An important painting surviving almost intact from 1618 and now in the Smithsonian shows two regal personages in embrace standing atop a sheep and a lion respectively, who in turn rest blissfully on a globe. Inscriptions reveal the former to be Shah Abbas, the emperor of Persia during the period in question. The regent poised on the wild beast tamed is Jahangir, the fourth great emperor in the Mughal lineage and also the patron who commissioned this artwork.
Now, this is a strange painting because it is well known in history that these two personalities never met in actuality. Thus, this magnificent piece of Mughal art is fanciful to say the least. Can such a whimsical, ahistorical visualization act as a source of historical information? Consider the following salient features characterizing it:
1). The globe in the picture is much accurately rendered signifying that modern scientific ideas had already reached the imperial Mughal court.
2). Both kings are depicted in the traditional costumes of their respective nations. Indeed, in 1613 Jahangir had sent an embassy to Shah Abbas that had a renowned portraitist named Bishndas accompanying it. Inscriptions say that this figure of the Shah was based upon portraits made by Bishndas. Thus, the two personalities have been authentically perceived in this apparently fictional composition.
3). Jahangir has been rendered larger in stature and is shown embracing the Persian emperor in an almost condescending manner. In truth, Shah Abbas was a powerful opponent and a contestant for the city of Qandahar which guarded the Mughals' northwestern frontier and was of much strategic importance. In fact, the Persians took Qandahar in 1622, when Jahangir was too preoccupied with the rebellion of his own son Shahjahan to stop them. Unlike his illustrious father Akbar who had to fight each and every inch of his way to consolidate and expand the Mughal Empire, Jahangir inherited a comfortable and secure existence which was both shaped and influenced by his passive and comfort-loving nature and an excessive fondness for both opium and wine. Hence, unable and unwilling to take on his rival militarily, the great Mughal emperor Jahangir instead had a fantasy where the submissive king of Persia paid homage to the formers' own towering presence. Very aptly, the artwork is entitled 'Jahangir's Dream.' What greater insight can there be to the inner workings of an emperor's mind?
4). While the Persian king stands on a meek looking sheep, Jahangir has been perceived as a mighty presence, standing over a much larger lion. Significantly, the lion has nudged the sheep almost into the Mediterranean, another instance of Jahangir's wishful thinking, or was it some latent Mughal ambition flowing in his veins?
5). Nevertheless, lest the Shah take offence at the unfair treatment meted out to him (even in a dream), Jahangir has very magnanimously allowed the former to share the refulgent halo in the background, this being another pointer to his pacifist nature. This composite halo is formed of both the sun and the moon and is upheld by angels (an assertion of European influence).
Evidently this painting, borne out of the rich tradition of Mughal art, has much to say over and above what lies at its surface.
The Fundamental Question Confronting Arts
The art of painting is often made to face a question: Is it an instrument that calibrates past, a picture, a camera vision of something that has been once in existence, exists currently or is likely to come into existence, a situation, event or occurrence that has once taken place, the likeness of a person who has once lived, or his class or society that has once prevailed and so on? The questions, as to whether art is different from history or is only one of its alternative sources, and, whether an Indian miniature is different in this regard from other classes of paintings or not, haunt the minds of art critics and as often the conference halls of academic institutions.
Such questions are naturally sequential, for our mind is always keen to discover in art, whatever its genre, the world that it realizes through its senses or by its intellect and other faculties. It craves to see in a 'created thing', such as art is, its own 'realities', what it sees, feels, experiences or knows, or has ever felt, experienced and known, a world that it has seen beyond this 'created version'. In general perception, visual arts are seen as only visually re-presenting 'things'. Hence, this curiosity in regard to visual arts, the curiosity to see the 're-presented' in them, is one of the fundamental impulses, which conditions the mind viewing a work of art. It desires to see the 'realistic face' of the 'created thing', though at the same time delights nonetheless when it perceives imagination innovating further dimensions of this 'reality', or creating of its own something that has an absolutely different face. Categorically, this leads the appreciating eye to class a work of art, either as 'realistic' or as 'conceptualized, or 'imagined', a sheer product of artist's fancy.
An Indian Miniature: Whether Realistic or Imagined?
