique in their bold composition, rich palette and ornamentation. Their production was an enormous undertaking for Akbar’s atelier, which employed several eminent Persian artists, including ‘Abd al-Samad and Mir Sayyid ‘Ali. These artists introduced the artistic conventions of Persianate Islamic Central Asia to Hindu Indian painting, and in doing so created a new, distinctive Mughal style. Their contribution was initially seen in important imperial commissions like the Hamzanama and eventually, through the impact of these works on the painting styles of regional courts, influenced artistic styles through the subcontinent.
Only about 200 pages of the Hamzanama are extant, many famously discovered in the 19th century lining the windows of a Kashmiri teashop. Therefore the National Gallery of Victoria is extremely fortunate to have this folio in its collection. It not only illustrates the genesis of Mughal painting, but also represents the pan Asian tradition of oral storytelling, which has informed art throughout the region in all media. The Hamzanama was one of the most popular of the epics recited by bards across the Indo-Islamic world, and its characters and plots, incorporating folk tales and myths, and its rollicking style have provided inspiration for many stories subsequently visualised in Asian art.
Text by Carol Cains © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia