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Fiction in Mughal Miniature Painting

Article of the Month - April 2005
Viewed 39897 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

Fiction in Mughal miniatures, which are widely considered the couriers of realism in Indian art, is a proposition difficult to concede to, and not without reason also. Fiction is now for long contemplated the sole domain of literature and not the theme of painters or sculptors. In common usage, 'fiction' denotes a literary genre, which relates to telling a tale- a short one as also the long, usually defined as the novel and the short story. This perception of fiction as novel or story has so rigidified that scholars are unwilling to see fiction even in Puranas, which they think preach morals and relate to theology and hence have nothing to do with fiction. So conditioned, the appreciating mind did not even explore the possibilities of discovering fiction in any discipline other than literature. Amina Okada is perhaps the only one to have seen allegorical thrust in some of the Mughal portraits. Allegorical dimensions, as Amina Okada delineates, are fictional additions to the rendered fact but even she shirks from using the term fiction for such expansions over fact. Obviously, to most minds, fiction is nothing more than the lingual narration of a man-related event, or a chain of them, which imagination fabricates. A novel as also a story are no doubt the most prevalent forms of fiction, but to confine it solely to them, or to lingual media, sounds too narrow.


The Battle of Panipat
The Battle of Panipat


Narration and imaginative fabrication are no doubt strong features of fiction but let it be kept in mind that neither all narratives are fiction, nor all facts are non-fictional. Sometimes narratives have no fiction and facts are seen instrumenting great fiction. The known English novelist E. M. Foster draws the line that distinguishes the fiction from the non-fiction. To him, the statement of a fact or situation that seeks to individualize such fact or situation may be anything but not fiction. But, this statement becomes fiction the moment it generalizes such fact or situation. A statement detailing the defeat of Ibrahim Lodi at Babur's hands at Panipat individualizes things - the individuals and the event. It states facts of history and hence comprises its part.

David Copperfield, a novel by Charles Dickens, reveals the fact of Dickens' own life and the factual conditions of the mid-nineteenth century England, but such facts have been so stated that they become applicable to Dickens-like numerous persons and England-like other countries undergoing industrial revolution and instrument thus the finest fiction.


Gaj Singh of Jodhpur (Bikaner Style)
Gaj Singh of Jodhpur (Bikaner Style)

Foster neither confines fiction to language as its medium nor prescribes narration as its mode. Whether rendered in colors or in words, the battle of Panipat is an account of history. On the contrary, the exploits of Hamza, whether contained in a book or on canvas, are fiction. To him, the element of growth, which is the essence of narration, is not fiction's essentiality. While distinguishing a short story from a novel, he comes out with a two-fold example- there was a king. He had a queen. The king died and the queen died. And, there was a king. He had a queen. The king died and the queen died of grief. Both examples constitute fiction but in the first one none of the events grows whereas in the latter it does. 'Died of grief' has growth perspective as the event grows in reader's or listener's mind beyond what has been stated in words. The former defines the short story and the latter the novel. This observation was made in relation to literature but applies alike aptly to a miniature painting as a miniature quite often generalizes a fact and sometimes has growth perspective and is sometimes without it. As a matter of fact, the form is the most effective instrument of generalization. In his portrayal of, say, Gaj Singh of Jodhpur or Karan Singh of Bikaner, the miniaturist portrays their individual likenesses- their facial features, anatomy, costume, jewels and other attributes, as he had in his mind.

The canvas, however, generalizes this fact of miniaturist's mind, as the viewer perceives in the rendered forms only the likenesses of two feudal chiefs. Howsoever exactly rendered, the viewer cannot relate the features and forms of the rendered figures to Jodh Singh or Karan Singh unless he has personal knowledge of their likenesses or is able to ascertain the same by some other means. On the canvas, each of them is the same- 'there was a Rajput chief' and so on, as was E. M. Foster's - 'there was a king' and so on and so forth.


Akbar and Tansen Visit Haridas
Akbar and Tansen Visit Haridas

Fiction reveals in many forms in literature as also in art and other disciplines and not just as a novel or short story. An absentee comes to his employer with an excuse for his absence. The employer sees his excuse as 'bare fiction'. It is almost the same with the miniaturist when he discovers similar excuses- the fiction, for making good the absence of a fact. Say, he desires to portray Akbar's unique love for music and consequently his desire to listen to Sant Haridas, the greatest of the singers of his days, without which he could not justify the exceptionality of Akbar's connoisseurship for music. The miniaturist was aware of the great spiritual magnitude of Sant Haridas, both as the saint and singer and knew that he would not bow to any earthly power howsoever great it was. As the tradition had it, Sant Haridas had already declined Akbar's invitation to attend his court and sing for him. Obviously, the miniaturist could not portray him either at his court or as singing for him. On the other hand, he also could not represent Akbar, the Emperor of Hindustan, at the ashrama of Sant Haridas, particularly when he had declined to sing for him. It was a difficult situation. The truth of the miniaturist's mind was not the reality of the ground. He, however, weaves fiction and thereby tackles the situation. He feigns a disguised Akbar reaching with Tansen the ashrama of Sant Haridas and listening to the enrapt saint without being noticed- a sheer artistic manipulation.

