“If that sultan of the universe gives me Mir the painter,” said Humayun to Shah Tahmasp, “I shall send him from Hindustan one thousand tumans as a present.”

It was the summer of 1544. Driven out of his kingdom by Sher Shah Suri and betrayed by his own brothers, Humayun had taken one last gamble with fate and had come to the court of the Shah of Iran. He was a supplicant here, quietly enduring slights and affronts while hoping for military aid that would allow him to win back his kingdom.

But even as he was praying for Shah Tahmasp’s generosity to reclaim the throne of Hindustan, Humayun was promising to give the Shah the equivalent of 30 kg of gold – once he had money, which the Shah’s help would ensure – for the favour of being allowed to take one of the Shah’s best painters with him. (Any resemblance to contemporary dealings between public sector banks and captains of industry is entirely co-incidental).

For the art-besotted, book-loving Humayun, the splendours of the Persian court must have been a revelation, and the gorgeous illustrated manuscripts he saw there sparked a desire for things other than kingdoms and thrones.

A love of books and a propensity for hard luck: these seem to be leitmotifs of Humayun’s life. Books were his constant companions. He even carried them to the battlefield. Inevitably, the many military routs Humayun suffered affected his library as well. On an expedition in Gujarat his camp was plundered by Bhils and some eminent nobles were killed. While mourning them, Humayun also rued the loss of a number of books, naming the most precious manuscripts one by one.

Later, in a fierce battle with his brother Kamran, Humayun was severely wounded but most painful was the loss of his entire library that had been stored in leather boxes that the enemy had seized. A few days later in another skirmish Humayun emerged victorious – and recovered the entire library that he had lost. There was feasting in his camp that night.

On another occasion when his camp was looted, Humayun anxiously asked after his library. When he was told it was unharmed, he said: “God be praised that things that cannot be replaced are safe! As for other things, they are a small matter.” Books and libraries punctuate Humayun’s life and add the final full-stop: after all, on one fateful day Humayun tarried too long among his books and got delayed for prayer. It was while he was hurrying from the steps of his library that he tumbled to his death.

Every schoolbook tells us that the military aid Humayun received from Persia was crucial to the recovery of his throne. Every schoolbook also tells us that Humayun died just months after returning to Hindustan. But our schoolbooks elide the 11 years between Humayun’s departure from Iran in 1544 and his arrival in Delhi in 1555. With the troops provided by Shah Tahmasp, Humayun first unseated one unfriendly brother in Kandahar, and then the other in Kabul. Then came his halcyon years. Settling in Kabul, he must have enjoyed relative peace. And at last the circumstances were right for the Iranian artists that he had coveted to come to him.

The celebrated artist Mir for whom Humayun had importuned Shah Tahmasp did not arrive, but others did. In a letter to the ruler of Kashgar, Humayun described the skills of the Persian artists now working in his kitabkhana:

  “Mir Sayyid Ali … has painted on a grain of rice a polo scene, where two horsemen stand within the field, a third comes from the other side. Abdus Samad has made on a grain of rice a large field...with seven players on the field, and behind them a rank of footmen who hand out mallets.”   

On another grain of rice Abdus Samad had painted two figures seated in a garden pavilion being entertained by six musicians and two dancers while two cooks roasted a bird.

These claims hardly seem credible, but Humayun was describing gifts that he was sending to Kashgar, so the ruler would have been able to confirm these microscopic details for himself. And the painting we will look at today – also by Abdus Samad – shows how boasts of such incredible miniaturisation could indeed have been true.

Humayun and Akbar in a Tree-House. Painting: 1550-56. Borders and inscriptions: Jahangir period, c 1610-20. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, 23.1 cm x 14 cm.Credit: Abd al-Samad, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Humayun and Akbar in a Tree-House does not look like the mature Mughal paintings we are used to. Instead it is a fine work in the Persian Safavid style that had so dazzled Humayun. The work is at first visually confusing because it is busy, and each part of the painting tugs at the eye. The artist distributes his attention and labour evenly over the page, lavishing as much care on geometric floor tiles or the knobbly bark of a tree as on the faces and bodies of the main characters in the frame.