As regards an Indian miniature, it may be anything but hardly ever, except sometimes, as in its late deteriorating phase, a product of sheer artistic fancy. While seeking to classify miniature paintings, let two things be borne in mind. The miniature art was by and large a commissioned thing requiring the artist to paint the 'desired', something that delighted his patron or served any of his needs, the spiritual, aesthetic or sensuous. It is quite obvious that a patron was not expected to pay for artist's own fancy, whims or sycophancy. The miniature art was thus conditioned by patron's preferences. Its theme, hence, comprised broadly of something, some reality, material or mental, an idea or ideal, which its patron would have liked to see translated into lines and colors. Miniaturist's fancy had obviously little role. At the most, it could be used to delete or minimize, or sophisticate, the crudeness or to add to the 'real', when the 'real' itself was crude or ugly, some degree of aesthetic refinement, as his patron would not have liked to see his 'reality' bearing a crude face. Hence, the miniature art had but only little room for fancy or imagination. Even when the miniaturist was required to paint his patron's fancy, he was often realistic as the master's fancy was servant's reality.
Secondly, when the miniaturist appeared on the scene, India had already developed a massive tradition of art, architecture and sculpture along with associated aesthetics and formative principles. She had great literature, well sustained theology, versatile mythology, tradition of unparalleled heroism, thought and learning, that is, she had an all round enormously great past. Obviously, the miniaturist, as well as his patron, was bound to inherit not only several of its stylistic features but also the major bulk of themes from it. It was often a truth of past, or a truth of mythology, but in it he always perceived his 'real', that is, the truth of the tradition was miniaturist's 'reality' by perception, and this, despite that it was materially non-existent, or may be classed as 'unreal', was treated with utmost realism and with unique thrust, and it is in this quality that an Indian miniature is par excellence. In an Indian miniature the Shiva family, a mythical entity, has a more realistic face than has the family of a human born rustic living in a remote hamlet.
Thus, more often, an Indian miniature is a picture but hardly ever a camera vision of things. It always has an edge over what the lens of a camera captures. It calibrates past but not like a record keeper. A miniature is realistic but not by the reality of the thing that it depicts but by its own perception of it. It is in treating a theme that an Indian miniature has its realism. Different from a creation of fancy or even imagination, it inclines to record the 'real', although unlike histories, or social sciences, which record facts or the analytical body of such facts, both keeping changing. A miniature discovers, on the contrary, their realism, the real face of these facts, something, which does not change. A miniature is, thus, both imaginative and realistic, but it is not imaginative in the sense in which are some of the abstract or symbolic art modes that seek to transform a materially 'existent' into an abstract symbol. Its realism is also not that of a mechanical copier reproducing a thing verbatim. The truth of an Indian miniature stands midway, somewhere in between the 'real' and the 'unreal', or imagined, and it is in this dilemma that it discovers its uniqueness. The miniaturist represents the 'real' as he has 'realised' it, a thing not as it has been but as it has been perceived, that is, a reality re-cast, or re-modeled first by perception and then by art treatment.
A Vast Range and Dimensional Diversity of Indian Miniature Art
The observations made in the foregoing part are, however, only broad based. Indian miniature art had a massive past of about a millennium across many turbulent epochs of political and social history. Cultural and religious shifts were nonetheless significant. These were as much the concerns of art, especially the art of miniature painting, which always looked to politics and society for patronage and to religion and culture for its themes and preferences. They defined various phases of its growth and development as well of its deterioration and decadence. Obviously, what has been said before defines only the general inclination that tends to be realistic, but assessing the 999 A.D. Buddhist text Prajnaparmita and Nimatnama (a book of recipes), or Baburnama illustrations and rendition depicting Krishna stealing butter using same parameters might hardly do justice to either of them.
16 Illustrated Manuscript of the Buddhist text
Prajnaparmita (999 A.D.)
Theme, kind of patronage, cultural conditions, religious bindings and the over-all ethos of an era often determined the fact-fiction ratio, thrust and preferences, role of imagination and adherence to realism, recourse to myths, legends, tradition and history and an over-all character of art. Prajnaparmita, being a sacred book, was bound to have a tale-tell character and moral thrust;
Nimatnama, a recipe book, was required by its theme to be informative;
Baburnama, the memoirs of Mughal emperor Babur, had to be factual and historical in its approach;
and, the depiction of Krishna stealing butter could only be fanciful and fictional.
Indian mythology had illustrative thrust while Islam illuminative. The great Mughal emperor Akbar preferred serialization of texts while his grandson Shahjahan random detached themes. The early Mewar (seat of Rajputs) rulers preferred religious and classical themes whereas their descendants loved to see in art harem life, hunting and pursuits of luxuries. Hence, for a fuller appreciation of the art of Indian miniature painting it is required that each phase of its growth and each of its dimensions is dealt with singly and in appropriate details. Considering its very limited scope this article proposes to survey here onward Mughal miniatures for exploring how far they might serve as an alternative source of history.
Mughal Miniatures as an Alternative Source of History
Painters and Calligraphers Working in the Royal Atelier (An Illustration from the Akhlaq-i-Nasiri of Nasir ud-Din Tusi), circa 1590 - 1595 (Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection).
Mughal art in India is divided broadly into four phases, three of these phases being those of the proper Mughal art, that is, the art created at the official atelier of Mughal court by its court artists under direction and supervision of the Mughal emperors themselves, the fourth phase being that of the Subai (provincial) Mughal art. The reigns of three of the great Mughals, Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan, define practically the first three phases of Mughal art. Akbar initiated the art of painting at Mughal court by setting up, or expanding a prior royal atelier and employing in it over a hundred best skilled painters.
Illustrating classics of both Indian and Persian origins and Hindu and Islamic traditions was the prime thrust of Akbar's art. Jahangir added to it nature study, art of portrayal, especially the female portraits and the stylistic sophistication. Shahjahan loved renditions of individualized things. Lavish embellishment, courtly grandeur and a little over-sophistication marked the art of his era.
The Subai Mughal art defines the deteriorating phase of both, Mughal art style and Mughal power. After the Mughal power weakened, Mughals' Subai heads proclaimed independence. They, however, continued with Mughalia life-style including Mughals' sophistication and their art style of miniature painting. The taste was, however, replaced by mannerism, sophistication by too much of ornamentation and the real spirit by crude sensuousness. Thus, different from the proper Mughal art style the Subai, or Provincial Mughal art is Mughal only in its poor stylistic adherence.
Each of these phases apparently had its own thrust, preferences and options, themes and, to some extent, stylistic features. To Akbar, a miniature was a book inscribed in lines and colors. To Jahangir, a painting manifested the aestheticism inherent in a man. To Shahjahan, it was a mirror palace and there he was in every glass-piece. To the provincial Nawabs, a painting was as sensuous a thing as was a nautch-girl.
However, despite such points of departure, there are threads that bind, at least the three phases of the proper Mughal art, into a uniform art style, the more important of them all being its realistic approach to the depicted theme, or the realism. As such, the Mughal art is the mirror wherein one discovers not so much the Mughal world as the world of Mughal days, the world of nature, the world of commercial activities, the world of social courtesies, merriment, pastime, warfare and what not.
Written histories do not reveal the colors of a bird's feathers but a Mughal miniature does. It reveals not only Babur's intrinsic strength but also the sportive frisking of squirrels and the romance of a peacock couple.
Chroniclers record that Babur, while on his way to Kabul to suppress a mutiny there, spent with his nobles and animals a freezing winter night in forest under open sky.
The Battle of Panipat (Illustration to the Baburnama), circa 1598
(National Museum, New Delhi).
The miniaturist depicts the frozen bodies of Babur and his companions wrapped in woolens, carefully protected horses, fearful face of the sky, the darkness of night with screaming jackals piercing it ominously, Babur's confidence and the colors of burning hearth. A folio depicting the battle of Panipat in Baburnama records more minutely each and every detail of the action - Babur's strategy of dividing his forces into different sections and launching in simultaneity the offensive from all directions baffling the larger army of Ibrahim Lodi, use of a large range of canons besides the conventional arms like bows and arrows, swords, spears, lances and the kind of armor used by Babur and his soldiers, Babur's versatile leadership, his zeal, the hilly terrain and so on.
The Mughal Art before Akbar
Prince Akbar Hunting a Nilgae, circa 1555 - 1560 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).
Practically, the art of Mughal miniature painting begins with Akbar, who reigned from 1556-1605. However, two miniatures, the Portrait of a Young Scholar (1549-1556) and Prince Akbar Hunting a Nilgae (1555-1560), in characteristic Persian style, or at least in a style much different from the subsequent style of Akbar's court, suggest the existence of some kind of atelier, or art activity prevailing at the court of Akbar's father Humayun as well.
Portrait of a Scholar by artist Mir Sayyid Ali, circa 1549 - 1556 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bequest of Edwin Binney III).
The treatment is the same realistic. The identity of the scholar is lost, yet the portrait reveals the image of the man as it was in the concurrent society and the character of scripture under Islamic norms prevalent in Persia.
Even a scholar was required to carry a dagger and not only the scripture but also its stand had to be illuminated and well adorned. If not the history of the 'individual', the painting reveals at least some aspect of his society and its art perception.
The Art of Akbar's Era
Whatever the stylistic changes, the art of Akbar's era continues this spirit of 'being realistic' in its approach. Akbar ruled for almost five decades. He was near fourteen, when he ascended the throne of Mughal Empire. In almost no time he began gearing up everything, even the atelier at Mughal court, in whatever shape it was. Much before 1560, that is, within four years of his ascendance, his artists were at work. Thus, art had at Akbar's court a tenure of some forty-five long years. Akbar was illiterate and wished to know a book not by its linguistics but by the pictorial representation of its theme. Thus for him, a painting was a book. He hence preferred illustrative painting serializing a theme, whatever its kind, a book of tales, legends, history, religion, theology, astrology and so on. He did not approve fanciful renditions, or even much of random depictions. He could accept legends, romances, ghost tales, even superstitions but only when they reached his atelier through an authentic channel, literary, traditional or even folk. Obviously, his artist had to adhere to the fact, no matter even if it was a fact born of fiction, but he could not recourse to his own fiction, even when such fiction brought the fact round-about. Thus, Akbar's art is always the authentic statement of a theme.
It should not, however, be mistaken to mean that artists of Akbar's court were re-producing histories or factual data of an event or a subject matter in contemplation. Authenticity confined to an authentic perception of the painted thing and extended to many more dimensions, which histories-like factual writings would ignore. Babur's four year tenure, or rather sojourn in India was spent almost on horse-back fighting a recurrent series of battles. His autobiography Baburnama accounts for most of them. But when translated into lines and colors at his grandson Akbar's atelier, battles, warfare, massacres, violence, polity occupy only some small space of its canvas. On the contrary, society, customs, courtesies, feasting, progress of a work undertaken and inspection of construction sites, visits to faqirs, holy places, houses of relatives, meetings, conversations, consultations and moments of leisure are in greater focus.
A Market Scene at Kand-E-Badam, Weighing and Transport of Almonds by artist Sur Das (Illustration to the Baburnama), circa 1598 (National Museum, New Delhi).
One knows from its folios how people managed to cross a river in floods, how looked the face of nature, its birds, animals and well laid gardens, how people traded and weighed their goods, how helpless were even holy ones like Dervishes before a cyclone-like natural calamity, how pitiably died horses, camels and other animals when an epidemic broke, how treaties were made and peace established and so on.
The early works of Akbar's atelier, such as Hamzanama, the story of Amir Hamza, Tutinama, the tales of a parrot, Duval Rani Khizr Khan, the Persian romance of Duval Rani and Khizr Khan, Gulstan, the Rose-garden of Sadi, Anvar-i-Suhayli, and T'arikh-Alfi, or the history of a thousand year, are stylistically different from its later works. But, as regards their perception they show an alike amazing uniformity. T'arikh-Alfi is a book of history and Shahnama a poetically narrated history. Their painted folios obviously resort to significant historical events, which also included matters related to Islam, as Islam was a new upcoming sect dominating the entire Arab world including Persia. Timurnama, Chingiznama, Baburnama and Akbarnama are histories composed as biographies and autobiographies. These too are factual in their treatment and are authentic sources to know the concurrent epochs of past.
Celebrated Dancers from Mandu Perform Before Akbar (Illustration to the Akbarnama), circa 1590 - 1605.
Observe the costume of the dancers, out of tune with the rest of the court.
