Humayun, the second emperor of the Mughal dynasty, is perhaps less known than his successors. He never wrote an autobiography, nor did he commission one, and his court historian Khwandamir employed an eccentric style of writing, which did not record events in a simple manner or glorify the emperor. Yet, contemporary historians emphasise Humayun’s role in building the Mughal Empire. Their scholarship stresses on his numerous successful military conquests, which he commandeered after early devastating losses and highlights his reputation as a learned, scientifically inclined emperor who was an avid bibliophile and patron of the arts and architecture. Humayun is therefore credited with paving the way for later Mughals to set up a dynasty with a strong legacy.
Hence, when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) was looking for an interesting project over two decades ago, the elusive Humayun caught their attention. Through extensive research and restoration of relics from his time, they worked to dispel the unfounded notion that he was an unsuccessful ruler. AKTC’s efforts began by restoring the gardens surrounding Humayun’s tomb in Delhi and will culminate in a new site museum that will open its doors later this year.
One of the first permanent exhibits to be unveiled ahead of the museum’s opening brings Humayun to life by casting him in his sculptural form in Seven Humayuns: Planets, Astrology & the Padshah, a collection of bronze sculptures made by Scottish sculptor Jill Watson. This exhibit was opened for preliminary viewing at the India International Centre in early March, ahead of their permanent display at the museum.
Ratish Nanda, director of AKTC, explains, “I wanted visitors to understand the cultural context of the museum. That is the endeavour of all museums around the world, so why not here? Not much is known of Humayun but through research we have attempted to find out some critical aspects of his reign. We raise questions like what his tomb was modelled on; what the impact of his extensive travels was, considering he travelled three times the amount that Marco Polo did; how his belief in astronomy and astrology played out in his reign. The latter is evident in his commissioning a Janam Patri for his son Akbar, conducting his court activities on the basis of planetary movements and employing a family of people to make astrolabes for him.”
Humayun’s interest in astrology was a particularly compelling subject, owing to its timeless appeal and connection to the concept of Navagraha in Hinduism. “The idea we want to convey is that at the end of the day we are all the same people,” asserts Nanda. So, in 2019, he approached sculptor Jill Watson to take on the project. As old friends and colleagues of Nanda’s, Watson and her husband-architect Ben Tindall had seen the garden restoration project at Humayun’s tomb from its inception and were familiar with both Emperor Humayun and Nanda’s passion for this historic figure.
“I couldn’t think of anybody who would do a better job. I had seen Jill’s work at the Edinburgh Festival Centre, where she made 236 sculptures to represent festival performances over 50 years of the festival’s existence. Each figure was unique and the whole thing is just mind blowing. I feel contemporary art has the potential to speak to viewers, and this is where Jill’s expertise lies—you can almost speak to her figures, they seem so real,” says Nanda.
Originally hailing from Edinburgh, Scotland where she studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, Watson honed her sculptural practice in Pietrasanta near Carrara in Italy, a town known for its traditional expertise in carving marble. Having lived there for over 18 years, she returned to Edinburgh after marriage, though she retained a workshop at Pietrasanta. Some of her most noteworthy public commissions over the years, apart from the Edinburgh Festival Centre, include The Queen’s Gallery at Palace of Holyroodhouse, and several Fishing Disaster Memorials for Eyemouth and other places on the east coast of Scotland.
On her visits to India, Watson had become familiar with Humayun’s tomb and its architectural legacy, but she did not know much about the events of his reign or his personality. Hence, she found the project an intriguing challenge. “I thought it would be easy and quick, not realising what a huge job it was! But I was excited because I feel very attached to Humayun’s tomb and garden as we’ve been watching it for 20 years. I was delighted to be a part of it,” she says with a smile.
Once everything was finalised, Watson consulted art and architectural historian Ebba Koch, an advisor to AKTC, on how to realistically recreate Humayun. To highlight the Navagraha aspect of his planetary court in particular, Koch consulted a stone slab from the Surya temple at Konark in Odisha, which was built by King Narashimha I of the Eastern Ganga dynasty. It shows the nine planetary gods, Sun (Surya), Moon (Chandra), Mars (Mangal), Mercury (Buddh), Jupiter (Brihaspati), Venus (Shukra) and Saturn (Shani), as well as Rahu (ascending lunar node) and Ketu (descending lunar node, or personification of comets). She then consulted books and miniature paintings to ascertain how the seven planets influenced Humayun and guided his court dealings.
The practice of wearing colours determined by the planets on a daily basis has been followed in Hindustan for generations and continues to be popular to this day. Emperor Humayun placed great emphasis on the importance of planetary astrology, and performed his courtly tasks according to the guidance of the planet that governed each day of the week. He also matched the colour of his robes to the colour of the planet of the day. This information became the basis for Watson’s seven sculptures.
