In 1614, Jahangir had a dream. “I dreamed that His Majesty who dwells in Heaven was saying to me, ‘Baba, for my sake forgive Aziz,’” Jahangir recounts in his memoirs.

“After the dream I decided to summon Aziz from the fortress [in which he was imprisoned],” Jahangir says. In the months that followed, the emperor freed Aziz, gifted him elephants and shawls, awarded him jagirs and gave him military responsibilities, thus rehabilitating him within the ranks of the Mughal nobility.

The “Aziz” in question was Mirza Aziz Kokaltash. The son of Akbar’s wet nurse Jiji Anaga and his vakil, Ataga Khan, Aziz had been Akbar’s childhood companion and had risen to high rank in his reign. Unfortunately for Aziz, he had risen so high that his family intermarried with the emperor’s. Aziz’s daughter was married to Khusrau, Jahangir’s eldest son.

After Jahangir rebelled against his father and set up a splinter court in Allahabad, a powerful faction at the imperial court urged Akbar to pass over Jahangir and anoint Khusrau as his heir. This faction included Khusrau’s father-in-law Aziz.

When Jahangir eventually inherited the throne, his own son Khusrau mounted a rebellion that was quickly put down. Jahangir had his son blinded and kept in fetters for the rest of his miserable life. Although Khusrau was no longer a viable contender for the throne, Jahangir was haunted by the fear that Khusrau’s proponents would conspire against him.

In the years after his coronation Jahangir accused Aziz of treason, confiscated his property and had him incarcerated. But now, at a word from his deceased father heard in a dream, Jahangir was ready to forgive Aziz all his real and imagined transgressions.

Jahangir Holding a Portrait of Akbar. By Hashim and Abu’l Hasan, 1599 and 1614. Note: The inscription on the lower margin was added at a later date, and describes the subject: “Portrait of the venerated Emperor Jahangir, looking at the portrait of the venerated Akbar.” Musee Guimet, Paris, Acc.No. 3.676. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In his study of Mughal painting during Jahangir’s time, the art historian Asok Das made the inspired suggestion that a famous double portrait of Akbar and Jahangir commemorates this dream in which Akbar interceded on Aziz’s behalf. Here, a magnificently-dressed Jahangir is shown holding a portrait of Akbar who is dressed all in white. The difference in dress of the two emperors most likely reflects their individual tastes – Akbar is often shown in plain white garb in paintings made in his lifetime – but in this image the contrast of Akbar’s plain clothes with Jahangir’s golden brocade calls to mind the holy simplicity of Sufis.

It suggests that Akbar has passed beyond the material realm. That this is a posthumous portrait is confirmed by the inscription on the orb that he holds: Shabih e Hazrat Arsh Ashiyani, amal Nadir-us-zaman. A portrait of the venerated one who dwells in Paradise, painted by the Wonder of the Age.

“The Wonder of the Age” was the title given by Jahangir to one of his most esteemed artists Abu’l Hasan. This is the artist who, in the following years, would author famous paintings such as Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas and Jahangir Shooting Malik Ambar, which gave material form to the dreams and visions of Jahangir. Asok Das suggests that the double portrait showing Jahangir holding a painting of Akbar is Abu’l Hasan’s first attempt to make visible an interior vision that came to Jahangir as he slept.

Everything in the painting underlines the imperial status of the two figures within it. Against the deep blue-green ground, the two men – one white, one gold – seem to be beings entirely composed of light. Their identical halos tell us that their kingship is divinely endowed and their family resemblance reminds us of Jahangir’s legitimate right to be his father’s heir.

The textiles at the base of the two portraits, carpets draped over a window-sill, turn both portraits into images of jharokha darshan – a royal ritual instituted by Akbar, in which Mughal emperors appeared at a palace window twice a day to give worshipful viewers a glimpse of their sacred selves.

Significantly, the textile at Akbar’s jharokha looks like an Italian velvet while the one at Jahangir’s is a Persian brocade, perhaps suggesting their joint rulership over “do jahan” or the two realms of east and west, or the here and hereafter. Even the orb that Akbar holds is a globe that he is preparing to hand to Jahangir, to make literally true Jahangir’s chosen regnal name: Jahan-gir, World-Seizer.

While the painting is finely detailed, it seems at first to be a simple composition. In fact, it is a marvellously subtle construction. In other instances of Jahangir looking at paintings, the connoisseurly emperor is shown looking down. Here he reverently holds the portrait up high to bring Akbar up to his own eye-level and his hands curl around the sheet of paper in a half-embrace.

Rather than contemplating the portrait, Jahangir seems to be conversing with it; or more accurately, his impassive figure seems to be listening while an animated Akbar leans forward to speak, his hands fluttering mid-gesture, his brow furrowing, his lips forming a tiny smile, giving his face a quizzical expression. In comparison Jahangir’s body is stiffly straight and his finely painted face with its stony stare hardly seems alive.

