Navin Kumar Gallery


Court Paintings of India
Table of Contents
0 Preface & Acknowledgements
1 Introduction
2 Techniques and Practices
3 The Visual Revolution
4 Mughal Paintings
5 Deccani Paintings
6 Rajput Paintings in the Plains
7 Rajput Painting in the Hills
8 Notes
List of Illustrations

I have often admired the beauty, softness, and delicacy of their paintings and miniatures, and was particularly struck with the exploits of Ekbar, painted on a shield by a celebrated artist, who is said to have been seven years in completing the picture. I thought it a wonderful performance.

Francois Bernier

This marvelous shield, adorned with pictures of the exploits of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), which elicited the admiration of Bernier who travelled in the Mughal empire between 1656 and 1668, has not survived. Nor have the splendid murals that once decorated the many palaces of the emperors and kings, but, fortunately, a vast number of paintings and miniatures have, and these provide us with vivid images of an enchanted realm of form and colour that seems so remote and legendary today.

With two exceptions (M2, M41 ), all the paintings are executed on paper and are usually of small size, which is why they are often characterized as "miniatures". All Indian paintings, however, are not miniatures, and some are larger than English watercolours or even small panel paintings. A large quantity are book illustrations, while loose paintings, elaborately mounted, were kept in albums known as muraqqa'. There are also true miniatures which are not much larger than postage stamps (M22-23, M71). Nevertheless, easel and panel pictures were unknown, even after the introduction of European paintings towards the end of the sixteenth century. Nor did the Indians adopt the European method of oil painting but preferred painting in watercolours.

Indian paintings were never framed and hung on walls. Rather, one sat down on a mat or a carpet and held the picture intimately in one's hands and lingered over the contents in a leisurely fashion. The artist too painted the picture in a seated position by holding it at an angle against his chest with his nose almost rubbing the surface, as we see in a Rajput picture (R35a). In order to appreciate the extraordinary rich world of exquisite details in Indian pictures, the viewer must also rub his nose against them and savour the diverse visual delicacies with as much patience as that with which the artist painted his picture. Admiring pictures was no different aesthetically from listening to poetry or to music; one needed intimacy and a genial atmosphere for experiencing all three arts.

The word Mughal (used today in the English language as mogul to denote the super rich) is the name of the most prominent dynasty which ruled in India from the mid-sixteenth to about the mid-eighteenth century. The Mughals, who were Chaghtai Turks from Central Asia, followed the Sunni sect of Islam and, both culturally and intellectually, were strongly influenced by Persia. A distinct style of painting, developed under the enlightened patronage of the Mughals during the second half of the sixteenth century, has come to be regarded as the Mughal style. The Mughal emperors, however, were not the only patrons of painting. Grandees of the imperial court as well as rulers of lesser kingdoms, especially in the eighteenth century, emulated their imperial overlords. There were also important Muslim courts in the southern region of the country known as the Deccan (from the Sanskrit word dakshina meaning south). The principal among them were Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, and Golconda, and later on, Hyderabad. Paintings produced at these courts or at other centres of the kingdoms are grouped under the rubric "Deccani Style".

Akbar, the third and the most famous member of the dynasty, built the Mughal empire by conquering other northern Indian states which were ruled by both Rajput and Muslim kings. In the subjugated Muslim courts, the Mughal style was readily adopted, but in the Rajput courts of Rajasthan, central India and later the western Himalayas, a third distinct style developed that was recognized first by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in the early part of this century and labeled by him the "Rajput Style". The Rajputs were Hindus and, even though they served their Mughal over-lords (some willingly and others less so) and adopted Mughal tastes and courtly manners, their attitudes and aspirations differed from those of the Mughals. These differences are vividly reflected in their paintings. The Rajput style had two principal expressions, according to whether the paintings were done in the plains or in the hills; the pictures from the hills are often characterized by the colourful term "Pahari" meaning "deriving from the hills".

As it has been asserted by a modern historian, The greatness of the Mughal achievement in the political unification of India was matched by the splendor and beauty of the work of the architects, poets, historians, painters, and musicians who flourished in the period. The resemblances of the Mughal empire to the Bourbon monarchy in France during the same period have often been noted, and in India, as in France, a literate and refined court gave a recognizable style and manner to a wide variety of arts.

At no time in its history did art in India become so completely a part of the court as it did under the Mughals, especially under the reigns of Akbar (M3) and his son and successor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627). Artists and calligraphers from all parts of India and from abroad flocked to the Mughal court, wherever it happened to be located at the time. The Mughal court, unlike the French court at Versailles, was a mobile one, and the capital changed with the whims and political needs of the emperor. As the court moved, so did the royal workshops, including the artists. Thus, imperial Mughal paintings were rendered principally in Agra, Delhi, and Lahore, and perhaps even in Kashmir, Fatehpur Sikri (Akbar's capital for a brief spell), Ajmer and Udaipur.

Nevertheless, whether the court was sedentary or mobile, the function of the artist remained the same: to exalt the glory of the emperor and cater to his tastes and whims. If in the past Indian artists had been slaves to their religious traditions, they were now captive prisoners of absolute monarchs such as Akbar and Jahangir, who, however, were extraordinary connoisseurs and aesthetes.

