The Art of Asia



(16th-19th century)





The Advent of the Mughals

The sixteenth century witnessed one of the most momentous cultural events in the subcontinent's history, the conquest of North India by the Mughals, an Islamic dynasty of Turko-Mongol ancestry descended directly from both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. For the following century and a half the Mughal court was India's most innovative and powerful center; its impact on the cultural life of the courts of northern India was enormous during its heyday and thereafter as well. The court's fundamentally worldly concept of man and history supported a realistic art that was quite the opposite of the Hindus' art. The intermingling of Mughal and Rajput styles meant the penetration of a new world view into Indian life that allowed everyday events to be invested with a significance heretofore reserved for the divine.
The transformation began in 1526 when Babur, the first of the Mughal line, descended into India from his small Afghani kingdom and conquered the Lodi Sultan of Delhi, establishing sovereignty over a large part of northern India. Babur died in 1530 and was succeeded by his twenty-two-year-old son Humayun (r. 1530-40, 1555-56), who ruled for only eleven years before he was expelled from India by Sher Shah (r. 1540-45), an Afghan adventurer. Humayun took refuge in Tabriz in Persia, at the court of his Satavid cousin Shah Tahmasp. Muslim courts placed great emphasis on the production and appreciation of manuscripts, and Humayun became familiar with works of the Tabriz court's highly evolved school of manuscript painting, which featured intricate patterning, jewel-like color, high finish, and a flattened bird's-eye perspective (see below).

Detail of Bahrain Qur Pins the Coupling Onagers from Shah Tahmasp's Shah-nama (Book of kings),
fol. 568r, by Mir Sayyid Ali, ca. 1533-35.
Tabriz, Persia. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


But in time the shah turned toward greater Islamic orthodoxy (which forbids the making of images), and his interest in his manuscript atelier waned. When Humayun finally left Tabriz to return to Kabul, he hired away two of the shah's finest artists, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd-as-Samad. In 1555 Humayun recaptured Delhi, but the next year he died, leaving his newly acquired empire to his twelve-year-old son Akbar.
Akbar (r. 1556—1605) had been trained in art and connoisseurship at the Tabriz court of Shah Tahmasp and believed that painting had a prominent role to play in his own court. Within ten years of his accession, a royal manuscript atelier of thirty painters and seventy assistants had been assembled at his new capital of Fatehpur Sikri, west of Agra. This large contingent of artists was of necessity drawn from diverse traditions of Persia, Central Asia, and India. The atelier's first product was a large-format, multivolume manuscript of the Hamza-nama (Story of Prince Hamza) (see below). These paintings of the Hamza-nama mark a major shift, conceptually and aesthetically, from productions of the Persian court. Each illumination focuses on a single dramatic episode, which retains its primacy even if it is set among a host of subsidiary vignettes. The size not only of the sheet but also of the elements within has increased so dramatically that the painting is no longer the exclusive province of a single viewer, to be held in his hands and lovingly perused; it is bold enough to be appreciated from a distance by several people. (It is conjectured that this large format derives from a tradition of pictorial nomadic tent hangings.) Space is deeper and more tangible now, and nature has begun to be observed and copied. Gestures are dynamic, psychological motivation becomes apparent. A degree of homogeneity was maintained by giving master artists responsibility for the overall design of pages while assigning several artists to different aspects of its execution.

Mesban the Grocer Brings the Spy Parran to his House


Assad Ibn Kariba Attacks the Army of Iraj Suddenly by Night


Akbar's spiritual and intellectual interests seem to have undergone a dramatic change in the 1580s after he moved his capital to Lahore, in present-day Pakistan. His manuscript atelier also was transformed, with many paintings now being assigned to individual artists rather than teams. The paintings became more intimate in scale, subdued in color, refined and sumptuous in finish. In this mature Mughal style, space and volume began to be defined by means of light and shade, a technique learned from Western paintings and prints brought to the cosmopolitan Mughal court and formerly unknown in both the Persian and the indigenous Indian styles. Other Western innovations that were adopted are aerial perspective and the use of atmospheric effects to indicate spatial recession (see below).

Bahram Gur Watching Dilaram Charm the Wild Animals with her Music

Hamid Bhakari Punished by Akbar


Contemporaneously, a more provincial version of the imperial court style began to flourish. It featured elements derived from the Mughal style, but in painting and finish it was never of the quality or complexity of imperial painting. Manuscripts in this provincial Mughal style were produced for both Hindu and Muslim patrons. The largest number of them seem to have been made in the last two decades of the sixteenth century and the early years of the seventeenth century, and some of these are now being ascribed to patronage from specific Rajput states such as Amber and Bikaner. Whether they were the work of minor artists who had left the imperial atelier after the completion of the huge Hamza-nama project, were painted by Indian artists at the Mughal court, or came about solely because of the diffusion of artistic ideals from the court is not clear.
Painting at the Hindu courts in the early seventeenth century displayed a spectrum of styles that derived in varying degrees from the Chaurapan-chasika (traditional Rajput) and Mughal traditions. Although painting is known from only one court in the hill states, Mandi (see below)

A Marriage Procession in a Bazaar


the diverse kingdoms of Rajasthan reveal great activity. Painting in the relatively isolated kingdom of Malwa (see below) and in Gujarat seems to have grown directly out of the Rajput tradition, which is reflected in the use of space, color, and line.


Ragimi Kakubha


Painting at Mewar shared similar affinities but sometimes incorporated Mughal influence in the form of specific motifs and a somewhat deepened pictorial space (see below).


Khambhavati Ragini


Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy