The Art of Asia
 
 

 

INDIAN COURT PAINTING


(16th-19th century)
 

 



FOUR CENTURIES OF INDIAN PAINTINQ

 



 

In 1657 Shah Jahan contracted a serious illness. His four sons immediately began to vie for control of the Mughal throne. Although Shah Jahan recovered, in 1658 his son Aurangzeb, who controlled the imperial armies in the Deccan and had routed his brothers, proclaimed himself emperor (r. 1658-1707). He imprisoned his father in the royal apartments of the Agra Red Fort. Shah Jahan's favorite son, Dara Shikoh, fled, but he was captured and executed in 1659.
One of Aurangzeb's justifications for assuming power had been his distaste for Dara Shikoh's heterodox religious beliefs and his own desire to reinforce Muslim orthodoxy in India. His fundamentalism was soon implemented in a series of ordinances intended to bring the predominantly Hindu population of India to heel. These included a prohibition against the building of new non-Muslim religious structures, the destruction of some recently built ones, and the reimposition of the jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims for their military protection by the faithful that had been abolished by Akbar one hundred years before. These ordinances applied mainly to lands directly under Mughal control, thus not (or not directly) the Rajasthani kingdoms. But they did affect areas that were extremely sacred to Hindus and important for pilgrimage, including Mathura and Banaras. Aurangzeb's puritanism also placed the arts in a precarious position: music was banned at the court and there was scant patronage of painting, since the depiction of living things is forbidden by orthodox Muslims. After a preliminary show of interest in his painting atelier (see below), Aurangzeb soon ignored it, and many artists, deprived of commissions, left to find new patronage.
 


Aurangzeb with his third Son, Sultan Azam
1658

 




 

 Natural attrition must also have played a part: many of the finest artists associated with the atelier had been trained in Akbar's time and by now were old men or deceased. Aurangzeb's attention was focused on trying to extend his power. He conducted a foray into Marwar in 1680 and in 1681 began a series of campaigns to subdue the kingdoms of the Deccan that lasted until his death in 1707.
The small Islamic kingdoms located on the great plateau of the Deccan in Central India had flourished since the fourteenth century and had developed independent cultural traditions. Although some of the smaller ones had become tributary states during the reigns of Akbar and Jahangir, the most important kingdoms, Golconda and Bijapur, remained independent until late in the Aurangzeb period. Their rich cultural traditions had roots in Persia and Turkey, and they had never abandoned the love of pattern and rich color of those court styles. Lavender and many hues of gold, used both as a background and for embellishment, are particularly favored in the opulent Dec-cani color schemes. A picture's individual elements and the patterns that adorn them are decorative, highly stylized, and sometimes unnaturally enlarged. The Mughals' worldly search for artistic realism was not of primary interest in the Deccan. Deccani artists sought instead to express a more inward journey, with mystic and fantastic overtones (see below).
 

 


Rider on a Nag
mid-17th century
 

 


The House of Bijapur
1675

 

 

The Rajasthani Renaissance

The dispersal of artists from Aurangzeb's court that began about 1660 coincided with a great artistic flowering in the Hindu courts of Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills. This was not simply a matter of late Mughal styles being brought to certain of the Rajasthani courts, such as those at Bikaner, Bun-di, and Kota. Rather, artists familiar with the Mughal idiom adapted their aesthetic vocabularies and repertoire of subject matter, as well as their artistic skills, to the needs of their new Hindu patrons. In the period after the accession of Aurangzeb, the Rajasthani ateliers mimicked to an unprecedented degree the compositions, coloration, drawing, and even imperial imagery found in Mughal works, but traditional themes continued to be illustrated as well.
Although in the first half of the seventeenth century royal portraits, hunts, and garden parties had occasionally been depicted by painters in Bundi and Kota, that earlier Rajasthani tradition was mainly concerned with the illumination of Hindu religious texts and treatises. From the 1660s on, however, maharajas began to appear in equestrian and group portraits and amid the hunts, garden parties, and court activities that had previously been the province of Mughal imperial images. Pictorial space became deeper and more naturalistic, and artists began to imitate the subtle colors, forms, and textures of transient things (see below). Paintings increased dramatically in size and continued to be produced on a large scale throughout the following century. For Hindu aristocrats to patronize this new style of painting signaled a major shift in their sensibilities and their assimilation, at least partially, of a new world view in which temporal matters were as valid a subject as mythical ones.
 