The various centres of the Rajput style are usually associated with the Rajput states. They were Mewar, Marwar (or Jodhpur), Bundi, Kotah, and others in the plains; and Basohli, Bilaspur, Mandi, Kulu, and Kangra in the hills. The evidence for the existence of such localised schools, however, is not always as convincing as that for the imperial workshop. And because of the peregrinations of the artists among the Rajput states, some scholars are skeptical as to whether a particular school indeed developed at a particular place. Precise documentation of Rajput paintings is more difficult to come by than for Mughal works. Not only do more Mughal paintings bear signatures and dates, but notes made by diligent librarians on their margins often provide helpful information for the art historian. Imperial histories and memoirs also contain much useful information about commissions and artists. Such information is hard to come by for Rajput paintings which were rarely signed, and even those courts that had libraries, archives or picture galleries kept no records. What little evidence is available is often inadequate or vitiated by scholarly debate. A famous set of Ramayana drawings from the hills has a colophon which, when interpreted by one scholar, states that the drawings were done in Basohli in 1816 by the artist Ranjha, while another scholar asserts that they were rendered by a Kashmiri artist named Sudarsana for the artist Ranjha.3 Despite such problems, one can broadly distinguish local schools of Rajput painting both in the plains and in the hills, although all pictures of these schools were not necessarily produced for the courts.

If the patrons of Mughal, Deccani and Rajput paintings were primarily monarchs, princes and the court nobility, who then were the artists? Here again we know more about the artists who worked for the imperial workshop than we do about those who were attached to the Deccani or Rajput courts. The Mughal style was created by two Persian masters along with a large number of Indians who appear to have been recruited from all over northern India. There were also other Persian artists and calligraphers who worked for both the Mughal and Deccani courts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus, the personal religious inclination of the artist or his nationality had little or no effect upon his style. A large number of Mughal artists were Hindus, while many of the masters who worked for the Rajputs, such as Sahibdin in Mewar or the family of Ruknuddin in Bikaner, were Muslims. After the death of Jahangir (1627) interest in painting began to diminish in the imperial court and many of the Mughal artists, whether Hindu or Muslim, sought patronage with the Rajput courts.

Although we have more information about the artists who worked for the Mughal emperors, especially Akbar and Jahangir, we know very little about them personally or individually. Normally in Hindu society, the artist, who was a professional and may have been a member of a guild, enjoyed a low social status. He was no different from the cook, the gardener, the bricklayer or the carpenter. In fact, many of the painters in :he hill states were also carpenters, and the greatest of Mughal painters, Daswanth, was the son of a palanquin bearer. Whether an artist was engaged by a court or not, generally the profession was hereditary, although occasionally an outsider could join the family atelier as an apprentice. By and large the family worked for monetary compensation, and depending on the generosity of the patron, they also owned land. As vas the case with professional artists in all traditional societies, supply and demand governed the artists' economic status and prestige.

In establishing the imperial workshop soon after his accession, Akbar began an experiment that was certainly unique in the history of Indian art, and perhaps in art history. He brought together over one hundred talented artists from all over northern India of various racial, linguistic, and religious groups and with divergent cultural backgrounds. Then under the direction of two Persian masters, who obviously enjoyed greater prestige and power than their Indian colleagues, they began working not on the traditional and familiar subjects, but on entirely new themes to suit a very demanding and discriminating taste. Akbar's biographer tells s that throughout his life he inspected his commissions with regularity and rewarded those whose works pleased him most. One wonders how nose who toiled hard but did not receive a reward felt, and what the reaction was among the Hindu painters when their Muslim colleagues certainly enjoyed greater prestige. Although court records indicate that there was no lack of admiration for the achievements of a Daswanth, a Basawan, a Bichtr or a Govardhan, the fancy titles and important positions were generally given to the Persians or their descendants, such as Mir Sayyid Au, Abdus Samad, Aqa Riza or his son Abul Hasan. Of course, it must be admitted that this was largely due to the higher social standing of Persian calligraphers and painters. Persians were not stifled by the rigidity of the caste system that prevailed in India and from which even the converted Indian Muslims were not immune. As the seventeenth century French visitor Bernier noted:

The artisans repair every morning to their respective Karkanays, where they remain employed the whole day; and in the evening return to their homes. In this quiet and regular manner their time glides away; no one aspiring after any improvement in the condition of life wherein he happens to be born. The embroiderer brings up his son as an embroiderer, the son of a goldsmith becomes a goldsmith, and the physician of the city educated his son for a physician. No one marries but his own trade or profession; and this custom is observed almost as rigidly by Mahometans as by the Gentiles [Hindus], to whom it is expressly enjoined by their law.4

The situation was not any different with the artists who worked in the Rajput states, as it is no different today with the professional artists who make religious images, whether in Calcutta, Pun or Chidambaram. True, some artists were fortunate enough to befriend a particularly enlightened art-loving patron and fared much better than their colleagues; they may even have enjoyed a higher status at court. While a close relationship based on mutual respect and trust must have existed between Nihal Chand and his patron Sawant Singh of Kishangarh, or between Nainsukh and Balawant Singh of Jammu, by and large, the artist enjoyed neither economic affluence nor social prestige. The fact that the artists referred to themselves as the servants or slaves (ghulam) of their patrons is not simply a polite affectation or a conventional expression of humility. Like everybody else they worked for the pleasure of their patrons, on whose moods and fortunes depended their livelihood. Since moods and fortunes were fickle, the artists moved about a good deal, which resulted in a wider appreciation of painting by a wider circle. And even though the painters of that age remain shadowy figures, certainly their paintings brilliantly illumined the world in which they lived.