This Article First Appeared In Scroll On June 18, 2023
Riddle time: what do you get if you cross the story of medieval Indian art with the prehistory of robotics?
Answer: A painting called Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas, which features possibly the first visual representation of an automaton in South Asian art.
To a lay viewer, the robot may seem an anachronistic curiosity, the unmistakable clue of a time-travelling replicant crashing a 400-year-old royal party. The truth is more straightforward – involving travel only through time zones – but no less fascinating, revealing the intersections of international commerce, imperial self-representation and reinterpretations of foreign technology.