It may seem ironic that the deceased monarch looks more “real” than the living king. But there could be several explanations for this reversal of our expectations.

To our way of thinking, Jahangir is real and his dream is a figment of his imagination. By choosing to show a “real” Jahangir holding an “imaginary” portrait of Akbar in his hands, (rather than, say, showing both father and son meeting in some imaginary dream-space) we imagine that the artist is pointing to the different levels of reality within the painting’s depicted world.

But, as scholars such as Yael Rice, Mika Natif and Murad Mumtaz have shown us in their recent writings, to Jahangir’s contemporaries the relationship between dreaming and waking on the one hand, and illusion and reality on the other, were the very opposite of ours.

The material world in which we are trapped is the illusion. Beyond it is a deeper and truer world inhabited by higher beings. Only at special moments does a portal open up to allow us into this other world – through trance, through visions and through dreams. Thus, the ranking of “reality” in the world of the painting is the inverse of our own: Akbar, who has passed over to the other realm, is united with the Real in a way that Jahangir, trapped in his own body, is not.

There is also a far more prosaic explanation for why Akbar’s portrait is so much livelier than Jahangir’s. It was painted by another artist. In the dark background below Jahangir’s hands there is a barely visible inscription that says: “Portrait of the venerated Jahangir, the Emperor, when he was 30 years old. Painted by Hashim, with the face improved by Nadir-us-zaman (Abu’l Hasan).” So the portrait of Jahangir was made by an artist called Hashim; and the portrait of Akbar was made by Nadir-us-zaman Abu’l Hasan who even touched up Hashim’s work.

This seems simple enough. Many Mughal paintings were retouched, altered and repaired over the years. But there is another piece to the puzzle that has confounded scholars who need to reconcile the inscriptions with the visual evidence that the painting contains.

If Hashim’s portrait was made when Jahangir was 30, it was made in 1599 when Jahangir had just rebelled. The reconciliation with his father was five years away; Akbar’s death and Jahangir’s ascent to the throne was about a year after that in 1605, which is the earliest time that it makes sense to show an Emperor Jahangir contemplating a portrait. Yet the portrait shows Jahangir wearing earrings, and we know he pierced his ears for a vow in 1614, just months before Akbar appeared in his dream and asked him to forgive Aziz. The chronology gets confusing.

Was the painting made when Jahangir was a rebel prince? Or after he was reconciled with his father? Or when he ascended the throne? Or after he began wearing earrings and saw Akbar in a dream? How can we trust both the inscription – which tells us the painting was made during the rebellion -–and the much later details that the painting shows?

Add to this, the observation of a former curator at the museum that held the painting: the small painting-within-the-painting that is the portrait of Akbar was painted on a separate piece of paper and pasted on to Hashim’s pre-existing work.

I have never seen the work in the flesh. Because of its historical importance and fine finish, it is often published as a full-page illustration and it came as a shock to realise that the whole image (excluding the blue and gold border) is just about four inches tall and three inches wide. That makes it as wide as a visiting card and twice as high. Abul Hasan’s painting-within-the-painting is as small as a postage stamp. The tiny scale of the painting makes it all the more remarkable as a work of art, but it also suggests another explanation for the confusing series of transformations it underwent.

The custom of jharokha darshan that Akbar instituted combined the dynasty’s ideas of sacred kingship with the Hindu practice of taking darshan, the auspicious viewing of an icons in a shrine. To give jharokha darshan was the exclusive prerogative of the emperor and we know of others who were punished for presuming to give darshan themselves.

For devoted followers who were unable to come to the palace for darshan, the emperor might offer a painted substitute: a tiny portrait of himself at a window, whose sill was draped with a carpet. These small jharokha paintings could easily be carried from place to place and viewed at the appropriate time of day.

During his rebellion, Jahangir asserted his independence by performing all the royal rituals, including giving darshan. It is quite possible that he distributed jharokha portraits of himself as well to his camp-followers. Could it be that the portrait that Hashim made was a jharokha darshan portrait, produced during the rebellion when Jahangir was challenging his father’s authority? And could it be that 14 years later, Abu’l Hasan reworked this very image, touching up Jahangir’s face to make him look like the ageing monarch he had become, and adding the hands and the portrait of Akbar that they hold, to mark the dream that Jahangir had and which he obeyed??

It would take a closer examination of the painting to confirm this, but if it were the case then the genius of Abu’l Hasan transformed a transgressive portrait of a rebel prince into the very picture of a dutiful and respectful son.

Kavita Singh is a professor of art history at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

This article is supported by MAD [Salon + Lab + Fellowship], which explores contemporary issues of nation building and fosters endeavours at the intersection of the Arts + Sciences + Humanities.