There is fiction in the manipulation of both- the employee and the artist, which they conceive for making good the absence of the required fact, but in his employee's the employer discovers it, but in that of the artist the art scholar or the art historian does not. A kathaka dancer weaves in his or her feet a whole legend- a katha, the virtual fiction. The eye witnesses the dance but it rarely witnesses the fiction that it reveals. Employee's pretext, miniaturist's manipulation, dancer's revelation of katha suggest that fiction is not the sole domain of literature, nor essentially a lingual mode of narrating a tale.


Portrait of Shahjahan
Portrait of Shahjahan





As above, the art is as appropriate a vehicle of fiction as the literature. Art does not always have tales to tell but is also not without them. The miniature art inclines to be realistic but even in portraying the real it often takes recourse to fiction. The portraiture is the most realistic genre of miniature art but even portraits, and more particularly such ones which are valued as the great works of art, are not without some kind of fiction around them. Instead of a bare likeness of Shahjahan, the artist represents him with a halo around his face and a gem studded crest in his hand, perhaps to denote that besides being the emperor he was also a great gemologist.




Bani Thani
Bani Thani






Even in straight simple Bani-Thani portrait, the artist weaves into her eyes a maiden's coyness and thus adds to it the fiction of his mind.







Portrait of Babur with Book (ca 1640)
Portrait of Babur with Book
(ca 1640)

Mughal art, worldwide acknowledged for its realistic thrust, has a lot of fiction even in its portraits, a genre, which is realistic by its very nature. There is in the collection of Musè, Guiemet, Paris, a Shahjahani portrait of Babur. Whatever the status of Babur's likeness in it, in most other things added to it- nimbus around his face, book in hand, the location with a seat in the garden, mountain in the background, angels in the sky, figures of ulama, the learned masters, in bordering space and so on, are sheer fiction.

This fiction better reveals the fact of Babur's life, thought and spiritualism than the 'fact' could itself do. The book in his hand tells that Babur was a great lover of books. He stole time for writing his memoirs even when he was almost always on horseback with sword in hand. Basically a soldier, Babur often camped and held consultations with his Amirs in open, around a hill, under a tree, or in a forest. He did not create buildings but a few squarely laid gardens in the char-bagh style. The background with his square seat, suggestive of char-bagh, laid in a garden-like looking forest, portrays these aspects of his life. Hazrat Musa had the vision of Allah on Kohetura, a mountain in Sham. The glowing mountain in the background, thus, suggests by analogy that Babur always had Allah in his vision. The angels in the sky reveal his spiritual heights and the ulama his reverence for the learned ones. The mechanical realism of camera could not reveal so real a Babur, as does this fiction.

It is, thus, only rarely that a miniature represents either the absolute fact or the pure fiction. Though the ratio of fact and fiction in each miniature may vary, but they only complement each other. It is actually this fact-fiction ratio that determines whether a work of art be classed as factual- that is, realistic, or as fictional. Absolute fact or pure fiction is a rarity in art. The fiction, to become acceptable, requires a credible face- the face of a fact. This compels fiction to resort to factualness. Realism is, thus, the core of fiction for fiction needs to have a more realistic look. It is almost the same with the 'fact'. Arts are little interested in a bold, blunt, monotonous thing such as 'fact' usually is. Some degree of fiction is always required to dramatize or transform it before an art mode accepts it as its subject. The representation of a thing in art is not a mere statement of fact. It is always an improvement over such fact, or some kind of departure from it. The photography is the fact reproducing mechanism, but except some straight mechanical shots, even the camera does not produce the mere fact. The photographer so focuses his object that what his camera shoots is often different from what it had before it. The viewer of a photograph is often found saying: 'I never thought it was so beautiful'. The photographic art, even in its mechanical reproduction, discovers its object in such dimensions and with such perspectives that it looks more like a fiction and less like a fact. Obviously, in all kinds of arts, fiction has a wider role than has the fact. In painting, where the human mind, and not a camera-like mechanism, processes its theme, the volume of fiction is usually far greater.


