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
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.