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Visions of Indian Art

Through these ashes, however, emerged the first shoots of Indo-Islamic art, tendrils that would later blossom into a harvest of great richness. The Muslims brought with them the technology of papermaking, and by the fourteenth century, many of the new sultanates that had sprung up in northern and central India had flourishing centers of manuscript illustration. The styles of some of these early works were provincial echoes of the great work then being produced by Persian master artists like Bihzad in Timurid Persia and Afghanistan.

Such was the style used in the Central Indian hill fortress of Mandu where illustrations were made to accompany the Ni’matnama, “The Book of Delights,” the royal recipe book of Sultan Ghiyath Shahi (1469–1500). The illustrations show his favorite recipes not just for food and drink but also for perfumes, betel chews, and aphrodisiacs. At the same time other sultanate manuscripts began to fuse imported Timurid styles with indigenous Indian techniques. You can see the beginnings of this in another Central Indian manuscript where the Persian epic, the Shahnama, is illustrated in a style that borrows many elements from the Jain manuscripts then still being painted in the temples and monasteries of Gujarat.

This process of fusion and syncretism was hugely accelerated by the arrival from Central Asia of the Mughal dynasty in India in 1560, and an extraordinary commission made by the third of the Mughal emperors, Akbar (1452–1605). He ordered his court artists to produce a series of large-scale cloth-panel illustrations, which would be held up as visual aids during the recitation of his favorite epic, the Hamzanama. This is a rollicking action-filled Persian miscellany of folk tales, legends, religious discourses, and entertaining fireside yarns similar in spirit to the yarns of The One Thousand and One Nights, which over time had come to gather around the epic story of the travels of the hero Hamza ibn Abdul-Muttalib, the father-in-law of the Prophet.

Before these illustrations were commissioned, the Mughal miniature painting atelier contained only two known artists—there may have been more. These were Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad—two of the first names of artists we know in the history of Indian art—whom Akbar’s father, the emperor Humayun, had lured to India from Persia. Since their arrival, they had between them produced a few entirely Persianate pictures in Agra. Akbar changed the nature of the Mughal atelier forever by commissioning no fewer than 1,400 large-scale panel illustrations to the Hamzanama—the largest single commission in Mughal history. The project forced the atelier to train more than one hundred Indian artists—many of them, it seems, Hindu and Jain painters from Gujarat—in the Persian style, as well as troops of poets, gilders, bookbinders, and calligraphers. The resulting volumes took more than fifteen years to produce and in the process gave birth to an independent Mughal miniature tradition. In these can be seen a wonderful combination of Persian, Central Asian, and Indian styles, and a revolutionary leap forward from all the work that preceded it.

While the Hamzanama paintings were relatively large images designed to be seen from a distance as a visual aid to the recitation of the epic, most of the images subsequently produced in Mughal workshops were small-scale rectangles of intensely painted manuscript, gemlike in their detail and color, and designed to be looked at in an album, passed from hand to hand. It is a private and intimate art, produced in the court atelier by a group of skilled artists that seems to have moved from fort to fort, camp to camp, along with the court and emperor. There are several images of the painters at work that show the setting from which the images came. “An ustad [master]” is “in complete control,” writes Goswamy, “as pupils ply their brushes under his stern eyes, workmen burnish sheets of paper, calligraphers [pore] over their texts, attendants stand about as if waiting for commands….”

The Mughal studios seem to have been busy places where order reigned: master artists laid down rules; the consciousness of hierarchies was in everyone’s minds; painters of different extractions, drawn sometimes from different parts of the country or outside, worked or at least sat together; commissions were handed down and scrupulously carried out.

Yet real stars of the atelier were by virtue of their talent distinguished figures at court and as such free agents. As Akbar’s biographer, Abu’l Fazl, wrote in the A’in-i Akbari (his record of the emperor’s court):

More than a hundred painters have become famous masters of the art, whilst the number of those who approach perfection, or those who are middling, is very large…. It would take too long to describe the excellence of each. My intention is “to pluck a flower from every meadow, an ear from every sheaf.”

Over the last thirty years, scholars have shown how master artists of the court could follow their own whims and the needs of their careers to move from court to court. Perhaps the most spectacularly mobile was the Persian painter Farrukh Husayn. In the early 1580s, he moved from the service of Persian Safavid Shah Khodabanda in Isfahan, where he was an established star of the court, to Kabul, where he worked for the emperor Akbar’s half-brother. By 1585 he was in Lahore where he was honored with the title Beg and a mention in the official biography of Akbar as one of the two greatest artists at court.

But this restless genius had still not found what he was looking for. By 1590, he was attached to the most esoteric court in India, that of Ibrahim Adil Shah II in Bijapur in south-central India (see below). Early in his reign this Muslim potentate gave up wearing jewels and adopted instead the rosary of the Hindu holy man. In his songs he used highly Sanskritized language to shower equal praise upon Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning; the Prophet Muhammad; and the Sufi saint Gesudaraz.

Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg
Farrukh Beg: Ibrahim Adil Shah II Hawking (detail), circa 1590–1595

Farrukh Beg, as he was now known, had started painting in a flat and purely linear Persian style. He then moved toward the more elaborate style of the Persian Timurid dynasty in Afghanistan, before adopting in middle age the more realistic modeling of the Mughal atelier. In Bijapur he found himself changing his style and the content of his paintings yet again, to produce suitably mystical, otherworldly, and indeed almost psychedelic images of the Goddess Sarasvati for this most heterodox of courts. Yet his travels were not over. Abandoning Bijapur and the radically surreal, perspective-free chromatic experiments he had indulged in there, he returned to Agra where he died in the service of Akbar’s son Jahangir, having again reverted to a more mainstream Mughal style.