Koch also advised Watson on Humayun’s features, style of dress sporting varied embroidered patterns, and the colours he wore corresponding to the planet of the day. Then Watson took to the drawing board to create the basic figure as it appeared in her mind’s eye— mid-movement and approachable while also bearing the regal air characteristic of his station in life. Each of these seven figures followed the colour mandate corresponding to its planet.
On Monday, the King dressed himself in white robes to pay obeisance to the moon. It would also be the day he deemed best to distribute gifts to close nobles. On Tuesday, he wore red for the planet Mars, and dispensed justice while also dealing with matters of warfare. Wednesday, the day ascribed to the planet Mercury, saw the king dressed in either ash-coloured robes, blue or purple and his primary occupation would be to entertain members of the nobility. Thursday, which was governed by Jupiter, became the day to wear clothes which bore the colour of gram or ‘a natural beige colour’ and called for the king to keep the company of virtuous men, especially those learned in Islamic law.
Green, which was also the king’s personal favourite colour owing to its connection to the prophet and nature, was worn on Friday for the planet Venus, and he would conduct general assemblies of all groups while focussing on receiving virtuous men. For the planet Saturn on Saturday, he donned black and dedicated himself to the sheikhs and elders of the family. Sunday, the day of the Sun, saw Humayun in yellow apparel sitting resplendent on his throne to regulate affairs of the kingdom.
Watson’s mastery lies in capturing
these little details depicted in a plethora of miniature paintings, and the textiles of the time. “My sculpture is about gesture, scale and space. I have always believed in the power and importance of figurative art; it has been a necessity throughout the history of mankind,” she says, further adding, “I’ve worked in bronze for 40 years and I focus on how people relate to each other, how one recognises someone from a distance just by seeing how they hold themselves.”
With her experience in the field of public art and monuments, Watson is adept at conveying stories, describing her constant endeavour as, “Whatever the monument is trying to say, I’ll make the figures relate to each other in a way that discloses the story behind the monument.”
She was keen for her seven Humayuns to look kingly but not aloof so their story could be conveyed without hindrance. As with the rest of her works, she eschewed the creation of a static standing figure, instead ascribing it with movement to make him come alive. And so, each of her Humayuns are portrayed mid-step, head tilted high to signify nobility, arms held up in the act of demonstration with one hand holding the planet of the day. His sharp Persian features are visible in the distinctive aquiline nose replete with an imperceptible bump, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones and beard cut in the style of the day. Other features that remain the same through all seven figures are the elegant, well-proportioned hands, clog-style slippers fashioned to shape the foot, and the most striking of all—his Taaj-e-Izzat, the headdress he was known to have designed for himself and his courtiers to wear.
“I’ve worked in bronze for 40 years and I focus on how people relate to each other, how one recognises someone from a distance just by seeing how they hold themselves,” says Jill Watson, sculptor
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The headdress or crown, much like his adoption of a planetary court, was designed to blend his Central Asian origins with the traditions of the Indian region he adopted as his own. It consisted of the typical felt hat from Central Asia known as the qalpaq, a conical hat with a broad turned up brim, which he fashioned to form a chronogram for 77, the number to signify izzat or honour. Around this, he wound a turban, an accessory used by men in Hindustan to signify their honour. The finishing touch was the jewelled plume that made the style unique and beautiful.
The models measure 45 centimetres in height, a size that was considered ideal as it wouldn’t overwhelm the viewer when seen in a group of seven, while still being large enough to have a presence and allow for intricate details to shine through. When the basic figurines, all of which were the same, were cast and ready, Watson began working on the individual dresses, which differed from each other.
These consisted of the inner jama or robe and the outer overcoats with short sleeves, designed to highlight the differently coloured robes worn inside. The collars, belts, pattern of styling and motifs on the garments were other differing aspects inspired by various miniature paintings. Each figurine holds a celestial body in its hand to match the clothing. These, at least in the case of the planets, are modelled on contemporary images clicked by satellites in space to make them easily identifiable.
When placed in their glass box, these seven colourful figures immediately catch the viewer’s eye. Watson likens them to a paintbox that is bound to attract attention. “We didn’t want to just make a painting, we wanted to facilitate a conversation, and these sculptures seemed the best way to do that. We already have miniatures from the National Museum, Humayun’s armour, and objects from his many travels that will go into the museum. These sculptures were the best way to add contemporary art into the mix. They have great aesthetic value but also make for very meaningful art and aptly represent our attempt to recreate a 16th-century site in the 21st-century,” says Nanda.
Here, Watson adds, “Contemporary museums across the world are attempting to make the past come alive. This was our way of doing it.”
(Seven Humayuns: Planets, Astrology & the Padshah by Jill Watson will be on permanent display at Humayun’s Tomb Museum when it opens later this year)