The Art of Asia





(16th-19th century)





From the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, ateliers at the royal courts ot North and Central India produced paintings on paper or cloth for the delectation of the rulers and their immediate circles. This was a period of diversity in virtually every realm, and Indian court painting is usually divided into four major traditions whose milieus are defined in terms of religion, polity, and geography: the Muslim kingdoms of the Mughals (centered in Delhi) and of the Deccani sultans (on the central plateau); and the Hindu Rajput kingdoms in Rajasthan (on the plains) and in the Punjab Hills. The history of each of these artistic traditions extends over several centuries and encompasses many small ateliers, all of which had their own evolving traditions. In this essay the intent is only to introduce some high points of this vast panorama and to explore ways in which the elements of its varied topography are joined.
Hindu and Muslim rulers were members not only of different religions but of distinct cultures, and the themes they chose to illustrate were initially quite unlike. For Muslims, called "the people of the book" because of their devotion to the Koran, reading and the sense of an evolving place in history were particularly important. Painted works produced in the Islamic courts had mostly temporal themes. There were books of history both contemporaneous and legendary, literary and poetic works, portraits of the rulers and their courtiers, vignettes of court life, and studies of natural history. Books were bound, and text and illustration were often accorded equal importance.
In contrast, Hinduism relied on the oral transmission of religious texts in which time was understood as cyclical and temporal matters were comparatively insignificant. Many of the texts had entered the realm of folklore. These popular religious stories were illustrated for the Hindu courts, along with writings in which specific aspects of human experience, especially love and heroism, were systemized by being broken down into numerous specific categories. These "systemizations" too have quasi-religious overtones, with the Hindu god Krishna and his consort, Radha, often taking the leading roles. Like the Muslim books, the manuscripts were made to be appreciated in a secular courtly context. But unlike the Muslim works, they were not bound.
and the text, which was familiar to the audience, was usually abbreviated and often relegated to the reverse side of the painted image. It served principally to identity the subject of the painting, when that was necessary.
Initially distinctive Hindu and Muslim styles evolved in India, but over time the two interacted. In Indian painting the ebb and flow of patronage was one of the major mechanisms of this diffusion, and the Mughal imperial court played a particularly important role in the process. At crucial points during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when royal patronage of the imperial atelier waned, its artists dispersed to smaller centers. In some cases the movement of artists is documented, but in others we must rely on stylistic analysis. The result of artists'peregrinations was a diversity7 of styles, not only between centers but also, sometimes, within them, and it was not unusual for a large atelier to have artists working m several different stylistic modes. Actual artistic innovation, however, tended to be sporadic and often short-lived: in many cases a tradition fluoresced briefly on the strength of enlightened patronage and the availability of inspired artists, only to revert to traditional modes of artistic expression.
Political factors also influenced the spread of styles. The Rajasthani kingdoms were brought within the Mughal orbit as feudatory states through treaties of various kinds, and the rajas became subjects of the emperor, ruling by his largess. They were obliged to support the emperor militarily and to attend his court. In certain cases the emperor partitioned an existing state, often to weaken its military might, or for some other reason created a new7 state through an imperial land grant. The Rajput warriors who became leaders of the new states acquired status and independence, but they also owed particular allegiance to the emperor and often were called upon to spend most of their time fighting or doing administrative work in a Mughal setting, away from their own courts. These feudal obligations fostered the adoption of Mughal culture in Rajasthan. (Some Rajput rulers were able to maintain a greater distance from the imperial court and so absorbed less of its influence.) Additionally, a continuing cultural interchange was established when a Rajasthani noblewoman married into the Mughal royal family. Royal women frequently commissioned paintings and thus played a central role in the cross-fertilization of styles.


Early Painting

Although there is little evidence that Hindu manuscripts were produced before the fifteenth century, Buddhist sculptures as early as the Gupta period (late third to fifth century) show deities holding manuscripts as attributes, indicating that in India the manuscript tradition is very old. The principal illustrated texts that survive from before the sixteenth century were made as religious donations or for religious use by the Buddhist and Jain communities. The vast majority of the Buddhist manuscripts date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries; by the thirteenth century Buddhism had largely been extinguished in North India.
For Buddhists the written word was considered a vessel of the transcendent as potent as sculptural representation, and manuscripts not only were regarded as sacred but were themselves objects of veneration. The palm leaves on which they were written dictated their long, narrow format (see below).

