From Persian painting to Mughal miniatures
NIKI GAMMWhile Persian miniature painting had a tremendous influence on Ottoman miniatures, its impact on Mughal painting is less well known. The main impetus for its spread seems to have been the invasion of the Middle East, including Anatolia, and India by Tamerlane in the 14th century. The term Mughal is used for the dynasty founded in 1526 by Babur who descended from Tamerlane and Cengiz Khan. It reached its apogee under Babur’s grandson, Akbar the Great when it included central and northern India and much of Afghanistan.
Prior to the beginning of the Mughal period was the Timurid period (1370-1507) named after Tamerlane or Timur the Lame, who gathered many of the leading artists of the period at his capital of Samarkand. It is considered one of the high points in Persian painting so it is little wonder that the miniatures from this period went on to influence what was produced among the Mughals.
While Muslim sultanates existed in the subcontinent by the 11th century, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 13th century that a very important Islamic state existed in India on the northern plains. These Muslim rulers maintained their Persian language and customs without assimilating to the predominant Hindu majority. As with the Persians these patrons of the arts relished the Shahname and the Quintet of Nizami but they frequently had them illustrated by local Indian artists who copied from Persian books. While some Persian painters came to India, it was more usual for them to stay at home. The style developed in these early sultanates has been described as coarsely provincial; however, by the end of the fifteenth century experience and training brought an added complexity and refinement to their works.
Babur did not live long after his conquests in India but his son Humayun who succeeded him had spent time at the Safavid court where he saw some of the finest Persian painting. When he returned to Kabul, two of the Persian shahs painters joined him in 1549 and later followed him to Delhi, thus starting the Mughal school of painting. But it was in the reign of Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) that Mughal painting reached its heights.
What had started out as stylistically vigorous in previous years now became more refined although no less animated. People and animals were portrayed in the round unlike the figures in the Persian manuscripts. People’s faces were individualized and their activities portrayed in different ways. Landscape was portrayed true to Persian conventions. The illustrations were used in a propagandistic manner to display Akbar as so powerful that no one would consider attacking him. More weight was given to Hindu painters and Hindu subject matter that was of importance to Akbar’s subjects. This coincided with the Emperor’s tolerant approach to his subjects’ religions and not just Hinduism.
Greatest of all Mughal art patrons
In 1580, a significant change occurred when a copy of the Polyglot Bible was presented to Akbar. The engravings were shown to Indian artists and presented them with examples of perspective and iconography in Europe that had not previously been available. Apparently European paintings were presented to Akbar’s court at the same time. We see Mughal emperors were depicted with their heads encased in haloes as one saw in Byzantine icons and early Arab miniatures. Another source of European influence on the art in this period was the presentation to Akbar of the Dastan-i Masih (Story of the Messiah) by a nephew of St. Francis Xavier. One result was miniatures in which the subjects were wearing European clothes.
The greatest of all the Mughal art patrons was Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) who, as part of his education, had been trained in drawing by masters of the royal studio. Even before he succeeded his father, Akbar, he had attracted a number of artists to his entourage while serving as a viceroy over provinces south of Delhi. But unlike his father, Jahangir was more interested in artistic merit than public relations.
Jahangir wrote in his Memoirs, “…My liking for painting and my practice in judging it have arrived at such a point that when any work is brought before me, either of deceased artists or those of the present day, I say on the spur of the moment that it is the work of such and such a man.”
Paintings now were made in a simpler style to that of Akbar’s artists and at first human figures were depicted as small; however, as time went by the figures and especially that of the Emperor became larger and as one author described them, “of memorable size.”
Jahangir was succeeded by his son, Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658), whom we remember most because he built the famed Taj Mahal. Although he was much more interested in architecture than painting, the royal school that had been assembled by Jahangir continued to produce. It was at this time that the painters began to use perspective more commonly. There was no diminution in the elegance and lavishness of the paintings from the previous reign but border decorations in books changed so that images of people would be accompanied by people in the borders. And if there wasn’t room, then sprays of flowers would take their place.
Mughal miniatures began to decline
From this period on, Mughal miniatures began to decline as the emperors’ interests shifted elsewhere. The emperor, Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), who successfully rebelled against his father, was not interested in art very much at all and even went so far as to withdraw his patronage. He has been described as “a religious bigot, a biased, traditional Muslim although he wasn’t against portraiture. The lack of interest led to art patronage being taken up by lesser lights among the court’s inhabitants and the wealthy. Their interests were not the same of course as that of the imperial court. The subject of amorous dalliance becomes important for the first time – often an idealized man and woman drinking wine on a terrace at night. A second favorite topic was hunting, again often at night. These two genres continued even after Aurangzeb’s reign ended.
The most significant event for the Mughals occurred after this time - the conquest and sacking of Delhi in 1739 by the Iranian Nadir Shah. An enormous amount of booty including priceless manuscripts was taken away to Persia. Delhi was sacked a second time in 1757 by a lieutenant of Nadir Shah’s and what hadn’t been taken away the first time now also went to Persia. Mughal miniature painting never regained its excellence.