Bīdil’s Portrait

Asceticism and Autobiography

in Philological Encounters
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In 1704 the Indo-Persian Sufi and poet Mirzā ʿAbdul Qādir ʿBīdil’ completed an autobiography entitled The Four Elements (Chahār ʿunṣur). Into the fourth “Element” of this text he set an account of a portrait of himself painted around 1677 by Anūp Chhatr, a painter famous for his portraits in the imperial Mughal ateliers of the time. Initially refusing his painter-acquaintance permission to paint him, Bīdil finally yields and is astonished at how the resulting portrait duplicates him like a mirror. After marveling at it for a decade, he falls ill. His friends visit him in his sickbed and one of them, leafing through his anthology of texts, comes upon the painting. He exclaims at how faded it is. Bīdil himself can barely make it out on the page. When he recovers his health, he opens the anthology to examine the faded portrait and is astonished and shocked, as his friends are, to see that it has recovered its brilliant colors. He tears the painting up.

This essay reads this ekphrastic account of self-transformation as an autobiographical and iconoclastic interpretation, playing on philosophical, literary and painterly traditions of visuality, in particular Ibn ʿArabi’s (d. 1240, Andalusia) theory of the imagination. Among the questions that will be pursued are: what understandings of self and self-transformation did Bīdil renew by this interpretation? How is this episode a focusing of concerns that pervade all of The Four Elements? What kind of reader and reading practices did this autobiography assume? And, finally, does an understanding of Bīdil’s iconoclastic self-transformation—turning on this episode—prepare us to better understand his works in other genres?

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Figures
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    Portrait by Anūp Chhatr of the Emperor Aurangzeb, “Credit: Portrait of the Emperor Aurangzeb, India, 1658-59 (ink on paper) Chattar, Anup (fl.c.1640-79) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library”
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