But Ali Qapu is not the only palace that the Safavid kings had erected to entertain royal guests. Shah Abbas II had also got the Kakh-i-Chehel Satoon constructed in the middle of the 17th century. The comparatively small edifice again with a talar facing a long rectangular fountain studded pool, stands in the middle of yet another Chahar Bagh. This palace is famous for its large murals. Standing at the large central hall gives you a strange feeling.
Being an Indian my senses are flooded with the passionate splash of several lines: ‘Main to aiso rang aur nahin dekhi ray / Main to jab dekhun moray sung hai /Aaj rung hai hey maan rung hai ri…’ (Never have I seen such colourful splendour / The moment I look anywhere there’s with me / Colour, O mother, there’s a colourful splendour today). The ecstasy of Amir Kusrau. The celebration of colours, that we in India call Holi. Chehel Sotoun is a celebration of colours: intricate floral and geometric designs, portraits, moments frozen from daily life, elaborate reproductions of historic events.
Being an Indian, I immediately recognise three huge murals of the last category: Mughal emperor Humayun’s reception hosted by the Persian Emperor Shah Tahamasb’s, in Qazvin, in 1544, after the Mughal emperor had to flee India evicted from the throne by Sher Shah Suri. Sati, 1665: The horrendous Hindu tradition of burning widows alive in the funeral pyres of their husbands. The Battle of Karnal on February 24, 1739, in the sunset days Mughal reign, in which Neder Shah decimated Mughal ruler Muhammad Shah’s army. It was during this raid on India that in a fit of rage the Persian king ordered a pogrom in Delhi the bloody stains of which continue to haunt the debates in Indian history.
Who might have painted these amazing murals? It is generally believed that these are creations of the Reza Abbasi School of painters, between the mid-17th and mid-18th century. I want to seek a more specific answer. So I shoot off an e-mail to Dr. Sussan Babaie, an authority on Iranian art. Here’s in brief, what she had to say: the painters of the Safavid era paintings can’t simply be traced, but probably those were created by artists of the royal Ketabkhaneh (Library) in collaboration with the Armenian artists many of whom were also engaged at the Ketabkhaneh. As for the Battle of Karna painting, a stunning miniature, Dr. Babaie opines that these were creations of the 19th century Qajar artists, although it’s not possible to trace who he or they might have been.
I come out on the talar, the large portico facing the long rectangular pool. The roof of the portico stands on unusually slender and very tall wooden columns. There are 18 in all. Plus two more that separate the talar from an adjacent room. So 20 columns in all. But Chehel Sotoun ought to have 40 of them. Chehel in Farsi is 40. Where are the rest? The rest are in the blue water of the pool: reflections of the real 20.
Indeed Perso-Arabic or Indian civilizations had realized long ago that the world is not made of matter alone. Reflections, be it on water or in the heart, is as much part of our reality as is matter itself. Standing in front of the pool, I imagine that exactly 83 years ago Rabindranath, a true Musafir, also stood at the same place reflecting on the reflection in front of him. I have no words to convey the current that runs through my existence.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra