Navin Kumar Gallery

The Visual Revolution

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

It is always dangerous in affairs of art and culture to claim total novelty for any concept or even current of taste. What changes is more usually the emphasis placed on a concept. 15

Michael Levey

In the history of Indian art, the second half of the sixteenth century remains of epochal significance. The creation of the Mughal style ushered in a momentous revolution in the history of painting. In the words of Robert Skelton, "It seems almost as if the Indian pictorial imagination had been suddenly freed after centuries of constraint."16 Indeed, the revolution was not only that of imagination but also of sensibility. Herbert Read's observations about the Romantic Movement in Europe are equally applicable to the visual revolution achieved under the Mughals: "It was a sudden expansion of consciousness-an expansion into realms of sensibility not previously accessible"17to the Indian imagination.

Not since the fifth century when unknown artists had created the brilliant murals of the Buddhist shrines at Ajanta was the complacency of the Indian aesthetic experience so radically shaken as was done in the sixteenth century by two Persian masters and their Indian colleagues in the imperial workshop of the Mughals. The aesthetic norms and sensibility displayed by the murals of Ajanta continued to dominate the history of painting for the next millennium. It is true that stylistic changes did occur over the years in different regions of the subcontinent. For example, the murals in the eleventh century temple at Tanjore are quite different from the near contemporary paintings in the Buddhist monasteries, such as Alchi and Tabo, in the western Himalayas; or again, there are recognizable differences between the style of the Buddhist manuscript illuminations and that of the Jam books. Nevertheless, until the birth of the Mughal style in the sixteenth century, no new blood was injected into the veins of India's pictorial tradition since the days of Ajanta, even though Persian paintings had been more than familiar for centuries.

Much of India was already ruled by Muslim sultans from about the eleventh century and many of the monarchs were enlightened patrons of literature, the visual arts, music and architecture. Such poets as Amir Khusrau (13th C.) could rival the fame of a Nizami or a Firdausi. Mosques and mausoleums in Indo-Islamic styles, distinguished for their originality and beauty, were an established element of the urban landscape, but in painting, there was no successful intermingling or innovation. The Indo-Persian style (M1) developed in such centres as Jaunpur, Delhi, Malwa, Gaur or the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan was like a hothouse plant, nurtured in cultivated isolation from the native styles. The Hindu patrons too displayed no interest in Persian paintings with which they must have been familiar to some extent. Thus, like neighbours in a modern metropolis, the two styles-Indian and Persian-remained unfamiliar with one another until they were brought together in the Mughal workshop and synthesized by the charismatic royal genius of Akbar. And how wonderfully fortuitous that synthesis proved to be for the history of Indian painting!

It has already been emphasized that Mughal art was a court art and hence a secular art that was thoroughly cognizant of the world in which it flourished. While the Mughals themselves were no more or no less "worldly" than other Indian monarchs, whether Hindu or Muslim, and were not the only rulers fascinated with Persian culture, where art and nature were concerned, they had roving eyes and probing minds. They were Timurid princes and a keen interest in culture and the arts was a prerogative of most members of this remarkable royal house. Sensitivity to both nature and the arts is manifest to a large degree in most successors of Timur (M32) so that one may say in today's parlance that these traits were programmed in their genes. Christopher Marlowe must have been aware of the special sensibility of the Timurids when he made his Tamburlaine or Timur pause "after battle to praise the human soul which can comprehend,

The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet's course."18

Such poignant sensitivity and such insatiable curiosity to know the world around them as well as the desire to probe the human mind and condition were qualities manifest in a large measure in Babur (M8, M31), the founder of the Mughal empire, and his great-grandson Jahangir, and so to some extent in both Humayun (M8) and Akbar, even though either of the latter left any memoirs as did the former two. All this was new to the Indian intellect which had become stifled by a narrowness of attitude that was note as early as the eleventh century by the Arab visitor, Al-Biruni. It is this intellectual curiosity and keen naturalism of the early Mughal emperors themselves that contributed to the expansion of consciousness which led to the Mughal revolution in painting. Mir Sayyid Ali may have been the "sharpest-eyed observer" among all the painters attached to the Persian court from whence he came and no matter how he "doted on recording each feather of a bird or tuft of fur on kitten,"19 none of his animal studies can compare with those of Mansur, and in no Persian paintings of the period does one encounter the vivid representations of plants and flowers, or the penetrating realism that one finds in Mughal portraits rendered by the masters who worked for Jahangir and Shah Jahan. While it is not our intention to deny the greatness or beauty of Persian paintings, without which there would have been no Mughal art, it must at the same time be stressed that the greater emotional appeal of the Mughal aesthetic, the sharper focus on nature's miracles and the deeper probing of human psychology that characterize Mughal portraiture are features which are hardly perceptible in the Persian models, and which give Mughal pictures their distinctive flavour.

In terms of the history of Indian art, the Mughals gave a hitherto unknown measure of freedom to the artist; made him more aware of nature both through Persian and European eyes as well as through direct observation; introduced the concept of realistic portraiture (though here, as we shall see, the Indian tendency toward idealization continued to dominate Rajput portraits); and affected profound changes in such pictorial elements as composition, colouring, use of landscapes, perspective, as well as expressiveness. Many of these changes were due to the familiarity with European art; their sophisticated technique fascinated both the artist and the patron.

