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A Sea Monster Devouring a Ship - Opaque watercolour on paper

Place of Origin: India, Provincial Mughal, probably Awadh,

Date: Circa 1780-1800.

Folio: Height: 28.5 cm Width: 20.3 cm

Miniature: Height: 21.2 cm Width: 16.5 cm

Reference: 510

Status: Available

Full Description:

On an album page with a repeating motif of a single upright leaf in gold.

Verso has a repeating motif of a stem with three leaves and a narrow ornamental border, numbered 29 in roman numerals in black ink at top.

This striking painting of a Sea Monster Devouring a Ship combines homage to tradition with its artist’s unique stylistic sensibility in a scene full of drama and humour. A huge sea monster – an imaginative take on the Indian gharial or freshwater crocodile - rises from the water to swallow a ship and its seafarers almost in a single gulp. A band of eight survivors stave off their fate, with a valiant archer and axe-wielding man atop the bow fighting back. They are all men, despite some having a rather feminine look. The archer’s arms create a strong diagonal line with the snout of the leviathan, leading to the two arrows lodged between the sea monster’s fiery pink eyes. In its gaping maw, a man dressed in green with a wonderful moustache lies prone on what remains of the deck. He grabs hold of the mast and white sails, perhaps intending to use them to jam open the toothy jaw of the beast. His outstretched arm grasps in vain at his companion in yellow, who dives into the water in a beautifully stylised pose, accentuated by the way the water reveals nothing beneath its opaque surface, deliberately embracing anti-illusionism. Another moustached man is already in the water looking a little worried. Everyone else looks surprisingly relaxed, especially the young man who nonchalantly pivots his elbow to hold open the crocodile’s giant mouth with a hint of a smile, as if engaged in an arm wrestle. The artist’s dry wit almost borders on the ironic with this romanticising of their chivalric responses. The water is meticulously drawn with fine wavy lines on a subtly modulated grey ground. It stretches across the surface of the image as a large abstract space, disturbed only by the white foamy outline around the commotion.

The Provincial Mughal training of the artist is clear, but stylistically it is something of a one-off. The faces in three-quarter profile, with moustaches invoke a nostalgic Persianate idiom intuitively blended with figural traits that also derive from a knowledge of European art, pointing in all probability to Awadh. Jeremiah P. Losty placed it to Lucknow in the late eighteenth century. The style has certain affinities to works by the leading Lucknow artist Mir Kalan Khan (active c. 1730-75) notwithstanding its bolder, more abstract vision and minimalist aesthetic. One of Mir Kalan Khan’s signed works, A Man rescued from a Sea Monster by a Prince’s Vessel, Faizabad c. 1750, has an entire ship and similar crocodile monster to this painting (Paris, Collection Frits Lugt, 1971-T.76), as does an illustration in the Karnama-i ‘Ishq, by Govardhan II, c. 1734-9, court artist to the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah in Delhi (British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.42v).  But our painter also seems to draw on a wider knowledge of Rajasthani painting in the Mughal idiom, especially from Bikaner and Jodhpur. In fact, its proximity to other works of similar composition suggest it likely derives from charbas (pattern drawings) that were in circulation, shared by artists who not infrequently moved from one patron to another (for comparison, see Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd, Indian Painting 1650-1900, New York, March 2010, cat. 4). The verso of the painting has a repeating motif consistent with album border decoration from Awadh in the late eighteenth century. The page is numbered 29 in black ink in roman numerals in an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century European hand, indicating that it was once part of a larger album.

The composition pays tribute, at some remove, to the great Hamzanama manuscript made for the Mughal emperor Akbar, c. 1558-73, while perhaps also echoing stories from the great Iranian epic of the Shahnama by Firdausi (934-1020). The massive project of illustrating the adventures of Hamza, uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, occupied Akbar’s artists for some 15 years, comprising 1400 large paintings in 12 volumes. Of the surviving paintings a Leviathan attacks Hamza and his party of Three Ships attributed to Basawan is particularly relevant, portraying a huge crocodile sea monster breaching the water to the right (see John Seyller, Adventures of Hamza. Painting and Storytelling In India, 2002, no. 27). Hamza standing astride his boat shoots the beast in the eye with a similar downward diagonal compositional thrust.

While Basawan’s busy scene is full of derring-do in swirling water of white bodycolour on a dark ground, our painting makes a feature of the smooth water barely disturbed by the ensuing tamasha. Conceptually, this pivots the painting away from narrative meaning into the realm of metaphor. Sea monsters point beyond themselves to deeper untameable spiritual forces. Ultimately, this painting confronts the viewer with the manner in which they themselves wish to confront fate itself.



Private collection UK

Simon Ray London, 2011

Bonhams, Indian and Islamic Art, 7 October 2010, lot 324.

Sotheby’s Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art, New York, 22 March 1989, lot 76.


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