Mughal Manuscript Painting
A major tradition of miniature painting in the history of South Asia and the wider Islamic world, Mughal manuscript painting was founded in the mid-sixteenth century and remained highly influential until the late eighteenth century, well after the decline of the Mughal court that was its primary patron. Mughal painting is known for its naturalism, intricacy, and pluralism in both style and subject matter. As Mughal power and influence grew in the subcontinent, the painting style gained aspirational value for many smaller courts in South Asia.
The art form, sponsored as it was by the wealthy Mughal court, used fine quality paper which was imported from Persia and Italy. Pigments for colours were derived from similarly rare and expensive mineral sources such as lapis lazuli, orpiment, cinnabar and gold, amongst others. Illustrated manuscripts were often commissioned from texts of classical Persian literature, biographies of Mughal rulers or their ancestors, historical documents or Persian translations of works of ancient Indian literature. Illustrations of key scenes would appear alongside the calligraphic nastaliq text.
The Mughal atelier was set up by the two Persian artists Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd al-Samad, who were trained at the Safavid court in Persia and migrated to India with emperor Humayun in 1555. Scholars make a distinction between imperial Mughal painting that was executed by the Mughal atelier and commissioned by the court, and a sub-imperial or popular form of Mughal painting, which was made by other, smaller ateliers without royal patronage. The difference is visible in the subject matter, intricacy and naturalism of the style, and the quality of materials used, while the similarities result from the standards set by the older and more lauded imperial atelier.
One of the earliest examples of illustrated manuscripts is the Tutinama (“Tales of a Parrot”), written in the fourteenth century and illustrated during Akbar’s reign in the 1560s. It displays indigenous flora and fauna within Persianate landscapes, the inclusion of dark-skinned and realistically proportioned figures, associated with India, rather than the willowy, fair-skinned youths emblematic of Persian paintings. As early as the 1560s, European influences were introduced to the artists through European emissaries and missionaries who brought religious propaganda and examples of European art to the Indian subcontinent. This infused notions of pictorial depth and perspective into the sensibilities of the artists, though this always remained a minor component of the fully formed style of Mughal painting. Thus, the Mughal style of painting is characterised by the amalgamation of Persian, Indian and European styles.
Apart from the Tutinama, other important manuscripts that represented the Mughal manuscript painting tradition include the Hamzanama (“Book of Hamza”, a fictional biography of the prophet Mohammed’s uncle) made under Akbar’s reign and consisting of 1400 paintings, making it one of the largest manuscripts illustrated by the atelier; the Akbarnama (“Book of Akbar”), a real-time documentation of Akbar’s reign with collaboratively produced illustrations; the Padshahnama (“Book of the Ruler of the World”, Shah Jahan’s biography) known for its use of multiple perspectives and exuberant colours; and the Khamsa of Nizami, (“five poems” of Nizami Ganjavi c. fourteenth century) another work to which artists in Akbar’s court contributed.
During Akbar’s reign, the size of the royal atelier grew from about thirty artists in 1557 to over a hundred in the 1590s and consisted of painters, colourists, calligraphers, bookbinders, among other specialists. In order to efficiently carry out a large number of projects — including illustrated manuscripts, individual paintings and designs for other objects — the hierarchy within the atelier remained somewhat fluid but highly collaborative. Within a given folio a master painter composed the image based on the text, which would then be coloured in by a junior artist. Further, there were some artists who specialised in portraiture or drawing animals. This achieved a level of consistency amongst different artists, but also maintained an individualistic style. For example, the artist Daswanth became well-known for his fantastical and frenzied compositions that stood in direct contrast to the work of Basawan, a contemporary, who became well-known for his talent for naturalism. The individual folios in the manuscripts also contained copious details such as the names of the artists involved, number of days taken to complete, the size of the atelier, and so forth.
Over time, the structure of the atelier and the types of manuscripts being produced changed. In the 1580s–90s, the atelier mainly worked on dynastic histories such as the Timurnama (“Book of Timur”, written in the sixteenth century) or the Baburnama (“Book of Babur”, fifteenth century), and translations of Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata (known as the Razmnama). These would often be large projects, both in the dimensions of the codices as well as the number of illustrations commissioned. In comparison, Persian poetical texts were much smaller in size and were worked on by fewer artists. During the reign of Jahangir, the focus moved away from manuscripts to muraqqas, and the number of artists retained by the imperial atelier for long-term projects was significantly reduced by the emperor’s tastes and interest in the works of individual artists. Stylistically, Jahangir preferred naturalism and renewed a lot of elements of Persian painting along with a particular emphasis on portraiture.
Flourishing under the patronage of Akbar and Jahangir, the ateliers remained functional during the reigns of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. While Shah Jahan maintained funding for the atelier, his interest was mainly directed towards architecture. The paintings of this period were formal and lacked the flair for experimentation or aesthetic interest under the previous emperors, as the Mughal court’s concern with painting at the time was as a medium of courtly representation. However, the muraqqas and illustrations in texts like the Padshahnama were highly naturalistic and technically accomplished. Aurangzeb’s religious orthodoxy led him to direct funding away from the atelier a few years into his reign, but for most of the 1660s the emperor tolerated painting as a courtly art. Several highly valued examples of portraits and durbar scenes in the Mughal style were produced in this period.
With the exception of a revival under the reign of Muhammad Shah (1719–48), patronage for miniature painting had dwindled enough in the eighteenth century that artists were forced to seek employment outside the imperial court, thus lending a strong Mughal element to the painting traditions of smaller kingdoms, particularly Rajput and Maratha courts. With the advent of British rule, the tradition of Mughal miniature painting, with its emphasis on naturalism, was incorporated into the Company school. Today, dispersed folios and, more rarely, whole manuscripts in the Mughal style, are housed at various museums across the world.
Beach, Milo Cleveland. Mughal and Rajput painting. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
NCERT. “Mughal School of Miniature Painting.” Accessed December 31, 2021. https://ncert.nic.in/textbook/pdf/lefa103.pdf
Seyller, John. “Workshop and Patron in Mughal India: The Freer Rāmāyaṇa and Other Illustrated Manuscripts of ’Abd al-Raḥīm.” Artibus Asiae. Supplementum 42 (1999): 3–344. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1522711.
The MET Museum. “The Art of the Mughals after 1600.” Accessed December 31, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mugh_2/hd_mugh_2.htm.