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    Mughal Miniature Painting

    Map Academy

    Articles are written collaboratively by the EIA editors. More information on our team, their individual bios, and our approach to writing can be found on our About pages. We also welcome feedback and all articles include a bibliography (see below).

    Emerging in the manuscripts produced by the court ateliers of the Mughal dynasty, a major tradition of miniature painting was established in the Indian subcontinent in the mid-sixteenth century. Known for its naturalism, intricacy and luminosity, Mughal miniature painting embodies a range of regional and cultural influences, showing a syncretism of both style and subject matter. It fused diverse influences, incorporating pre-existing South Asian manuscript painting traditions with Persian as well as European Renaissance styles and imagery. These paintings illustrated or accompanied literary, historical, scriptural and scientific texts, and also served as visual aids for court storytellers. The Mughal miniature style remained highly influential in South Asia and the wider Islamic world until the late eighteenth century, influencing the paintings produced in smaller courts even after the decline of the Mughal empire from the early eighteenth century onwards. 

    Having lost his Indian kingdom after a ten-year reign, the Mughal emperor Humayun (r. 1530–40; 1555–56) sought military aid in Safavid Persia, in present-day Iran. Additionally, inspired by the aesthetic achievements of Shah Tahmasp’s court there, he negotiated to take two Persian artists, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd al-Samad, back to India. Returning to reestablish his empire in 1555, Humayun had the court atelier set up under Ali and al-Samad. During the second half of the sixteenth century, the atelier grew tremendously under his successor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), whose expansion of the Mughal empire and interest in the arts ensured a steady flow of wealth as well as artists from the kingdoms of Lahore, Kabul, Persia and Kashmir, each with their own distinctive style. The atelier expanded from about thirty artists in 1557 to over a hundred in the 1590s, including painters, colourists, calligraphers, bookbinders and other specialists. The artisans composed and painted manuscripts on fine quality paper imported from Persia and Italy, using pigments derived from rare and expensive mineral sources such as lapis lazuli, orpiment, cinnabar and gold. 

    The atelier formed part of the Mughal kitabkhana — ‘book house’ or ‘library’ — an important institution in which manuscripts were produced and restored, as well as stored. The kitabkhana embodied a fluid and highly collaborative process, where specialists in various domains worked together to produce and maintain luxuriously illustrated manuscripts, and later individual paintings and designs for other objects. This helped achieve large manuscripts in the codex format, resembling the modern book, which stood in contrast to the indigenous palm-leaf manuscripts that were highly restricted in their size and shape. Each step of the process was performed by a specialised artisan with expertise in a particular aspect — from preparing the paper and binding, to calligraphy, applying gilt and painting the margins. The art of Mughal miniatures is distinctive not only for the painted images, but equally by the Persian nastaliq calligraphy of the manuscripts, and the intricacy and ingenuity of the hashiya, or margin, decorations that framed them — each of which was a specialised domain of artisanship. A master painter composed the images for a manuscript based on the text, to be coloured in by junior painters. Artists also specialised in different kinds of drawing, such as portraiture, animals, flora and decorative pattering — and a level of consistency was achieved as they rendered these subjects across folios or manuscripts. 

    At the same time, particular master artists also had distinctive visual languages that made their work recognisable — for instance, Basawan became known for his talent for naturalism within neat compositions, whereas the work of his contemporary Daswanth was characterised by densely populated, energetic images, best exemplified through his illustrations of war in the Razmnama, a Mughal manuscript of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The names of these and other artists occasionally appear on individual folios of these manuscripts, alongside other information such as the size of the atelier and the number of days taken to complete the work. Such mentions, as well as documentation in administrative manuscripts such as the Ain-e Akbari, serve as important sources of information about the making of Mughal manuscripts today.

    One of the earliest examples of Mughal miniature painting is seen in a Tutinama (‘Tales of a Parrot’) manuscript made in the 1560s. Illustrating the fourteenth century text, the paintings show Indian flora and fauna within Persianate landscapes; further, the human figures are realistically proportioned and rendered as dark-skinned, as associated with South Asia, rather than the willowy, fair-skinned youths emblematic of Persian paintings. Around this time, European emissaries and Jesuit Christian missionaries were invited to Akbar’s court, and brought with them religious paraphernalia and examples of European devotional art, introducing the ateliers’ artists to new influences. Not only did this infuse Western Renaissance notions of perspective and pictorial depth into the work of the court artists, but Christian iconography and subjects themselves became part of the Mughal canon. Examples of this influence are seen in the Persian translation of The Life of Christ, commissioned by Akbar, as well as multiple paintings of Christ’s crucifixion, Madonna with the infant Jesus, and other Christian themes; and in the iconographic elements used in a painting showing combat between the Hindu gods Indra and Krishna in the Harivamsa

