Framing Death in Dying: Inayat Khan Dying

Inayat Khan Dying, ca. 1618, by Balchand. Opaque watercolor on paper, 15 × 12 cm. Bodleian Library, Oxford

He appeared so low and weak that I was astonished. He was skin drawn over bones. Or rather his bones, too, had dissolved. Though painters have striven much in drawing an emaciated face, yet I have never seen anything like this, nor even approaching to it. Good God, can a son of man come to such a shape and fashion.

Emperor Jahangir

  • Dying Inayat Khan, ca. 1618–19, by Balchand. Ink and light wash on paper, 10.3 × 13.3 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bartlett Collection—Museum purchase with funds from the Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912 and Picture Fund
  • Inayat Khan Dying, ca. 1618, by Balchand. Opaque watercolor on paper, 15 × 12 cm. Bodleian Library, Oxford

In the wake of current global pandemic, even though death has become a matter of statistical figures, it remains personal to an individual either enduring or witnessing it. The portrayal of death and dying is pretty rare in Mughal paintings, but this is not what makes The Dying Inayat Khan series (the painting and its preparative drawing) stand out. It manifests death and dying together from the perspectives of people who endured and witnessed it. Although various sources attribute these two paintings/drawings to different artists, Govardhan and Balchand, some current sources seem to credit only Balchand for both works.

Both works compose pathos and obliteration, demonstrating the emperor Jahangir’s appeal for preternatural incidents and contemplation of the self. Jahangir’s account of his court official’s opium and alcohol abuse, and its outcome may have clarified the context of these two works, but both the painting and drawing transcends the textual limitation. Interestingly, the artist incorporates some form of chiaroscuro effect so that the deterioration of Inayat Khan’s body reaches its anatomical accuracy, which is quite uncommon in Mughal painting. While the use of contour marks the body within the space, different shades on the skin bring out the bones.

If dying is a journey then death is the destination. The visualization of dying would require mediation between two different phases – existence and nonexistence. It would show how a human soul is decaying inside of the body while standing at crossroads of life and death. On the other hand, the portrayal of death requires the disengagement of that soul from its corporeal existence. Instead of giving life to a human body, an artist has to manifest death within the body. It’s more like creating something and destroying it at the same time. Dying Inayat Khan tackle both concepts skillfully.

Smart, Ellen. “The Death of Ināyat Khān by the Mughal Artist Bālchand.” Artibus Asiae 58, no. 3/4 (1999): 273-79.
Palyu, Cheryl Ann. “Dying Inayat Khan: Nature, Spirituality, and Mortality in the Jahangirnama.” Journal of the LUCAS Graduate Conference, no. 3 (2015): 66-81.
Charpentier, Jarl. “A Note from the Memoirs of Jahangir.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 3 (1924): 440-42.
Welch, Stuart Cary. India: Art and Culture, 1300-1900. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985.
Beveridge, Henry, ed. Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri: or Memoirs of Jahangir. Delhi: Prabhat Prakashan, 1978.

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