Although European traders and missionaries had been in the country since before the arrival of Babur, their sphere of activity was limited mainly to the west coast and, except for their exposure to sacred art in local Christian churches, few Indians were in any way familiar with European artworks. In 1580 three Jesuits arrived at Fatehpur Sikri at the invitation of Akbar who was initially more interested in Christianity than its art. But once he began to see European works, especially portraits, his eyes must have experienced new sensations and his ever inventive mind must have discovered a new world. Knowing that Indians at that time reacted slowly to any exotic ideas, it is difficult to believe that the Mughal artists themselves would have been curious about these new arrivals if their emperor had not been. Once again Abul Fazal must have echoed his master's voice when he wrote admiringly of the "wonderful works of the European painters who have attained world-wide fame." However, it is noteworthy that the yardstick of excellence for the court historian was still the fifteenth century Persian master Bihzad, for in the same breath the historian states that "masterpieces worthy of a Bihzad" could now be placed beside the works of both European and Indian painters.

One of the most fundamental means whereby the Mughals expanded the vision of the artists was by enriching their thematic repertoire. Until the Mughals introduced histories, studies of nature and animals and genres drawn from everyday life, Indian artists had to remain content with painting religious and mythological themes and occasional poems and romances. Even though the pre-Mughal Indian rulers introduced the practice of illustrating the Persian epic, the Shahnama, curiously, the Hindus rarely, if at all, illustrated their famous epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Akbar not only had these translated into Persian and their manuscripts richly illuminated but inspired the Hindus to commission illustrated copies of the epics

The Hindus did not take to writing histories, but they evinced a greater interest in secular subjects, such as Ragamala (texts related to music), Baramasa (book of the months) and other such poetry. These works were always spiced with a religious flavour and were illustrated not only as books but also as albums. The picture, therefore, acquired a greater interest than the word, which was often confined marginally to the top or banished to the back of the leaf. Also in emulation of the Mughals, the Rajputs began having their court life recorded in pictures and their portraits painted in large quantities.

Although not always with the same perspicacity and candour as the Mughal pictures, those produced for the Rajputs also provide us with vivid impressions of the enchanted realm of the princes that is lost forever. Unlike the art produced in any previous period of Indian history, the pictures created during the Mughal period are graphic documents that make the age alive and exciting. We can see how the princes fought or hunted; how they amused themselves; glimpse the festivals they celebrated; and visit holy men and places with them. We can peep into the zenana or the harem and share the joys and sorrows of the often lonely lives of the princesses and even watch them in dalliance with their lovers. Although the pictures record the life of the elite rather than of the ordinary people, in no other period of history had Indian artists captured the life and spirit of their own age with such empathy and precision.

Finally, the visual revolution fomented by the Mughals owed much to the new idea of connoisseurship introduced by the patrons. Art was now seen for art's sake and not simply as a vehicle for communicating religious ideas. Connoisseurship was not unknown in India before the Mughals, but they introduced a new kind of appreciation and sensibility that is much closer to the way we respond to art today. Hitherto art was concerned more with subject matter than with style, and one could not view an object apart from its utilitarian or didactic function. The patron who commissioned a Jain manuscript or an illustrated Bhagavatapurana (R1) was less concerned with inventiveness or novelty and more with fidelity to accepted convention. Doubtless the historian can discern subtle variations in the general style of Jain paintings from one period to another, but there was little or no emphasis on the personal style of an artist.

Jahangir's claim that if presented with a painting he could at a glance tell who was responsible for the face and who did the colouring was not a vain boast. It also demonstrates how keenly interested Jahangir was in aesthetics rather than in the content of a work of art. In his history of Akbar, Abul Fazal wrote the following epitaph about Daswanth, one of the great Mughal artists, who committed suicide early in his career.

The acuteness and appreciativeness of the world's lord brought his great artistic talents to notice. His paintings were not behind those of Bihzad and the painters of China. All at once melancholy took possession of him, and he wounded himself with a dagger. After two days he paid back the loan of life, and grief came to the hearts of connoisseurs.20

No comparable passage about any artist, no matter how great, exists in pre-Mughal Indian literature. Abul Fazal not only tells us how perceptive the emperor was, but the historian himself must have been something of a connoisseur, as is indicated by his comparison of Daswanth with Bihzad and Chinese masters. Although this is the only reference to Chinese painting in the text, it would appear that Chinese paintings were not unfamiliar in the court. Finally, that an artist's death should have filled the hearts of connoisseurs with grief is another indication that painting was a serious business and the court painters were not just another professional group whose work was taken for granted.

Jahangir was even a greater connoisseur than his father and apart from being an enlightened patron of the visual arts, may be characterized as the first great collector of art in India. In fact, Jahangir contributed more to develop the self-consciousness of the artist and his personal style than any other patron had ever done in India. Although they were less independent than the Renaissance masters, and whatever may have been their social status, the great Mughal artists received personal accolade and appreciation, both in public and in private, and were encouraged to express themselves with greater self-assurance than were their forebears. This became the practice with the more perceptive Rajput patrons as well. Sawant Singh and Nihal Chand must have worked hand in glove to create the strikingly distinct Kishangarh style in the mid-eighteenth century. And we know that Balawant Singh and his friends and artists frequently sat together, passed pictures amongst each other, and engaged in serious aesthetic discussions. Not only does all this reflect a new sensitivity on the part of the patron but also a new current of taste that played a fundamental role in giving new directions to Indian painting.