A fact of history, or a mere fiction of imaginative mind, while singing of this unique tale of love in his Khamsa the twelfth century Persian poet Nizami immortalized it and now a thing of bygone days it looks truer than the truest. Though illustrated in almost all art traditions, the theme has been painted with unique zeal and thrust by Persian and Indian painters. In India it has been illustrated by artists of almost all schools and during all significant phases of Indian painting.
The tale is one of the Arabian romances with which the literature of the land abounds. It relates to the paramount beauty of her days Laila, the daughter and the only child of the Chief of Basra, and Qais, the crown prince of Yemen. As the legend goes, Qais and Laila met in a fair and, as is said that love at first sight is the truest and unfailing, the two fell in love, beyond question and calculation. Then onwards they met every evening, all alone and secretly, near a pond in the forest on the outskirt of Basra. A beautiful site, with colours of their love it pulsated now with greater beauty, birds revealing sweeter melody, sky, a more pleasant palette, and pond’s water rippled for imitating curls of Laila’s locks. However, this happy phase of their love was short-lived. One evening, the neighboring King Ibn who too, infatuated by Laila’s beauty, wanted to marry her, came to know of the affair and reported the matter to Laila’s father. The infuriated Basra Chief, without giving Laila a chance to reveal her mind, sent her away, as in exile, to a distant land not in anyone’s knowledge. Qais, not knowing anything and Laila being unable to send him any words, went to the pond everyday, waited for Laila, though in vain, and came back.
Mad in Laila’s love now Majnun wandered around the pond and in the forest the day-long and then days after days, and then he did not return home even during the nights, and all the time he awaited Laila in the forest. Now people began calling him ‘Majnun’ – crazy one, and he did not mind it. When his father heard of such fate of his son, he decided to go to Basra and meet Laila’s father pleading for Laila’s hand in marriage to his son. But the arrogant Chief of Basra not only humiliated him but also attacked Yemen. A fierce battle ensued in which both, the king of Yemen and Basra Chief, were killed. This gave Ibn opportunity to capture Basra and Laila along with and a helpless Laila had to marry him, though in her heart she still pined for Qais, her first love. Ibn also did not live long and died of a broken heart.
Majnun, still a mad wanderer, had lost his love, and consequently, his interest in life. He left Yemen and retired to forest intending to end his life. He threw himself before wild animals so that they consumed him but they did not. He did no know that the world of animals is not the same as the man’s. They treated him with love and compassion and proved that they did not betray or torture anyone in distress, and least, a loving heart. They even brought him food, though he did not eat any and was now reduced to a mere skeleton. Here onwards the legend has two versions. When Laila heard of his sad plight, accompanied by a Maulvi and some companions she went to meet him; another version says that she first sent to him a Maulvi and when he failed to persuade him, she herself went to him. This miniature follows the second version of the legend.
Majnun is seated under a tree with a cave-like outcrop giving him partial shelter. For defining his emaciated form the artist has drawn his figure with prominent bones. His eyes have almost descended deep into their sockets and skin hardly binds the bones. The Maulvi in green choga and white turban with blue stripes is seated before him. With the gesture of his left hand he appears to elaborate some point, though contrarily the action of Majnun’s hand suggests that there is nothing he should live for. One of the Maulvi’s attendants is arranging his shawl in shape lest he suffered cold while the other is sitting on his right with a rod in his hand used for driving the camel. On far right are resting his camels and with them there is his third attendant. In most paintings on the theme there are usually a wider range of animal-species. This painting has included only a few of them, tigers, deer, monkeys and a dog. Trees are colourful but breathe an air of melancholy and pathos. The landscape is largely Persian in character.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.