It is best to enter the scene from the base of the painting, and to pass through the doorway into the courtyard, as though we are slightly belated guests at this pleasant gathering. On the street outside, grooms are calming horses, an attendant keeps a hunting cheetah on a tight leash, and footmen carry a deer and two ducks – the bag after today’s hunt. An impressive-looking guard stands at the threshold to the courtyard, which is paved with tiles of malachite green.

Inside, servants are carrying cups to the pavilion on the left where a jug – of coffee? wine? – has been placed on the fine carpet. Here, two men make music while a circle of litterateurs discuss books. Two of them are examining a safina – a narrow, oblong book – while a third man brings three more books to them.

A fourth man holds a small book in one hand, while speaking to a fifth who sits at the threshold, not quite incorporated into their gathering. Unusually, this fifth man turns his back to the viewer and we glimpse half his face in profile. Beside him on the floor are an inkwell, a pencase and a sheet of paper inscribed in tiny letters with his name: this is Abdus Samad, the artist.

In the pavilion’s upper storey another group of musicians plays while servants scurry up a staircase, carrying trays of food. They are rushing to serve not the musicians – they turn their backs to them – but are attending upon the two people who occupy a small octagonal platform set among the branches of a magnificent chinar tree.

Connected to the pavilion by a narrow causeway, this “tree house” seems to be an extension of the pavilion; it is solidly built and its low walls are made of the same material, and have the same pattern, as the pavilion’s own walls. It is spread with a marvellous carpet. Here, seated on a low throne, is the recognisable figure of Humayun. Matching other portraits, he has a long and narrow face and a thin, pointed beard, and he wears the distinctive headgear called the taj-i-izzat that was adopted by the Mughal court for that time. Facing him is a boy – Akbar – who holds out a painting for his father to see.

The visual language used in this painting is formal and refined; it pleases the eye but is not made to express emotion. Faces are usually impassive and gestures are restrained. Still, one senses Humayun’s eagerness in the way he shifts his weight and leans forward to see the painting that Akbar proffers.

And what a painting it is – a tiny version, but complete in every respect, of the very painting of which it is a part. There, unmistakably, are the horses, the threshold, the courtyard, the pavilion and the tree; the little platform among the branches, and the two figures seated on it. Perhaps if we had access to the painting itself – and not just digital reproductions that eventually pixelate – we would see Akbar holding a painting in the painting within the painting.

This artist’s trick – of placing a copy of an image within itself – is called mise-en-abyme. The term literally means “in the abyss”, and rightly so, for it plunges us headlong into an endlessly recursive sequence of repetitions. The mise-en-abyme twists our understanding of space as the mind tunnels through the possibly infinite series of image within image within image within image.

It also crumples time. A painting depicting the meeting of Humayun and Akbar should, logically, be made after the event, to preserve the memory of something that has happened – but the painting-within-the-painting already forecasts the event-to-come in every detail. Both retrospective and prospective, the painting is a loop in time.

This brilliant ploy turns an elegant painting into a meta-painting that uses a paradox to provoke meditations on the relationship between image and illusion, representation and life.

Why, when he had painted such a triumph, would the artist Abdus Samad hang back so modestly at the threshold of the pavilion and ask the young prince to present his handiwork to the patron?

Several scholars have noted a passage in the Akbarnama that tells us that Abdus Samad had taught Akbar to paint. This is not unusual; most young ones from refined families tried their hand at many of the arts. Akbar, we know, was dyslexic and never learned to read or write, but perhaps in painting and drawing he was more able.

That it is Akbar and not Abdus Samad who holds the painting, and that there is a plain undecorated board on the carpet beside him, the kind of board artists rest on their laps while making paintings, throws open a thrilling possibility: that Abdus Samad has sent his pupil up to show his father the progress he has made; and that some parts of this painting were made not just by Abdus Samad, but also by Akbar’s own hand.

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.