Malik Ambar:Slave ruler of the Deccan.

{The emperor Jahangir shooting an arrow through the head of Malik Ambar. A 19th century version of the painting by Abu’l Hasan, dated 1616; Mughal.}
Seen in this painting by Abul Hasan, an ace miniaturist of the Mughal Court is Jahangir, Emperor Akbar’s son, further taking on a beheaded Malik Ambar, ruler of the Ahmadnagar kingdom in the Deccan.
Although the two never locked horns in battle, Malik Ambar was seen by Jahangir as a force needing to be crushed.
‘Born in the mid-sixteenth century at Harar in Ethiopia, and known simply as “Chapu”, he was sold by his poor parents to an Arab slave merchant, landed up in Baghdad, and from there, in the early 1570s, in the Deccan – known for its polyglot and tolerant culture which included many blacks or ‘Habshis’ as they were called (from the Arabic word ‘Habsh’ for Abysinnia, the older name of Ethiopia) – where he was sold again to a prominent noble at the troubled court of the Nizam Shahs of Ahmednagar.-‘
This picture which Chelby Diagle , cultural critic and blogger who calls herself the ‘Funky Ghetto Hijabi‘ points to in a radio series she works on on the history of ‘other’ Black narratives in South Asia strikes me for the reading that she, a Nigerian French Canadian Anglophone Muslim brings to it, and the reading that I can bring to it after reading her.
This wonderful picture is to me about the complexity of being a post-colonial South Indian Muslim, and reading histories that were not once accessible and looking at these images from various historical points of view.
When you put this image through the digestive lens which I’m wearing right now then it becomes frightfully and delightfully confounding.The Emperor who is depicted in many paintings as an incarnation of God or even as an immortal viceregent, (a trend which the later Mughal miniatures were given to) stands on a globe and the iconography which is used is to me very layered and not simple by any means.
At the outset this work could easily be labelled blasphemous even by me, for it’s blatant racism makes it more than unholy.
Scattered over the painting, in a very minute hand, are also verses in Persian, like: “The head of the night-coloured usurper is become the house of the owl”, or “Thine enemy-smiting arrow has driven from the world (Ambar) the owl, which fled the light“.
But look at the imagery.
The globe , (which could very well be a gift from the East India Company, judging by its make) stands on a bull which stands on a fish.
It takes us back to an ancient tribal or even neolithic imagination of the universe.In all its symbolism this image reveals an artful anthropomorphic use of the devices available to the artist, operating as he is in a culture where different world-views proliferate.
Little is known, as Goswami(click on the link above) says about the presence of Blacks in the history of South East Asia.But reading from this allegorical picture painted in the Mughal court, there were obviously surviving narratives that defied the by then almost deified lineages of the Mughal entourage.
What’s also interesting is the analogies that can be drawn between the imagination of the ‘Black’ as ‘other’ by the Whites, the ‘Dravidian’ as ‘other’ by the ‘Aryans’, and now, the ‘Muslim’ as ‘other’ by the neo-imperialist hyper-mediated consciousness.

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