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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Brushing Up on Moghul Art: The Development of Miniature Painting under Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir

On my last trip to India, I did not get to see the Ajanta cave paintings, which for many historians represent the birth place of Indian painting dating back to about 200 BCE. Instead, I spent a lot of time researching and experiencing a later development, specifically, Moghul miniature painting, which was actively promoted in India under the patronage of Akbar (1556-1605), the third Moghul Emperor.  Upon consolidating his power in India, Akbar invited numerous artists, philosophers, writers, poets, painters and calligraphers to live in the city he built in Fatehpur Sikri. There, he established an atelier where over a hundred painters were employed to work under the supervision of two Persian master-artists, Abdus Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali.[i] These two masters were released from one of the most specialized studios in Tabriz upon the invitation of the second Moghul emperor of India and Akbar’s father, Humayun.[1] The superb interaction between the practitioners of the Persian Safavi style, the Hindu and Jain painters from Gujarat, Gwalior and Kashmir gave birth to the unique Moghul School of miniature painting. For this reason and because I so enjoy tracing ancient routes of contact between nations, I became interested in this school of art.

The earliest known example of the combination of Hindu and Jain elements with the Tabrizi Safavid style is the Tutinama (1565), however, this collection did not reflect a blending of these schools, which eventually developed into the unique Moghul school of miniature painting. According to art historians, it was the Akbar-commissioned Hamzanama that heralded the arrival of a distinctively Moghul style, thus “combining Persian compositions and figures with the dark, jungly landscapes of the painting of pre-Islamic India.”[3] The Hindu artists contributed works that came from a three dimensional sculptural artistic environment and did not have any reason to reject European realism. On the other hand, Persian painting of that period was descriptive but not naturalistic; for instance, space and size were manipulated to tell stories without utilizing European methods, like shadow work and formal perspective. However, as a result of the presence of Jesuit missionaries in India, European art came into circulation and in fact, the Moghuls became active collectors of these works.  It would be foolish to deny Europe’s influence on the Indian art scene and of the impact of Albrecht Durer and his circle on the workings of perspective. As a result, one can see the ways in which Moghul miniature artists incorporated naturalistic depictions of vegetation, trees and figures like the Europeans. 
A Sufi sage, after the European personification of melancholia, Dolor by Farrukh Beg dated 1615 and housed at Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar
Dolor, by Raphael Sadeler I, after a drawing by Maarten de Vos

Akbar, Religion and Figurative Representations

When it came to figural art, there were Muslims who disapproved of realistic representations of the natural world but Akbar was not one of them. In a private conversation about painting, he remarked to Abu’l-Fazl:

There are many that hate painting, but such men I dislike. It appears to me as if a painter had a quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the giver of life, and will then be increased in knowledge. [4]

Akbar’s cosmopolitan and liberal thinking benefited from men of genius with whom he consulted. Men like Abul-Fazl (historian), Birbal (poet/singer), Faizi (poet), Shaikh Mubarak (sufi), Tansen (Musician), Raja Man Singh (warrior), Raja Todar Mal (land revenue expert), Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana (astrologer/scholar) and Hamim Humam (educator). Akbar had a deep interest in religion and by consulting with these nine Navaratnas (gems), he came to see that the truth of all religions is the same and they all speak to the same truth. Abul-Fazl for instance did not regard the Hindus as unbelievers for what others called idolatry. He realized that they believed in the Supreme Being, and that “[t]he images were merely aids to fix the mind and keep the thoughts from wandering.”[5] Those advisors played an important role in influencing Akbar’s policies, two of which are of interest to me. First, Akbar ordered the translation and illustration of Hindu texts and epics from Sanskrit to Persian.  Second, in 1581,  a decade after he eliminated the jizya a traditional tax on non-Muslim subjects, he promulgated the Din-i-Ilahi or Tauhid-i-illahi; a national religion that reconciled many religious differences into one set of truths..

Painting and the telling of history

This history is much more complicated and Akbar’s intentions cannot be fully discerned. Some view his translations of the Mahabharata with suspicion[6] but if the purpose was to create inter-religious dialogue, then it worked at a minimum in the very process of translation and conversation between Brahmin and Muslim scholars.
Hindu and Muslim Scholars Translate the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Persian- Folio from Razmnama.
Image copied from the free library of Philadelphia
Sure the translation of some texts was more like retelling than telling and in many copies, the theological underpinnings of Indian philosophy was omitted and transformed to be intelligible to a Muslim audience but the result is a confection of civilizational discourse. Take for instance the insertion of hundreds of Persian poems by the great masters such as Nizami, Hafiz, Sana’i, into the translated Sanskrit text to invoke a particular aestheticized emotion. An example is a poem by Mu’izzi that provided the emotional context of Yudhishtra’s pain at hearing of the death of his brother. Karna's feelings are translated using Mu'izzi's words:
I see a land devoid of the face of my beloved. I see a meadow empty of the stature of that upright cypress. That place where the beloved used to wander in the garden with friends is now the dwelling of the wolf and fox, the domain of wild asses and vultures.[7]