Timur with Babur and Humayun
Timur with Babur and Humayun

The dissenting mind, which finds in miniature art the most effective instrument of the 'real' and fiction as adverse to such real, fails to see such massive presence of fiction in miniature art. This perception is, however, fallacious. Realism, whether in art or literature, is not fiction's antithesis. On the contrary, it is as much an aspect of fiction as that of the realistic art. Realism and fiction are not, thus, poles apart but rather a roundabout. The 'real' takes recourse to fiction so that it becomes presentable and the fiction to the 'real' so that it becomes credible. In art, presentability is as important as the credibility of the represented subject, which only a blend of the 'real' and the 'fiction' may effect. The Mughal court artist paints on a single piece of paper the dynasty of Timur- Timur with Babur, Humayun and perhaps Akbar. The ascendancy of Mughals, with Timur heading it, is factual, but the presence of these generations across centuries together on one dais is a fiction.

The fiction of descent has been as aptly factualised. Timur holds a crown in his right hand, obviously the crown of Hindustan, and is extending it towards Babur to found Timur's dynasty in Hindustan. Timur is represented as seated in a hexagonal seat with a taller back to depict his distinction. The Akbar-like figure, standing in the middle, does not have the gem studded golden seat behind but such area of the carpet, which has the look of the halo around his head. Babur is in green suggestive of his love for nature and Humayun in blue and red suggestive of the oceanic turmoil and ultimate rise that he witnessed in his life. Here fiction reveals more of fact than could a factual account.

Jahangir and The Great Mughals
Jahangir and The Great Mughals







A late Mughal style painting from Alwar represents more dramatically and with greater fiction the so-called house of Timur. Jahangir's figure forms the axis, around which are portrayed his eight ascendants, each contained in a medallion.






Jehangir's Dream
Jehangir's Dream

The globe forms the base of the outer ring and the sky with angels tops it. Jahangir has been positioned on another globe carried upon a fish and a bull. Jahangir is shooting an effigy. There are other motifs- a balance, a standard with three gems and so on. The painting is every inch a fiction created by using a great imagination and a very wide range of symbols. It has many tales to tell. Shooting the effigy reveals the tale of his hatred that he had for Malik Ambar, the slave-ruler of Ahmadnagar in Deccan. His position on globe reveals his passion for being recognized as the commander of the world. The standard with three gems reveals his commitment for purity in living, good heart and honest mind and the balance his legendary love for justice. The fish, symbolic of the ocean, comprises the basis of existence and the bull carries the earth on its head. The earth carried by the bull on its head is a popular Indian myth, which only the all-embracing mind of Jahangir could allow to prevail in his court art. The angels, an element of Western mythology, further emphasize his broad mindedness. Jahangir's picture with Shah Abas of Persia in embrace, in Freer Gallery, Washington, is another excellent example of fiction. Larger than the globe is Jahangir's aura and taller to Shah Abas his figure. This fiction reveals the truth of Jahangir's mind more effectively than would do many written folios. Jahangir thought so much of his magnitude and even envied Shah Abas, the mightiest ruler in the world those days. For portraying his mind, the miniaturist has painted him taller than the Shah of Persia and with an aura, which extends farther than does the world. Jahangir has under his feet the lion while Shah Abas just a sheep. To him, who knows that Jahangir and Shah Abas had never met, the painting represents a fiction but to him, who is unaware of it, the painting represents a real episode. Far from fantasy, it is a serious painting realistically rendered and an accomplished example of how the fact rides the wings of fiction and the fiction seeks a realistic face.


Radha Krishna
Radha Krishna

Indian art had a lot of fiction even in wall paintings at Ajanta and Bagh, which portrayed in the form of Jatakas the life events of Buddha. Miniature art, which was initially the continuance of India's art culture, also illustrated texts mainly the Prajnaparmita, Kalpa-sutra and Kalakacharya-katha, which are all sectarian fiction. Hence, the fiction that evolved in early Indian miniatures is incidental to its source material, that is, the texts, which it illustrated. This art was essentially religious and so was the fiction that it created. The art of the subsequent phase, that is, the art of the pre-Mughal India, both Islamic and Hindu, while continuing with the earlier art trends, also initiated a new set of fiction using human narratives, though derived as before either from texts or from tradition. This strong human element characterized even the sectarian fiction, which evolved by illustrating religious texts like the Bhagavata Purana or Gita-Govind. The pre-Mughal miniaturist, while illustrating the tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana, discovers the divine Krishna and Radha more in flesh rather than in spirituality.


