Deccani Manuscript Painting
Comprising the manuscript illustration traditions patronised by the sultanates of Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda, Deccani manuscript painting flourished between the sixteenth and late seventeenth centuries. It also includes the manuscripts and muraqqas commissioned by Maratha emperors and peshwas in the eighteenth century, though these were fewer in number. Manuscript painting in the Deccan grew steadily until the Mughal conquest of the region between 1600–87 resulted in the annexation of the Deccan sultanates, after which a combination of puppet governments and appointed governors kept the practice alive, but with a heavy emphasis on emulating the Mughal aesthetic.
The Deccan plateau, which extends over most of the land between the eastern and western coasts of the Indian peninsula, has enjoyed a long history of trade and artistic exchange because of its many ports, which linked it to the Indian Ocean trade routes. Further, the royal families of several Deccan sultanates also had ancestral or cultural links with Persia and Turkey. As a result, Deccan manuscript painting absorbed a range of influences, especially from the Safavid and Mughal ateliers, and, in its initial phases, from the paintings and sculptures of mediaeval Hindu and Jain temples in the region. It is also notable for its patronage from women rulers, whose power is reflected in the paintings, as well as in subjects such as astrological charts, the Buraq and composite animals.
While the style varied somewhat between courts and time periods, overall Deccani manuscript paintings were boldly coloured, heavily ornamented, and often equal parts fantastical and detailed in their rendering of flora and fauna. The costumes and jewellery worn by the figures featured varying degrees of synthesis between the south Indian fashions of the time and the traditional attires of Persia and Asia Minor. The matured styles of the various courts — in the early decades of the seventeenth century — show a fascination with movement, especially the suggestion of a slight breeze that lent a characteristic dynamism to otherwise static figures. Persian influences can be seen particularly in the way mountains and faces were drawn, and in the high, slightly curved horizon line. However, as Mughal military expansion into the south began at the end of the sixteenth century, painters began to move between Mughal and Deccan ateliers, sometimes deliberately altering their work for their north Indian patrons. Over time, Deccani paintings became more naturalistic, more tightly composed and more muted in their colour choices – similar to the Mughal style.
The oldest surviving manuscript paintings from the region belong to the incomplete Tarif-i-Hussain Shahi manuscript, made in 1565 for the Ahmadnagar court, though scholars speculate that there may have been older manuscripts that are now lost. Information on the development of the Ahmadnagar style is particularly fragmentary, as few folios and drawings have survived. The prominent position given to Khanzada Humayun, the queen regent of Ahmadnagar between 1565–69, in the paintings and the text of the Tarif-i-Hussain Shahi manuscript suggests that she likely commissioned it herself. However, she was deliberately erased later on in all but one painting of the manuscript after her son Murtaza overthrew and imprisoned her. The Ahmadnagar style appears to become more restrained and naturalistic in the 1570s, and a clear Mughal influence is visible by the 1590s. By 1600, however, political turbulence in the kingdom and the Mughal conquest of key cities in Ahmadnagar ended local patronage for the art form, although Rajput governors of the Mughal Deccan continued to hire artisans for Rajasthani-style miniatures, particularly for portraits and ragamala paintings.
The Bijapur sultanate, also formed in 1490, extensively patronised manuscript painting. The earliest example is the Nujum-ul-Ulum, an encyclopaedic manuscript on astrology and magic commissioned by Ali Adil Shah I. His successor, Ibrahim Adil Shah II, sponsored manuscript painting and other art forms generously, also dabbling in painting himself. His reign marks what scholars consider the high point of Bijapur painting, which is notable for its extremely dense use of golden floral and arabesque patterns for the ornamentation of clothing, and its intricate, varied depiction of flora. Ibrahim’s interest in both Hindu mythology and Sufism allowed for the inclusion of syncretic symbolism in illustrations commissioned during his reign, and even more so in the accompanying texts. Chand Bibi, aunt and queen regent during Ibrahim’s minority, features in later eighteenth-century Deccan paintings as the ideal female ruler and warrior, typically depicted hawking with an entourage. While Ibrahim’s successors continued to commission illustrated manuscripts, this was done as a matter of courtly duty rather than personal interest. This, along with the increased presence of Mughal governors in the region following the conquest of Ahmadnagar territories in 1600–36, meant that the younger generation of local artists was encouraged to emulate the Mughal style in their commissioned manuscripts. Many artists trained in the north were also brought into the royal ateliers of the Deccan. As a result, the Bijapuri style became very close to that of Mughal manuscript paintings by 1680, soon after which Bijapur was annexed by Aurangzeb.
Meanwhile, in the north Deccan, the Maratha court took an interest in manuscript painting, commissioning muraqqas, ragamalas and illustrated copies of religious texts regularly over the course of the early seventeenth and eighteenth century. Initially, these were made at Rajput kingdoms in Rajasthan, but as Maratha patronage steadied, local painters were hired in the chitrashalas or painting ateliers at Poona (now Pune).
In Hyderabad, the Qutub Shahis of Golconda – the wealthiest of the Deccan sultanates – employed local, West Asian and Central Asian artists in their atelier, but the style tended towards that of the Safavids. While the idealised faces and bodies of human figures of these paintings are characteristic of Persian painting, their realistic postures suggest the hand of local artisans experienced in making stone sculptures for temple walls. The Golconda style underwent subtle changes over the course of the seventeenth century: first, in the form of the Mughal naturalism, which had already spread to Bijapur, and then as a deliberate rigidity and restraint seen in painted figures, possibly in emulation of new Persian painters of miniatures such as Shaikh Abbasi. Scholars have suggested that this style may be the work of Deccani artists who trained in Persian ateliers and returned to India or of Persian artists migrating to India themselves. Following the capture of Golconda by Mughal forces in 1687 and the deposition of the Qutub Shahis, a Mughal tributary state based in Hyderabad emerged as the major political presence in the south Deccan in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. While these rulers were governors and not royalty, they still functioned as major patrons, typically commissioning portraits in which they appear in profile with grave expressions, possibly to emulate the Mughal style – a choice that was somewhat undercut by the abundant flora surrounding them.
After Hyderabad and the southern Deccan were taken over by the Asaf Jahis in 1724, the court style retained its rigid emulation of Mughal painting, steadily sponsoring artisans over the course of the eighteenth century. These works were technically well-executed and extremely formal, with the dynamism and nuance of earlier Deccan styles visible only in drawings and sketches.
Today, folios and manuscripts illustrated in the Deccan can be found in museums and private collections across the world, including the National Museum, New Delhi; the Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal, Pune; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA; the David Collection, Copenhagen, Denmark; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA; and the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, St. Petersburg, Russia.
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Kramrisch, Stella. A Survey of Painting in the Deccan. Hyderabad: Archaeological Survey of India, 1937. https://ignca.gov.in/Asi_data/16711.pdf.
Michell, George, and Mark Zebrowski. Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Stewart, Courtney A. “Feminine Power of the Deccan: Chand Bibi and Mah Laqa Bai Chanda.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 5, 2015. https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/ruminations/2015/feminine-power.
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