The reigns of Jahangir and his son Shah Jahan—who commissioned the Taj Mahal in the mid-seventeenth century—took place during the artistic highpoint of the Mughal atelier, and with it the moment of greatest celebrity for the masters at court. Jahangir awarded his two master artists, the brilliant animal painter Mansur and his rival Abu’l Hasan, the titles Nadir al-Asr, “Wonder of the Age,” and Nadir al-Zaman, “Wonder of the Times.”

The violent seizure of the throne from Shah Jahan by his son, the austere and iconoclastic puritan Aurangzeb, in 1658, created a quite different type of mobility among the artists of the Mughal court as patronage ran out in the capital. As one of the contributors to Masters, Navina Haidar, shows in a brilliant essay, the artists of the court were sufficiently celebrated to be able to move where they wished: the painter Bhavanidas, for example, shifted in 1719 from Delhi to the Rajasthani court of Kishangarh, just beyond Jaipur.

In one of the most illuminating essays in the book, Goswamy shows how different were the systems of production of art in the courts of Rajasthan and the Punjab hills from those employed in the Mughal capital: “There seem to have been no ‘workshops,’” he writes,

in the sense of halls or buildings situated in the capital city where ustads sat presiding over all that happened…. [Instead] nearly everything there appears to have been made within families of painters: “family workshops,” so to speak, not necessarily located in the state capital or nearby, and not made up of artists of different extractions or backgrounds. Artists could be working in their family homes: a small town or a village, perhaps….

In the course of the eighteenth century, just as the Rajasthani and the Pahari ateliers were producing their greatest work in the north and west of India, in the east the British East India Company was transforming itself from a coastal trading organization into an aggressive colonial government, filling the power vacuum left by the implosion of the Mughal Empire. Yet initial contact between these two empires was surprisingly positive in Delhi: the first company “residents,” or ambassadors to the Mughal court, fell in love with Mughal culture and absorbed themselves in the life of the intellectual and artistic elite, wore Mughal dress, took Mughal wives, and became important patrons of Mughal painting, transforming the art of the capital in the process.

David Collection, Copenhagen
Four Tribal Warriors, from the Fraser Album, circa 1815–1816; painting by a member of the circle of Ghulam Ali Khan

The best works produced under Company patronage—notably the Fraser Album—are unparalleled in Indian art. They also show a sympathy with the Mughal world quite at odds with stereotypes of colonial philistinism and insensitivity. The work produced by Mughal painters for British patrons is sometimes classified as “Company Painting,” but in the Mughal capital of Delhi it is impossible to make any meaningful distinction between “Company” and “Mughal” work as the same family of artists—notably the great Ghulam Ali Khan and his nephew Mazar Ali Khan—were working in very similar styles for Indian, English, and mixed-race Anglo-Indian patrons.

This late Mughal renaissance was destroyed forever in the bloodletting of the Great Uprising of 1857—the largest anticolonial revolt against any European empire anywhere in the world in the entire course of the nineteenth century. Its violent suppression by the East India Company was a pivotal moment in the history of British imperialism in India. It marked the end of both the company and the Mughal dynasty, the two principal forces that shaped Indian history over the previous three hundred years, and replaced both with direct imperial rule by the British government. But miniature painting outlived for a while the destruction of the Mughal court, continuing on in the princely courts of Rajasthan and a few other centers of culture, to die a slow and lingering death at the hands not of sepoys or vengeful British grenadiers, but of photographers.

Photography was introduced to the subcontinent in the early 1840s and by 1870 had totally altered the way the court painters went about their work. Included in the exhibition and its catalog are some portraits of the Maharana of Udaipur, strongly influenced by photographs, and some other work where black-and-white photographs have been hand-painted by miniature artists to make them more closely resemble miniatures.

The English artist Val Prinsep arrived in Delhi in 1877 to collect material for a picture the government of India wished to present to Queen Victoria as the subcontinent’s new empress. Soon after his arrival, Prinsep received a visit from the artists of Delhi, who he discovered now worked entirely “from photographs, and never by any chance from nature.” The same marvelous attention to detail is still on show—“their manual dexterity is most surprising”—as is the old fondness for bright, even lurid colors. But this was a last stand. By the end of the century many had given up and either become photographers themselves, or else retreated into producing crude reproductions of earlier Mughal work for the tourist trade. Miniature painting as a tradition was now dying.

When “Wonder of the Age” opened in New York in 2011, among other criticisms, some art historians complained about attributions: that manuscripts that were clearly the work of several hands were attributed to a single anonymous master to fit into the format of the show. For most of us, however, “Wonder of the Age” was simply the greatest show of Indian art ever mounted—room after room of spectacular masterpieces arranged chronologically by master artists, many of whose names had been rescued only recently from obscurity thanks to the scholarly detective work of Professors Goswamy, Fischer, and Beach and their international army of colleagues.

The two volumes published alongside the show, Masters of Indian Painting, have a similar stature. A summation of all the recent scholarship on the subject, with several hundred beautifully written scholarly essays and lavish illustrations, this enormous project, the fruit of a lifetime of detailed study, is itself a dazzling masterpiece of art-historical scholarship, and is likely to change forever the writing of Indian art history.

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