The Bhagavata Purana is the prose, Gita-Govind and Chaurapanchasika the poems, the Persian classic Shahnama the collection of legends and Laura-Chanda and Mrigavata the romances, but what of them reveals on the canvas of a miniature is their human aspect and their fictional thrust. The mythical Krishna enacts human drama as a village stripling, or as a warrior and diplomat but only rarely as the Divine. The artist as much dramatized the legends of Shahnama but minimized their supernatural thrust and made each a tale of human life. Laura-Chanda and Mrigavata were tales of human love and were rooted into the soil. In illustrating them the miniaturist only re-told tales of the earth. In Gita-Govind and Chaurapanchasika, he only minimized the poetic thrust and added a little more narration and created thereby unique fiction.

Jahangir Teaching the Technique of Hunting to Rana Karansingh of Mewar (Notice the Injured Lion Pointing out its Wound)
Jahangir Teaching the Technique of Hunting to Rana Karansingh of Mewar (Notice the Injured Lion Pointing out its Wound)

Mughal art continued with the text-based fiction illustrating the classics from both traditions, the Indian as well as Persian. The Persian classics, Shahnama, Khamsa-i-Nizami, Tutinama, Kalila Wa Dimna and so on and the Indian classics, the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Surasagara and many others are some of the texts wherein Mughal art has discovered its finest fiction. The legends of Laila-Majnun, Shirin Farhad, Yusuf-Zulekha, Sohrab-Rustam and a number of folios from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are the examples of great fiction. But more significantly, the Mughal art widened the range of texts to include also the factual narratives- histories like Twarikh-i-Alfi, biographies like Akbarnama, memoirs like Baburnama, Jahangirnama or Patshahnama and the like. These apparently factual texts have fiction in equal ratio, or the miniaturist, illustrating them, discovered in them such aspects, which have greater fictional thrust. Going through the illustrations to Baburnama, the true events of Babur's life as he has himself recorded, delights as much as does the finest fiction. Jahangir had Rana Karan Singh, the heir apparent of Mewar, as hostage under the Mughal policy, which required every state that accepted Mughal suzerainty to keep as security its regal prince at Mughal court. Jahangir greatly loved the young Rana and taught him various arts to include shooting. A miniature, in the collection of the Indian Museum, Calcutta, portrays Jahangir demonstrating to Karan Singh how to shoot a lion. It is all factual. The fiction begins when the miniaturist portrays Jahangir fixing the right eye of the animal as his target and when shot, the lion, instead of retaliating or fleeing for life, puts its right foreleg on its right eye and tells that it has been shot there. This exceptionally sophisticated fiction is Mughals' innovation.


Pashu Kunjar - Composite Camel
Pashu Kunjar - Composite Camel

Broadly, the fiction that the Mughal art reveals may be classified under six heads : (a) the fiction that alternates fact or makes good the absence of a likely fact or situation such as reveals in the miniature portraying Akbar visiting Sant Haridas; (b) the fiction born of fancy such as reveals in miniatures depicting Jahangir shooting the effigy of Malik Ambar, embracing Shah Abas or shooting tiger in its eye; (c) the miniatures that illustrate a literary or religious fiction or a tradition of mythology as reveals in illustrative miniatures; (d) the fiction that reveals in narrating random episodes, such as Jahangir visiting Gosain Jadrup or Dara Shikoh visiting his mentor Mian Mir; (e) fiction in subordination to fact created to enhance its quality or character, such as the elephant riding or gem studded crest carrying portraits of Shahjahan; and finally (f) the fiction of odds, such as is seen in miniatures depicting grotesque animal and human forms. The fiction that reveals in drawing grotesque forms defines experimentalism in art, which the art of Mughal era seems to have inherited from Central Asia where it had come into existence in the sixteenth century itself.

References and Further Reading

  • E. M. Forster : Aspects of Novel - Advert Arnold & Company, LONDON 1927.
  • Amina Okada : Emperial Mughal Painters - Flammarion, PARIS 1002.
  • Beach, Milo Cleveland : The Grand Mogul : Imperial Painting In India 1600-1660.
  • Welch, Stuart Cary : The Art of Mughal India : Painting and Precious Objects, New York.
  • Welch, Stuart Cary : Imperial Mughal Painting, New York.
  • Wilkinson, J. V. S., Mughal Painting, London.
  • Bamber Gascoigne : The Great Moghuls, New Delhi.
  • Dr. Daljeet : Mughal and Deccani Painting, New Delhi .
  • Randhawa, M. S. : Paintings of the Baburnama, New Delhi.
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