“The wealth of art treasures the Mughals left behind is a lasting testament to the splendour of their culture. Among the most notable vestiges of their art are the lush miniature paintings of Mughal imperial life,” writes Andrew Topsfield, in his book Paintings from Mughal India.
Topsfield is a senior custodian at the Department of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and member of its Oriental Institute.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Mughal emperors presided over a flourishing cultural renaissance, and the art of this period vividly depicts the splendour of the empire. Mughal paintings have been studied, preserved and made accessible to the public because of their enormous value as an educational resource.
‘Masterstrokes by the Mughal era artists’, a collection of miniature paintings at the National Museum’s manuscript gallery in Karachi is a testimony to artistic precision and accuracy. The museum’s treasure of manuscripts and paintings is so huge that it is hard to display all of it in one go. Out of that trove, only 66 manuscripts and 12 miniature paintings are on display.
The Mughal Empire may be long gone, but the miniature paintings of that era provide a true record of the social and cultural life of the time, as the manuscripts at Karachi’s National Museum show
Many, not more than a few square inches, Mughal miniatures were mostly used to illustrate illuminated manuscripts and art books, using gold, silver and bright colours prepared from semi-precious stones such as coral, ruby, cinnabar, garnet and lapis-lazuli.
The miniatures depict powerful drama, detailed incidents and majestic events of the emperors’ lives, while the emperors maintain formal and stiff profiles that give them the bearing of someone standing apart from the world.
Keen on nature’s elements, the artists remarkably combined the sky, leaves, flowers, river and forest scenes with the horizon. The frames around the paintings were designed with intricate floral and leafy motifs.
We can read volumes about the great emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir, but his 18th century miniature provides a specific insight into his character as he sits reciting the Holy Quran in an ornate boat. His courtiers stand in attendance and oarsmen row, while a vigilant infantry, a cavalry of horses, camels and war elephants outside the thick-walled fort, against the blue sky and river, provide an elaborate backdrop to this magnum opus by an unknown artist.
A scholar on South Asian art, Roda Ahluwalia’s recent book Reflections on Mughal Art and Culture has enhanced our understanding of Mughal art. As per her research, Mughals borrowed art from the Ottomans and Persians since the mid-16th century, when the Mughal empire was founded by emperor Babur. Mughals also absorbed Indian elements enthusiastically in their Turko-Mongol Persianate paintings.
At some points, the compositions appear to be balanced with the photography technique of the ‘rule of thirds’ and the ‘rule of space’, and look almost lifelike. The artists had a deep sensitivity of shades and curves to animate their imagery. This can be seen in the 19th century painting of Emperor Jahangir, where precise counts of evenly scattered gold zari motifs decorate the emperor’s robes. The floral motif used is similar to modern day Banarasi motifs.
This design is depicted in other portraiture too. Interestingly, Jahangir’s ruling period (1605-1627) is inscribed in Hindi on this painting. It is obvious that Jahangir cannot define his own rule in a painting of a later period and did not commission the work. Although Hindi was practised by Akbar’s court adviser Birbal, it is assumed that Hindi script could have been used by a previous curator as an identification mark.
Mughal miniature paintings tell a story. These were inlaid between the texts in the books as illustrations. Sometimes, these paintings were used in Moraqqa or albums containing Islamic miniature paintings and calligraphy. These paintings, most of which are court art, may have been the product of many hands. The Mughals used to commission work to court artists who designed the composition and selected colours, while trainee artists accomplished the painstaking work using fine brushes.
The 18th century full-length portrait of a poised and self-assured young woman holding a flower in her right hand suggests how important it was for the Mughals to depict women’s authority in the royal court. Similarly, depicting wine scenes in courts and picnic times reflect the culture of the age in the Mughal era. Although drinking wine was prohibited by Islam, this culture spread so much that it became an integral part of the Mughal court. Paintings of princes and youth were depicted with wine cups.
Here we have two such paintings. The 16th century painting shows a youth holding a wine jug and a cup while, in the 17th century painting, a prince is sitting outdoors, holding out a wine cup as his attendants watch him humbly.
According to a 1994 research published in the Quarterly Review of Historical Studies Volume 34, during the Mughal rule, not only art but trade was also at its zenith in India. The Mughal rulers used the light and delicate Dhaka muslin as a fabric of their choice, a product of industrial excellence. A painting dated 1803-1829 CE shows Nawab Sikandar Jah Bahadur Asif Jah-III, (Nizam of Hyderabad, India, who ruled from 1803-1829) wearing a white diaphanous jaama made of the priciest muslin of that period.
The Mughals may have lost the throne but their legacy lives on. Their aesthetic sensibilities and refined taste in art and culture is strong in the Subcontinent even today.
The writer is an independent journalist who can be reached at email@example.com.
She tweets @tasneemshazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 22nd, 2022