What is more significant is the fact that the emphasis of their illustrated version is not so much on depicting political or court related matters as on surveying the over-all contemporary scenario, whatever its direction. In them, one finds what were people's chosen colors for dresses and what their dressing models and modalities. Historical data reports Mughal victory over Mandu, the capital of Malwa, and presenting to emperor Akbar the war booty, including some dancers, but it is only the artist of Akbar's court who sees and records that the dancing girls wore European costume and were perhaps of European origin. It shows that much before Mughals, Indian rulers had multifarious transactions with European world.
The illustrations based on these texts, thus, enable to know and apprehend history but more significant is that through them one knows past and its many avenues better than he knows from conventionally written histories. Thus, these illustrated works of Akbar's era are actually the additional sources of history as in them one discovers more than what the conventionalized factual histories contain.
Jahangir's Art (1605 - 1627)
Jahangir Visiting the Ascetic Jadrup by artist Govardhan, circa 1616 - 1620
(Musee Guimet, Paris)
Jahangir's love for the art of painting was no less, and for realism it was more. Under him, Akbar's energetic naturalism was refined into a calmer and intensely realistic style capable of revealing not only the outer appearance but also its unique inner spirit. Actually, as a rebel prince, he set up his independent studio at Allahabad much before he ascended the Mughal throne under the Persian painters Aqa Riza and his son Abu Hasan. He had equal appreciation for both, the simple version of his father's court art and the precise, flat and highly decorative style of Persian art, which Aqa Riza and his son practiced. After he ascended as the Emperor of Hindustan, he inspired his artists to develop their own individual styles, traits and talent and each to have a specialized area, Abu Hasan the court scenes and official portraits, Mansur nature study and history, Daulat all kinds of portraits and so on. Akbar's large volumes produced collectively weren't his choice. He favored elegant, small works with fewer illustrations worked singly by an artist. There was a shift in choice of themes also. Pleasures and pastimes of court life, portraits, studies of birds, animals and flowers, scenes derived from reproductions of European art, studies of holy men and so on were now the more favored subjects for painters.
This suggests that Jahangir used art as both, as a thing of aesthetic beauty delighting the senses and heart, and as a record of those days, something that stored a thing or a moment for the concurrent human intellect as well for future. Whenever Jahangir was on outing for a pastime, hunting, or whatever, a team of his skilled artists accompanied him. A bird with the beauty of its feathers, or by its sportive frisking, or an unusual object, an animal, flower or anything, would catch his attention. He had no camera to click this phenomenon, a reality so beautiful, alluring, rare and strange. He, however, had his talented artists and one, or more, would arrest it on his canvas for their master. It seems, Jahangir was conscious of the fact that over a period of time many of the creatures and things would perish and, unless their likeliness was recorded in all exactness, posterity would have no idea of this erstwhile beautiful world. Jahangir's art, thus, presents the most authentic, and as much beautiful, natural history and to scholars studying birds and animals it is yet the most reliable data of the animal world of those days.
Birds: Loriquet (Coryllis vernalis), Horned Pheasant (Tragopan melanocephalus), Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), Ducks, and Partridges (Illustration to the Baburnama), circa 1620 - 1625 (Institute of Oriental Studies. St. Petersburg).
In fact, Jahangir's most valuable contribution to the knowledge of zoology was a portrait of the Mauritian bird, the dodo (Raphus cucullatus). An important link in the evolution of ducks, this flightless, primitive bird had become extinct by the end of the seventeenth century, "thanks to the active gastronomic interest taken in it by visiting European soldiers." Modern scholars wishing to know its features had to depend for long on a not very accurate drawing by the Flemish artist Ronald Savery, made at Amsterdam between 1626 and 1628, while a Mughal depiction (attributed to the great artist Mansur) lay in oblivion. Dr. A. Ivanov of St Petersburg (Leningrad) discovered it in the collection of the Institute of Oriental studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His paper created a sensation at the XII International Ornithological Congress at Helsinki in 1958; for this painting was found to be the most correct representation of the dodo. It was correctly made from a live specimen which seems to have been presented to Jahangir by a foreign visitor. Professor Erwin Stresemann has dated this miniature to the last years of the emperor's life when ill-health had stopped his pen, and thus deprived the world of an eyewitness account of an exceedingly curious bird by one of the most interesting figures in Indian history and a naturalist par excellence.
