The Timeless Miniature Paintings of India’s Mughal Empire

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This article by Manisha Sarade

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The Timeless Miniature Paintings of India’s Mughal Empire

Mughal paintings have always caught the attention of art lovers because of its perfect blend of Indian, Persian and Islamic Styles. While there have been other Indian schools of miniaturist art predating Mughal miniatures and new schools that have thrived after the demise of the Mughal dynasty, the Mughal period was a landmark in the art history of the Indian subcontinent and is one of the two most recognized schools of Indian miniature art. The easy portability of miniatures enabled them to be easily traded from early times and gave them exposure all over the world. It was influenced liberally by the existing Indian Rajput school.

Babur was the connoisseur and critic of art and painting and Babur’s son, Humayun was instrumental in establishing an atelier in India and the work of painting seriously began. The Persian artists who highly impressed Humayun by their work, accompanied him to India and became the guiding hand behind the art school. They assisted greatly in the creation of the ‘Vastan-i-Aint Hamza' which was the first of the great series which resulted in the reputation of the Mughal school that is everlasting. The form and style of painting, generally known as 'Mughal painting' was indeed and essentially the product and creation of the Mughal court. It is very evident to distinguish the paintings of the courts of the emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan by style, form and content.

Shah Jahan

The Mughal school was found by Akbar under whom it developed into a class of its own. It was essentially a product of the Mughal court. In form and content, it happens to be a departure from collective community tradition just as the Mauryan art was more than a millennium and a half before. Though it is not difficult for a discerning pair of eyes, to distinguish an Akbari from a Jahangiri one or the latter from a Shah Jahan painting, but the interesting and most significant factor is the strong common denominator which is constant in form and style from earlier and later ones as well as from those others of contemporary times which originated elsewhere than in the Mughal court.

The majority of painters in the atelier were Indians who produced a school of Persian techniques blended with Indian training, evolving a concept of painting with the synthesis of the two styles. The miniatures became records of the emperor Akbar's activities. The Mughal painting school was established by Akbar. He personally supervised the work of Indian and Persian artists and lavished wealth and titles on his talented artists. Akbar pioneered manuscript illustration. The most well-known being the Hamza Nama, Akbar Nama, Darab Nama, Ain-i-Akbari and Din-i-Illahi. Several Hindu manuscripts were also illustrated. His interest in Indian literature contributed to the changing of the Mughal school from its Persian begriming into an indigenous tradition. The styles adopted during Akbar's reign were carried on and further refined and developed under Shah Jahan. The Mughal miniatures does not portray spiritual and emotional matters. This objectivity is the basic parameter of the Mughal miniatures.

Two Groups of Ascetics Battling

Akbar was the first monarch to be interested in European art and obtained concrete knowledge of the Christian religious paintings. The work of numerous German and Finnish engravers were known to the Mughal court painters. The master painters in the atelier exhibit an excellent understanding of the Western techniques. Landscapes and motifs were shown as salient features of the composition and two types of European pictorial art was available to the Mughal atelier – engravings and illustrated manuscripts. The religious manuscript was painted including the Bible yet it did not influence the Mughal artists to a great extent. The European prints were copied by Mughal artists but their Islamic traditions remained contrary. The Mughals used highlighting and shading to mark the forms to exist whereas the Deccanis did it to intensify the portrait. In spite of the numerous obligations, the Mughal school maintained its own indigenous qualities. Pigments too contributed significantly to the distinctiveness of a style, fri contrast to pre-Mughal paintings, those of the Mughal and Rajput school reflect an enormous increase in the range of colours. Portraiture occupied very important position in the Mughal painting. A large number of portraits of the Mughal emperors and the nobilities were executed during the Mughal period.

