Theater & art
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    Frame by Frame

    Delicacy, subtlety mark ‘Possibly Fath Khan, Son of Malik Ambar’

    Ross-Coomaraswamy Collection/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

    Sons of slaves are not often accorded the loving treatment bestowed on the man in this early-17th-century Indian painting at the Museum of Fine Arts. Marvel at its delicacy.

    Notice the way the unknown artist controls the opaque white watercolor to suggest the fine-spun transparency of his subject’s outer robes. Note, too, the overall coloring, which combines soft harmonies with bold oppositions and jangling dissonance.

    The decorated gold paint on the handle of the man’s long sword, his dagger, and his belt chimes with the golden curling tendrils in the ornamental border. His bright orange shoes clash with the mauve background. But this localized burst of acidity is tempered by the adjacent alkaline border.


    The rest of the coloring — the background, the border, and the light brown “frame” — is in subdued pastels, against which the subject’s dark skin stands out abruptly.

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    Who was he? Art historians believe he was the son of Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian born in 1548, and sold into slavery by his parents. His final owner, Mir Qasim al-Baghdadi, an Arab trader in Baghdad, took him to India.

    Malik Ambar was freed after 20 years in service to a minister to the Sultan of Nizam Shahi in the southern region of the subcontinent known as the Deccan. He fought as a mercenary in the Deccan resistance to the spreading Mughal empire. Eventually, he assumed command of an army that came to number 40,000 Hindus and 10,000 fellow Africans.

    Malik Ambar became a great leader, a founder of cities, and a master of guerilla warfare. He so frustrated the Mughal rulers who wanted to control the Deccan that they called him the “rebel of black fortune” — along with dozens of other unpleasant epithets.

    Fath Khan, who is portrayed here, succeeded Ambar as regent of the Nizam rulers. But — and here we might all identify — he lost the sultanate to the Mughals within 10 years of his father’s death.


    The portrait, part of the great Ross-Coomaraswamy Collection, came to the MFA in 1917. It is typically Deccani, which is to say subtly different from the better known Mughal style of painting.

    Both styles derive from the Persian tradition. But Deccani painters were more likely to follow the decorative traits found in Persian prototypes. Here, for instance, Fath Khan’s two orange feet are shown floating, and his long, white scarf, although it seems to have caught the wind, is stylized and stiff.

    This deliberately abstracted quality, typical of Deccani art, did not preclude ravishing subtleties of naturalism. The sense of volume created by Fath Khan’s transparent robes, his powerful hooked nose, and his oddly transitional pose — as if he were primed for action but not quite sure what to do — combine to put his reality beyond doubt.

    Possibly Fath KHAN, son of Malik Ambar

    At Museum of Fine Arts, 617-267-9300,

    Sebastian Smee can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.