Portrait of Nurjahan circa 1740 - 1750, (National Museum, New Delhi).
Human portraits define another aspect of Jahangir's quest for record, this time to record the likeness of human world. Islam did not approve, or even his father Akbar did not favor portrayal, but for Jahangir it was no more a prohibited area, as without it the likeness of many, so distinguished and great, would be lost. He was mad for the exceptional beauty of his queen Nurjahan. But, was this 'Nur' of 'Jahan', 'the light of the world' to be confined to a harem?
He had exceptional regard for a 'sufi', a saint, or divine, and paid visit to his seat. But, had such 'sufi to remain confined to his hut ? Jahangir had a big 'no'. He allowed Nurjahan to be portrayed and brought 'sufis', saints and divines, of course in the form of their portraits, to the walls of the chambers of household. One may not identify the portrayed figures today but at one point of time they existed and were before the eyes of the painter. Jahangir favored his artists inscribed their names on their works. How could a highly sensitive man, as was Jahangir, think that the names of such wonderful artists were not known to the posterity?
Jahangir Standing on a Globe Shooting Poverty by artist Abu'l Hasan, circa 1625 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Two things, symbolism and art-fiction, which immensely characterize Jahangir's art, however, appear to be contrary to his quest for recording the 'real'. But it actually does not. He wished poverty was eradicated, or that he could end his sworn enemy Malik Ambar, or that, as he was the emperor of the world, the Shah of Persia came to him to pay his homage, or his sense of great justice.
These were the intrinsic 'realities' of Jahangir's personality and thus the facts of history. His artists could realize them visually but only with the aid of symbols and art-fiction - Jahangir shooting the effigy of poverty or that of Malik Ambar, or embracing Shah of Persia, or Jahangir painted with a balance, or standing upon the globe. Thus, in Jahangir's art the historical perspective is not lost even in symbolic and fictional representation of things.
Art of Painting under Shahjahan (1628 - 1658)
Prince Khurram (Later emperor Shahjahan) by artist Abu'l Hasan,
circa 1616 - 1617.
The Inscription has Shahjahan asserting that this portrait represents his likeness in perfect exactness.
Instead of the art of painting, architecture was Shahjahan's fascination. But, he continued with the court atelier and Mughals' cult of realism. Well-embellished portraits with exact likeness of the portrayed figures were more favored. On one of his portraits Shahjahan not only made his signatures but also put a remark acclaiming that the portrait represented his likeness in perfect exactness.
The emphasis was now on court scenes, scenes of outing, portrayal including female portraits and other personalized things and occasions but the approach was the same 'realistic'. One does not find in the art of Shahjahan a battle fought but a lot about the lavish life style, how people lived, loved and enjoyed life. This is well to be expected since Shahjahan inherited the largest accumulated wealth ever in the Mughal lineage, and no emperor before or after him ever had bestowed upon him a richer legacy.
In a nutshell, Mughal art better reveals the world of Mughal days than do written histories or literary annals.
References and Further Reading
- Beach, Milo Cleveland. Mughal and Rajput Painting (The New Cambridge History of India): Cambridge, 1992.
- Cooper, David (ed). A Companion to Aesthetics (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy): Massachusetts, 1997.
- Daljeet, Dr. Mughal and Deccani Paintings (From the Collection of the National Museum): New Delhi, 1999.
- Losty, Jeremiah P. The Art of the Book in India: London, 1982.
- Mansingh, Surjit. Historical Dictionary of India: New Delhi, 2000.
- Okada, Amina. Imperial Mughal Painters: Paris.
- Randhawa, M.S. Paintings of the Babur Nama: New Delhi, 1983.
- Sen, Geeti. Paintings from the Akbar Nama: Varanasi, 1984.
- Thackston, Wheeler M (Tr. and ed). The Jahangirnama (Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India): New York, 1999.
- Verma, Som Prakash (ed). Flora and Fauna in Mughal Art: Mumbai, 1999.
- Welch, Stuart Cary. Imperial Mughal Painting: New York, 1978.
- Ziad, Zeenut. The Magnificent Mughals: Karachi, 2002.