The exhibition of the art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge highlighted the many vital links between two great traditions: the Indian and the Persian.

Museums abroad can be intimidating, with high admission charges, a vast floor area to be covered on wobbly legs, and far too many exhibits to take in at one go. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is an exception. Small enough to be comfortably negotiated and centrally located, one can visit it as often as one wants since there is no entrance fee, thank heavens! Rightly it has been adjudged “the best small museum in Europe”.

Recently it was the venue of a prestigious exhibition of the art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (SHNH) consisting of 104 items, chiefly miniature paintings, catalogued in this volume. Apart from the paintings there are fritware tiles and bowls, and a beautifully worked brass basin with a frieze of riders and scenes of the hunt inlaid in silver and gold.

A thousand years ago Ferdowsi ended his masterpiece presciently with the words:

I shall not die; these seeds I've sown will save

My name and reputation from the grave,

And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim

When I have gone, my praises and my fame,'

Running to more than 50,000 couplets, this huge work, the longest narrative poem ever written, is as central to the Persian ethos as the Homeric epics are to the Classical, and far more ambitious in scope. Going back to that period lost in time when men first colonised the earth Ferdowsi recounts the history of the world up to the fall of the Persian Empire under the Islamic onslaught in the 7th century CE. For him Zoroastrianism, so calamitously eclipsed, was synonymous with Iran's ancient glory and cultural identity. In the SHNH, he seeks to preserve these values and to rejuvenate Persian as a literary language in opposition to the dominance of Arabic. In this he was conspicuously successful. When their leading historian was asked why the Egyptians speak Arabic rather than Coptic, their pre-Islamic tongue, he replied: ‘Because we had no Ferdowsi.'

Within its spacious structure the poem accommodates legendary, mythic and historical narratives, particularly of warfare and pursuit; of enemies locked in single combat; of murder, fratricide and punishment; of demons and phantasmagorical creatures. This is not a triumphalist epic but an elegiac one mourning the loss of a great civilisation. Domestic or erotic subjects are therefore avoided, as are those of feasting, victory and celebration.

Essays on the historical context in which the SHNH was written, its place in Persian and world literature and the tradition of miniature painting provide useful introductory information, but what have we here? A surprising booboo; for 30 citations are indicated in the chapter on literary history but, on turning to the endnotes, one finds only 10.

The exhibits drawn from various sources are divided into five sections, of which the first is called, somewhat mystifyingly, ‘ The Shape of the Shahnameh'. The others proceed in chronological order from the 12th century to the 19th, and the last, of particular interest to us, is on the SHNH in India, where the Mughals, cultural descendants of the Persians, admired it greatly, and created their own ‘namas'— the ‘Akbarnama' the ‘ Jahangirnama' and so on. Akbar is believed to have commissioned a sumptuously illuminated SHNH, now lost. Its popularity was pan-Indian, ranging from Kashmir to Rajasthan, the Deccan and the South, where Tipu Sultan was the proud possessor of two copies.

Among the innumerable stories of warriors, kings and heroic exploits only one episode concerns a woman, the princess Tahmineh who, in an admirably no-nonsense manner, approaches the great Rostam in his bed chamber and more or less orders him to father her child. Years later he unwittingly kills his son Sohrab in battle, only to discover the young man's true identity as he lies bleeding to death.

There are many painted versions of these two episodes that show by comparison how styles like the Shirazi and Safavid differed and evolved under Chinese, Mongol and European influences. The Indian variant is freely localised in terms of clothing and architecture.

The cover picture is outstanding, both for its place in art history and its aesthetic appeal, for Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, one of the duo of painters who collaborated on it, became the vital link between two great traditions. Recruited by Humayun from the Persian court of Shah Tamasp when the latter withdrew his patronage, he went on to lay the foundations of the Mughal style, the culmination of the miniaturist's art.

Compared to earlier Persian painting the touch of the master is already evident in the delicate brushwork and the delineation of the tiniest detail. Apart from the adornment on the shields and the richly-patterned caparisons of the horses, there is the stillness of the exquisite natural background in which each flower petal and blade of grass is differentiated, contrasting with the tumult of battle as the hostile armies face each other and the champions fight to the death in the foreground. The colours of the Classical Persian palette, turquoise, amber and lapis, are skilfully used to show that though it is night there is enough light to see everything with absolute clarity.

Clearly Mughal

The paintings in the Indian section show the clear superiority of the Mughal tasvirkhana in terms of jewel-like colouring and compositional excellence over other royal ateliers. Baswan, a low caste Hindu working at the greatest Muslim court of the age, could paint animals, ascetics, scenes of hunting and battle, European subjects, and a painfully skeletal man and horse wandering in a deathly landscape with equal felicity.

Commonly considered the greatest of the Akbari masters, he is showcased here with a superb painting of an Iranian king, Bahman, being attacked by a dragon. A huge gnarled tree with the fire-breathing dragon coiled menacingly at its foot forms a sweeping arc that frames the picture. In the centre is Bahman's horror-stricken face as he and his horse are swallowed into the creature's maw.

Baswan, we are told, ‘matches skill with vision'. One wishes this bald statement had been expanded. Though this is a beautifully produced book one comes up constantly against its major shortcoming, the paucity of critical analysis in relation to individual paintings. Whereas essay-length descriptions are found in other catalogues, all we get here is two meagre paragraphs, sometimes three.

Unlike their Western counterparts who restricted the mini-format to portraiture Easterners create within its limited space a little world where stories are told of friendship and betrayal, of intrigues and armies at war, of heroes crushed in battle, of relationships made and unmade. A book of these tiny paintings is a little universe in itself, and as you admire the pictures one at a time and savour each detail you feel that sense of intimacy and personal involvement that no other art form can give.