    In the 1580s and 1590s, under Akbar, the atelier worked mainly on manuscripts of dynastic histories such as the Baburnama (‘Book of Babur’, written in the fifteenth century; the Timurnama (‘Book of Timur’), written in the sixteenth century; and translations of Sanskrit epics such as the Mahabharata, known in Persian as the Razmnama. These would often be large projects, both in the dimensions of the codices as well as the number of illustrations commissioned. One the Mughal atelier’s most ambitious and extensive manuscripts, the Hamzanama (‘Book of Hamza’), was made during this period. A fictional biography of the prophet Mohammed’s uncle Hamza ibn Abdul-Muttalib (c. 569–625), it is illustrated with 1400 paintings. Akbar also commissioned a real-time documentation of his reign, the Akbarnama (‘Book of Akbar’), which was illustrated by at least forty-nine artists in the atelier; and a lavishly illustrated manuscript known as the Khamsa of Nizami — a set of five long narrative poems by the twelfth-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi — which was a popular subject for illuminated manuscripts both before and after Akbar. 

    By the reign of Akbar’s successor Jahangir (r. 1605–27), the types of paintings and manuscripts being produced, and thereby the structure of the atelier, were beginning to change. Jahangir had a preference for naturalism, and laid particular emphasis on portraiture, which he employed in allegorical paintings presenting his position as a divinely appointed world ruler. He was, accordingly, drawn to the work of only a few artists, and reduced the number of artists retained by the imperial atelier for long-term projects. This sufficed for manuscripts of Persian poetry, which were smaller than biographies, and also suited the shifting focus from manuscripts of single texts to muraqqas — carefully curated albums of assorted miniature paintings, short calligraphic texts and European prints. He is also known to have commissioned a copy of a miniature painted by Isaac Oliver and shown to him by the first English ambassador to Mughal India, Sir Thomas Roe, as well as a muraqqa of Persian and Mughal paintings infused with European artistic traditions and themes.  

    Having flourished under the patronage of Akbar and Jahangir, the ateliers remained functional during the reigns of Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58) and Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). While Shah Jahan maintained funding for the atelier, his interest was mainly directed towards architecture. Painting was viewed predominantly as a medium of courtly representation, and the paintings of this period were largely formal, lacking the flair for experimentation or aesthetic interest seen under the previous emperors. Nevertheless, the muraqqas, and manuscripts such as those of Shah Jahan’s biography Padshahnama (‘Book of the Emperor’), were naturalistic and technically accomplished, the latter known for their use of multiple perspectives and exuberant colours. 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 distinguished examples of portraits and durbar, or court, scenes in the Mughal style were produced in this period.

    With the exception of a revival under the reign of Muhammad Shah (r. 1719–48), Mughal patronage for miniature painting had dwindled enough in the eighteenth century for these artists to seek employment outside the imperial court. As they were absorbed into the ateliers of smaller kingdoms, they strengthened the Mughal element in these painting traditions — particularly those of the Rajput and Maratha courts — many of which had already been emulating the style due to the power and influence of the Mughal empire in previous decades. Scholars today recognise two distinct categories of Mughal manuscript paintings — those that were commissioned by the Mughal imperial court and executed by its ateliers; and a sub-imperial or popular form of Mughal painting, which was made by other, smaller ateliers patronised by minor nobility. While the similarities between them result from the style set by the wealthier, more established imperial ateliers, the difference is visible in the subject matter, the quality of materials used, and the intricacy and naturalism achieved. 

    With the advent of British rule in the nineteenth century, the tradition of Mughal miniature painting, particularly 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. “The Gulshan Album and Its European Sources.” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 63, no. 332 (1965): 63–91.

    Beach, Milo Cleveland. Mughal and Rajput painting. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    Beach, Milo Cleveland. “The Mughal Painter Daswanth.” Ars Orientalis 13 (1982): 121–33.

    NCERT. “Mughal School of Miniature Painting.” Accessed December 31, 2021.

    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.

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The Art of the Mughals after 1600.” Accessed December 31, 2021.

    The Victoria & Albert Museum. “The Arts of the Mughal Empire.” Accessed March 18, 2024.

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