The Mongols who rose from Central Asia and swept over most parts of Eurasia, razing cities, destroying civilizations, and massacring a large number of people, later became well-known patrons of art and culture. Samarkand and Bukhara became great centers of art and learning. The Maragha observatory set up by Hulaku Khan, the Mongol, under the guidance of the Encyclopaedist Nasir al-Din Toosi, did many useful researches in astronomy and other branches of science.
The Mongol influence found its way in different branches of Persian art and culture, particularly in painting. The Mongols not only took a keen interest in promoting art in the Muslim countries but also brought it into contact with the highly developed painting of the Far East and directed it towards new subjects, thus enlarging the painters outlook. The main tendency was now the pictorial reproduction of historic events, specially the great national epic of Firdausi and similar poems of Nizami and Kirmani as well as the sentimental lines from Shirin-Farhad, Laila-Majnoon. The captions were no longer Arabic but Persian. The acquaintance of Persian painters with. the work of the Chinese masters resulted in enhancing the feeling of landscape among them.
The enthusiasm which the Persian painters displayed for the pictorial reproductions of important events in their national history and the beauty of their native countryside gave the Persian painting of the Mongol period a romantic pattern. In this period, the harmony between picture and text reached the highest degree of perfection.
But, “an undeniable weakness of Perso-Mongol painting lies in the diagrammatical conventionalizing of figures, the spiritless treatment of the heads and the absence of expression in the movement”, observes the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Strangely enough, no progress in this respect was observed in the development of Persian art and a revolutionary personality was needed to make up this deficiency and set things right. This personality was found in the genius of Kamaluddin Behzad who rose to be the greatest master of Persian painting. Behzad was the greatest miniaturist in Persia who reached the summit of his glory and was universally recognized as the greatest master of Persian painting during his lifetime.
Kamaluddin Behzad was born in Herat before 1450 A.C., and died after 1520 A.C. He is said to be a disciple of Amir Ruhullah alias Mir Naqqash of Herat. According to another version, Behzad, who had lost his father in his childhood, was a disciple of Pir Syed Ahmad Tabrizi. First of all, he was employed with Mir Ali Sher, Minister of Sultan Husain Mirza. Later he got employment with Sultan Husain Mirza, the last of the Timurid monarchs who, himself possessing versatile taste, was a great patron of artists and scholars. He was made Head of the Herat Academy.
When Tabriz was taken over by Shah Ismail, he invited Behzad to Tabriz and employed him. The Shah was very kind to him, appointed him his Chief Librarian in 1522 and covered him with honours. He was equally honoured during the reign of Shah Tahmasp, successor of Shah Ismail.
He died in Tabriz in 1546-47 and was buried there.
Behzad who represents the zenith of the Mongol and the beginning of the Safawid period in Persian painting was a reformer in the treatment of landscapes which are more real and natural in his works. In the choice of subjects, too, he is more realistic than his predecessors. He “understood, how, even in the most populous compositions, to differentiate every single figure in countenance and bearing; his palette was extraordinarily rich, especially in warm, full tones, and this enabled him to individualise his portraits by the employment of numerous colours-nuances for costumes and even for the flesh” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). He revolted against the dictates of the calligraphers and admitted no text at all. At times he has given only a few lines of verse at one corner of the illustrated pages.
His works also contain exquisitely drawn double-page miniatures. According to Khan Damir, Behzad possessed great refinement, minute perfection and power of life-like representation. Kazi Ahmad marks his sense of proportion and mentions the excellence of his bird images and avers that he was fluent in charcoal drawings.
Behzad was universally acclaimed as the greatest master of Persian art during his lifetime. He was a great miniaturist. He excels in drawing living figures. He has illustrated many masterpieces of Persian poetry, including that of Nizami. According to the Mughal Emperor Babar, “Behzad’s art was exceptionally fine. He excelled in drawing bearded faces but not the beardless ones as he exaggerates the length of double chin” (Babar Nama).
The Mughal Emperors of India were great admirers of Behzad’s art. They had adorned their libraries and palaces with Behzad’s works. They paid Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000 for each picture drawn by Behzad. Emperor Jahangir particularly has a great liking for Behzad’s art, specially those depicting battle scenes. He adds that Behzad’s creations are full of life and his battle scenes are extremely vivid and lively.
Behzad is known for his color sense and has exquisitely used fine and deep colors in his pictures. He has generally preferred cool colors, namely green and blue particularly in interior scenes but these are always balanced by comparatively warm colors, specially a bright orange. He superbly completes each unit of the design in their proper and natural setting, which fits into a decoratively conceived all-over picture, which is perfectly executed. The branches of trees in bloom, the richly decorated title patterns, and the designs on the carpet reveal in particular the artist’s decorative sense and the delicacy of his work. Its realism distinguishes it from paintings of the previous period.
Behzad has, thus, very faithfully followed nature, giving imaginative touches here and there. He has mostly used green and blue which are nature’s colors. He, no doubt, balances these at times, with mar on and orange colors. In the reproduction of humans and other figures, he tries to be as natural as possible. But he is not a blind imitator of nature and uses his imagination to make his figures more effective and lively. Kazi Ahmad ranks him above Mani.
His works have mostly been lost. Among his few undisputedly extant works are the History of Taimur, illustrated by him in 1467, which was formerly in Schulz collections but later taken to America; an edition of Saadi’s Bustan, dated 1478 is in the Cairo library and his illustrations of Leila and Majnun are kept in the Leningrad Library.
Behzad deeply influenced the realm of painting, particularly in Persia. He had a large number of disciples, both in Herat and Tabriz who carried his style in Persia, Western Turkistan, and India. During the 16th century, his fame had traveled far and wide. His art was imitated by all and even the pages of most various origins were furnished with his signature to enhance their value.
Behzad was undoubtedly a genius whose art reached the summit of glory which will continue to inspire generations to come.