New Twist to Old Story

A manuscript of Panchatantra stories in Persian dating back to the 16th century and probably commissioned by Mughal Emperor Akbar, has now been restored by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai. Titled Anvar-i Suhayli, the manuscript is said to have been created in the royal atelier of Akbar to impart moral lessons and wise conduct to his then six-year old son Salim, who went on to succeed him as Emperor Jehangir.

The museum was gifted Anvar-i Suhayli by the Latifi family in 1973. Alma Latifi, a member of the Indian Civil Service, had purchased it at a sale at Sotheby's, London, in 1938. The manuscript has finally been restored over the last 18 months.

"There's a lot of emphasis on visuals in the Anvar-i Suhayli, so that it would capture the attention of Prince Salim at an impressionable age and he would begin learning lessons of good moral content," said Vandana Prapanna, curator, miniature painting, CSMVS.

The manuscript, according to experts, is a good example of the way miniature painting artists and illustrators attempted to "render naturalistic studies of animals, birds and nature". In these tales, a world of animals and birds unfold as they are seen running and chasing, hunting, conducting assemblies and consultations, conspiring and participating in human affairs. They represent different traits of human nature the lion is easily misguided, the hare is quick-witted, the cat hypocritical, the jackal is crafty and the monkey is loyal, among others.

The damaged paintings were retrieved, mounted and bound into an album, and purchased by Latifi in 1938. The manuscript contains over 200 illustrations, probably painted between 1574 and 1576 AD, with the stories written in Persian text. The illustrations received by CSMVS were randomly cut and stuck on pages of a scrapbook, probably after the manuscript was damaged in a fire in 1818. The salvaged parts of the folios were pasted after cutting away the charred areas. The project received funding support from Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, who contributed Rs 30 lakh. The total cost of the restoration project was Rs 50 lakh.

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