Procession Afore The Taj Mahal

The architectural motifs in Akbari paintings are both Persian and Indian prototypes, as is in the case of the rendering of foliage, but the initial decorative aspects disappeared. The Akbari manuscripts are illustrated with beautiful scenes depicting nature by techniques identical to Persian ones. These techniques were also repeated in drawing mountains and hillocks but the Mughal painters seem to have experimented with the motifs. The Persian feature of incorporating certain shapes of animals and human figures was also copied. From their very inception, Akbari paintings were different from contemporary, classical Persian painting and had numerous elements which could not have any Persian reference. Akbar's decision that he was an Indian, aided the acclimatizing of his Persian cultural inheritance with India's. Thus, Akbari paintings happen to be a creative fusion of mainly Persian elements with Indian and European features. The atelier has numerous top-class painters who progressed to become ‘Ustads' or Masters.

Unlike Akbar's reign, in which the paintings were collaborations, specialization became the artist's mainstay under Jahangir. Margin painting also developed as a separate branch only under Jahangir. The imperial masters related the themes or subjects. The thematic contents of the paintings were a reflection of the personal tastes, pride, pleasure, preferences, hobbies and temperament of the individuals’ kinds. In every sense, Mughal painting was a court art.

Aurangzeb Inspecting The Chopped Off Head of His Brother Dara Shikoh

Although very little is known about individual artists in Mughal India, there is considerable information about their techniques and methods. Akbar started a ‘karkhana’ to originate a new style of painting. The main purpose was to produce illuminated manuscripts which was an elaborate production, requiring the cooperation of calligraphers, painters, preparators for various accessories such as colour grinder, gold workers, leather workers, book binders and many more. The books to be copied were often long and only by the strictest cooperation among all these different craftsmen and artists some of whom were certainly Prima Donnas could a beautiful work be produced in time.

Laila’s Messenger Meets Majnu in the Forest

There were numerous painters in the Mughal atelier from which the following names are found repeatedly. Mohammed Alam. Abu Hasan. Farrukh Beg, Manohar, Murad. Muhammad Nadir, Inayat, Pidarath, Kanha. Kesu and Mahesh. Other than these, the following were some of the most prominent figures in Mughal Art:

Aqa Riza was a professionally trained Safavid painter when he arrived at the Mughal court. However, despite adopting a veneer of "Mughalisation", and being influenced by European Rennaissance art, he could not adapt his traditional attitudes of the modern ones and his style became passe'.

Abdus Samad was one of the most important Persian painters who accompanied Humayun to India and helped set up the Mughal atelier along with Mir Saiyyid Ali. He was honoured with the title of Shirin Qalam. The various artists of the atelier worked under these two masters. Abdus Samad acted as a continuous model of technical skill and control. He was also appointed as the Director of the Imperial Mint at Fatehpur Sikri (the capital).

Bishan Das was a brilliant painter chosen to accompany the embassy of Khan Alam to the court of Safavid Shah Abbas at Ishfanan where he painted portraits of various grandees of the royal clan which were greatly appreciated. On his return, he was given due prominence. His style is recognizable, consistent and depicts close proximity to Persian art.

Kesu Das was one of the greatest of Akbar's artist and is placed first below Basawan in the list of painters given by Abu Fazl in the Ain-i-Akbari. He was famed for his copies and adaptation of European prints. He was also a brilliant technician and by the time the first Akbar Nama commenced, the third most brilliant designer.

Basawan was the most important, prestigious and influential painter during the later years of Akbar's reign. His name can be seen in practically the entire list of the major Akbari manuscripts that were collaborations. His figures and character studies were unique. His achievements were crucial to the development of Jahangiri portraiture in the early seventeenth century.

Generally made as miniatures either as book illustrations or as single works, Mughal painting evolved from the Persian school of miniature painting with Hindu, Buddhist and Jain influences. These paintings evolved during the rule of various Mughal Emperors in India. The paintings often revolved around themes like battles, legendary stories, hunting scenes, wildlife, royal life, mythology, etc. These paintings also became an important medium to narrate the tall tales of the Mughal emperors. This art form became so popular that it eventually made its way to various other Indian courts as well. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London houses a large and impressive collection of Mughal paintings. 

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