 


Ladies on a Terrace
1665
 

 

We do not know what prompted this cultural shift at this time. The Hindu courts had already been under Mughal hegemony for over a century and during that time had shown little interest in the content of Mughal painting. We can only speculate whether the change was sparked by the new availability of first-class artists and the repertoire of images they brought with them or whether it was, in some instances, a reaction to the cultural intolerance of Aurangzeb's policies. Whatever the reason, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, dress, etiquette, and gardens in the Mughal style had become fashionable at many of the Rajastham courts.
The Bikaner painting atelier had been heavily influenced by the art of Shahjahan's court during the period of Karan Singh (r. 1632—69), and the atelier's finest works show the high finish and naturalism of the imperial court style (see below).
 

 


Panchama Ragini
1640
 

 

Initially, traditional Hindu texts were illustrated, but Mughal subjects began to be adopted late in Karan Singh's reign (which was early in Aurangzcb's); this trend continued during a period of close contact between Aurangzeb and Karan Singh's youngest son, Anup Singh (r. 1674-98). As a general in the imperial army Anup Singh had spent many years away from Bikaner, particularly in Hyderabad in the Deccan, where he set up a court. Prolonged exposure to the Mughal culture prevalent at neighboring Golcon-da may have predisposed him to Mughal styles. Anup Singh's finest artist, Ruknuddin, had already been employed in the Bikaner atelier in the 1660s, and many of the other important artists who worked for the Bikaner court were relatives of his. Ruknuddin's art shows a thorough knowledge of Mughal pictorial prototypes and technique; his best paintings, although they lack the psychological depth of the outstanding early Mughal works, still rival the finest products of the imperial court, technically and as aesthetic accomplishments (see below). The interest they display in space, nuanced color, and the tactile quality of objects is comparable to that evident in Mughal painting and represents a more complete integration of the imperial aesthetic than the earlier, similarly influenced Bikaner style.
 

 


Kedar Ragini
1690

 

The extended presence of Rajasthani nobles in the Deccan, first as warriors and then as governors, led to cultural cross-fertilization between the two areas. The Bikaner maharajas continued to hold military posts for the Mughals in the Deccan during the first decades of the next century, and throughout this period artists accompanied them and w7ere inspired by local painting styles. Deccani artists also immigrated to kingdoms in Rajasthan, including Kota and Bikaner. Deccani influence on Bikaner paintings can be observed in the orchid like palette and the increased prominence of flamboyant decorative motifs. The qualities of Deccani and Bikaner painting are so thoroughly intermixed that it is sometimes difficult to ascribe a painting definitely to either school (see below).
 

 


Demons Fighting Over an Animal Limb
last quarter of the 17th century
 


 

During the same late-seventeenth-century period, an extraordinary renaissance occurred in the Rajasthani courts of Bundi and Kota. For both these courts, close political ties to the Mughal court dated from the early seventeenth century. The Kota maharajas were faithful employees of Aurangzeb and served him in the Deccan throughout the later part of the century. Kota had a tradition of royal portraiture that went back to the first quarter of the seventeenth century, and fragments of early hunting scenes are also known." The Bundi raja, Madhu Singh, was on the losing side during Aurangzeb's seizure of power and initially suffered the new emperor's ire, but ultimately he was pardoned. Just as at Bikaner, the ateliers of these Rajput states flourished and took new inspiration from Mughal art in the late seventeenth century, as is evident in the subjects chosen for depiction as well as the borrowing of motifs and compositions (see below).
 

 


Rao Jagat Singh I in his Garden
1670
 


Rao Raton of Bundi
1660

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