Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fascination for selfies may not be a childish obsession with a modern day toy as some of his critics may like to assume. Powerful monarchs across history have made enormous investment in image management and political propaganda of their grandeur and achievements, fake or otherwise.
Mughal emperors’ commissioning of portraits especially, in quiet contemplation or making lofty claims of having conquered the world and established a just order of things of almost Utopian kind, can be imagined as a precursor of selfies.
Just as Photoshop improves and adds lustre, artists at Mughal karkhanas and ateliers had perfected the art of drawing handsome faces and chiselled bodies of emperors and princes and portraying pretty features of beautiful ladies of the harem.
Ebba Koch, Catherine Asher and a host of fine historians of medieval visual culture—miniature paintings and monuments—have demonstrated that kings were keenly involved in clever use of visual material for their power projection; boastful claims to sovereignty and sometimes outlandish international ambitions—they did not travel beyond the empire, but imagined the world coming to prostrate before them, kiss their feet or have jharokha-darshan. Emperor Jahangir’s paintings depicting contemporary Safavid Iranian ruler, almost like a submissive subordinate, portraits with globes as well as deployment of the lion and lamb motive are all parts of efforts to display Mughal eminence. Whether stemming from their ambition to represent themselves as greatest rulers of the time or these are instances of sheer megalomania is a matter of opinion; in either case, they knew what they were doing—highlighting their claims to exceptional achievements which were amplified in contrast to the deliberately crafted smallness around them—showing there was no worthwhile opposition, no alternative.
Just as profile pictures on social media sites can be deceptive, Mughal miniatures certainly hid more than they revealed or highlighted.
Was there something wrong with Shahjahan’s face that he was to be portrayed from one particular angle all the time? Today it is easier to criticise Akbar, but was the Chittor ruler recognised as a great Maharana in his lifetime? Certainly, later day statues of Maharana Pratap and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj present larger than life images of these “Hindu” heroes of medieval India. In their own sense of the glorified masculine self, some rulers may have liked to be projected as broad-chested, taller, and a touch fairer than what they were.
Shah Rukh Khan may not be using fair and handsome creams he advertises, but we know many public figures, celebrities and other wannabes do; some intellectuals and activists might be exceptions in being deliberately dishevelled in solidarity with the poor who lack every basic amenity, whereas rulers may be hopping across the globe for geo-political influence, for whatever it is worth.
Medieval empire builders had traversed distances and conquered large parts of the world known to them. Exaggerated claims in their farmans, sikkas and khutbas notwithstanding, successful ones did dismount their horses to govern and not merely enjoy fruits of power. In Islamic milieu, they in various ways silenced the mullahs, who could oppose the depiction of living beings especially portraits as un-Islamic innovation. Indeed, Ottoman sultans were condemned by guardians of Islamic orthodoxy for posing for paintings; the miniaturists knew the place to go to was the court of Akbar Shah of Agra.
Sovereigns were able to smother opposition and conquer new areas through not only military might but also through display of magnificence, and power and resources at their disposal by building new forts, cities, memorials in the forms of towers (minars) and gates (darwazas) as well as roads and highways and other infrastructure for subjects. The Red Fort complex and the fully protected walled city of Shahjahanabad was a smart city of its own times, as were a large number of other centres—properly planned and newly constructed, or older ones given a fresh lease of life and developed.
Conquering new frontiers and leaving behind monuments exuding permanence as symbols of their accomplishments have been the enduring features of empire-builders of the past.
In such cases, a selfie or two on killing a tiger, enjoying a picnic party, or a musical jamboree to mark the beginning of a new year in power were perfectly justifiable.
This is perhaps the reason why the Mughals still remain a part of our collective imagination, despite contestations on the nature of their power.
The grandeur which they harnessed to awe, suppress, control, and stimulate is still palpably visible.
Like them or hate them, the Mughals were certainly rulers par excellence of their times.