It was not just Akbar who used art to manipulate politics. In fact, some consider the Moghul “obsession” with dynastic legitimacy (as illustrated by the multitude of dynastic portraits) as a constant feature of Moghul art.[8] Images like” Jahangir with a Portrait of Akbar” circa 1614 demonstrate the ways artistic imagination and symbolism were used to foster legitimacy using half-truths. Jahangir is known to have revolted against his father, seizing wealth illegitimately, minting coins in his own name and murdering Akbar’s closest friend and most reliable minister Abu’l Fazl. All the while, this image (see below) shows Jahangir deferentially holding a portrait of his father. Akbar, dressed in white seemingly offering his son imperial power as represented by the globe. This painting emphasizing the voluntary nature of his accession to power, can be considered one of the many ways in which Jahangir tried to rewrite history to bolster the legitimacy of his rule.
Jahangir with portrait of Akbar, circa 1610
copied from commons wikimedia 
Similarly, the painting “Akbar Hands His Imperial Crown to Shah Jahan”, dated 1631, depicts Akbar handing his grandson, Shah Jahan, the royal crown (with Jahangir looking on). Akbar died before Shah Jahan was born, so this event obviously did not happen but it bolsters Shah Jahan's legitimacy as successor to the Moghul throne. Shah Jahan had also revolted against his father and utilized art for political purpose the way his ancestors did.
Akbar Hands His Imperial Crown to Shah Jahan dated 1631
copied from commons wikimedia 
To add more intrigue to this historical drama, one of Shah Jahan’s sons, Aurangzeb, had his three brothers killed and his father imprisoned in the ultimate fight for the throne. Aurangzeb was not much interested in art but as attested to by the beautiful miniature below, he did not ban artists or paintings.
Aurangzeb I (1658-1707) and courtiers, attributed to Bhawani Das, c.1710
copied from

Painting and Meaning

While these paintings tell us much about Moghul history, they can also be misleading on first blush.  I found it invaluable in my research to consult with art historians’ interpretation of symbols and their meanings in a painting. I especially found, Amina Okada’s book extremely interesting and helpful. Take for instance her interpretation of image below:
 Jahangir Suppressing Prince Khurram's Rebellion, ca 1623 by  Abu'l Hasan
copied from commons wikimedia

She says:
“One of the most accomplished and superb “allegorical portraits” of Jahangir is once again the work of Abu’l Hasan. It is also the most glorious pictorial disavowal of one of Jahangir’s most bitter disappointments (fig55). In 1623, as we know, Prince Khurram rebelled against his father and unsuccessfully attempted to capture Agra. While withdrawing toward Delhi, the rebel prince and his troops were defeated by the Imperial army not far from Balochpur. Khurram—formerly the Great Moghul’s favorite son and subsequently nicknamed be-daulat (“wretch”) in Jahangir’s memoirs—was thus obliged to retreat to Malwa and down into the Deccan.

Abu’l Hasan depicted only two aspects of this cruel treason against an emperor in declining strength and health (which explains the young prince’s precipitateness): the victory of the Imperial army led by Mahabat Khan (seen in the background) and Jahangir’s triumph over Khurram’s revolt. The emperor’s face expresses his omnipotence and determination, yet also the bitterness and contempt of a father for his wayward son. As lord of the earth, Jahangir lifts the orb of sovereignty topped with the royal seal and crown. The Grand Moghul bears weapons and wears a helmet rather than a turban, emphasizing the monarch’s warlike attitude and the allegorical meaning of Abu’l Hasan’s masterpiece. The painter managed to grasp the psychological as well as political importance of Jahangir’s victory over Khurram; indeed, the emperor’s chronicle of events for the year 1623 begins with a detailed description of the defeat suffered by Prince Khurram’s troops at the hands of Mahabat Khan.”

I think Okada’s interpretation of the symbols in this portrait is most illuminating as one could easily mistake it to be just a portrait of an emperor. You can read the introductory chapters of her book online (here


The richness of the Moghul miniature tradition is overwhelming, whether it is in the symbolism and allegories present in miniature painting or the particular paint application, which I experienced firsthand in an exhausting detail.  Miniature painting is painstaking whether in the process of shading that involves super tiny thin strokes atop each other or in the endless attention to the border and contents of the frame. The same goes for the subject matter, which is truly vast. However, from my experience painting at the Jaipur City Palace atelier and my personal research, I have learned important lessons, which include, firstly, viewing painting as a lifestyle; as a practice that has transcendent capacity and secondly, genuinely accepting that good things come in time, a very long time. Those are really invaluable guides that are now inculcated in my experiential knowledge. I am truly grateful to my Jaipur teachers, to my guru Shri Govind Ramdev, Ramu Ramdev and his brothers, Hamu and Shamu for their patience and generosity. I ended up never finishing my flower at City Palace but I was almost there.  I suppose that is also another lesson, do not leave your unfinished work behind when travelling.  

Painting by Diana Younes
Painting by Diana Younes

[1] Randhawa, M.S. Indian Miniature Painting. Roli Books International, New Delhi 1981 page 16.
[2] Rogers, J.M. Mughal Miniatures. The Trustees of the British Museum, London 1993 page 30-31
[3] Ibid page 45
[4] Abu al-Fazl Ibn Mubarak. The Ain i Akbari. Translated by H. Blochmann. Baptist Mission Press, Calcutta 1873 page 108
[5] Ibid page 22
[6] Trusche, Audrey, The Mughal Book of War, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 31, 2011
[7]Trusche, Audrey, The Mughal Book of War, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 31, 2011
[8] Okada, Amina. Indian Miniatures of the Mughal Court. Harry N. Abrams, New York , 1992 page 34

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