Page from a palm-leaf manuscript of the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita,
ca. 1090.
Bengal school, Pala period.
Ink and opaque water color on palm leaf.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


The leaves were enclosed between wooden boards whose inside surfaces were sometimes painted with rows of divinities or with episodes from a particular narrative, such as scenes from the life of the Buddha. Some of the palm-leaf pages carried small pictorial illuminations, but these were usually iconic rather than narrative and did not illustrate the text.
Contemporaneous manuscripts of the Jain community, whose religion originated in India in the sixth century B.C., also utilized palm leaves. By the last quarter of the fourteenth century, however, paper became the preferred support. The old elongated format, which had been necessitated by the narrow-shape of the palm leaf, evolved into a more compact, rectangular shape that was later to prove well suited to larger illustrations and elaborate marginal designs. The Jain manuscripts contain stock images or small scenes illustrating the text, usually carried out in a restricted color scheme (see below). White, yellow, red, green, and blue-black, the fundamental colors in Indian art, form the basic palette of Jain painting as well as of the first Hindu court paintings.

The Fourteen Auspicious Dreams of the Jina's Mother


The oldest extant illustrated Hindu texts are from the second half of the fifteenth century and relate to the Jain manuscript tradition. In the early sixteenth century a distinctive new style arose that appears in illustrations of both secular and popular-religious subjects. These works must have been produced for the rajas or other wealthy patrons of North India. Unlike the Jain and Buddhist manuscripts discussed earlier, in which illuminations are generally secondary to the text, here the pictorial representations are predominant. An abbreviated version of the text is relegated to the upper margin of an illustrated page, and a more extended text fills the obverse. By now the page has become a classical rectangle in shape, enabling it easily to accommodate a full-page horizontal image. Clearly the function of the manuscript has changed: visual requirements have replaced literary ones, and the artist seeks to inspire rather than inform the imagination of the viewer (see below).
The reasons for this unheralded shift and the renaissance of painting accompanying it are unclear.

Nanda and Vasudeva


Brahma Prostrates Himself Before Krishna


The Gopis Beseech Krishna yo Return their Clothing


Krishna Kills the Evil King Kamsa's Washerman




The Hindu myths and epics forming the basis of the early illustrated texts had passed long before into the realm of popular culture. Nor are there any particular signs that inspiration for these manuscripts came from the influence of Indian Muslim kingdoms of the early sixteenth century. Despite those early Islamic kingdoms' great architectural legacy, what little survives of their books displays a rather provincial blend of Persian and Indian motifs. Although Muslim courts of the same period in Persia and Turkestan accorded their manuscript ateliers great prestige, either the enterprise was not of like importance to these early Indian Muslim courts or they simply could not attract trained artists of the highest caliber.
The indigenous Indian style has come to be known by the name of one of the earliest manuscripts of the group, the Chaurapaiichasika (Fifty stanzas of secret love), a "systemization" of love that describes a poet's clandestine tryst with a princess on the eve of his execution. Many of this style's defining elements—flat fields of undifferentiated color, a restricted palette, decorative patterning, and a taut line—seem to evolve from contemporaneous Jain painting. In these Rajput paintings, however, the drawing is more descriptive and the space more perceptible, although shallow and friezclike. The Hindu court literature illustrated includes the tenth chapter of the Bhagavata Parana (Ancient stories of Lord Vishnu) dealing with the life of Krishna, a text that would continue to be extremely popular with artists and patrons throughout the history of Indian painting (see below); the Gita Govinda (Song of the herdsman); and systemizations of human experience, such as raoatnalas (garlands of musical modes), Chaurapaiichasika, Rasamanjari (Essence of the experience of delight), and Rasikapriya (Garden of delights). With their audacious linear dynamism and compositional intricacy, these illustrations pique the viewer's senses irresistibly.

Krishna Battles the Armies of the Demon Naraka
(Ancient stories of Lord Vishnu)


The paintings mirror the Hindu world view of a transcendent cosmic order in which myths and symbols are the appropriate subjects of art. They are populated by gods, heroes, and heroines whose depictions are based not on living models but on formulas melding ideals drawn from nature—for example, heads shaped like eggs, chests like a lion's, breasts like ripe mangoes. Colors are limited and chosen for their evocative potential rather than for verisimilitude. As in Indian sculpture, predominantly a tradition of high relief, the space is shallow: figures exist within a matrix and can move neither toward nor away from the viewer. Dynamic drawing and abundant pattern create a sense of surface energy. With these means the Hindu painter conjures an entire, emotionally resonant universe. Although Hindu painting absorbed numerous influences from without over the succeeding centuries, these traditional Rajput pictorial devices reasserteci themselves over and over again.


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