Navin Kumar Gallery

Deccani Paintings

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

Gardens were laid out and planted with fruit trees; flower gardens were planted with herbs and flowering plants and fine palaces with arches and domed roofs with coloured and latticed walls like the mirror of the satin sky, red and yellow with floors paved with turquoise lapis lazuli; the courts were like the gardens and their fountains like the springs of Paradise. Sayyid Ali47

Although the above passage by Sayyid Ali describes the interior of the fort built by Ahmad Nizam Shah, the founder of the Muslim kingdom of Ahmadnagar, it also beautifully expresses the essential flavour of the Deccani style of painting which emerged as a distinctive manner in the second half of the sixteenth century, more or less at the same time when the Mughal style was being created in Akbar's workshop. Domed palaces and gardens with bright flowers are prominent In Deccani paintings, and anyone who has had the good fortune to visit the romantic ruins of the Golconda fort, the second Muslim kingdom that flourished in sixteenth century Deccan, will know how familiar the ruins seem from paintings produced for that court. The third Deccani kingdom was Bijapur, one of whose rulers, Ibrahim II Adil Shah (1580-1626) was no less a patron of the arts and literature than the Mughals. In fact, these three kingdoms were just as well known in West Asia during the first half of the sixteenth century as the Mughals were in the second. Ahmadnagar, the capital city of the Nizam Shahis, had an excellent library and Murtaza Nizam Shah I was an avid patron of Persian poets. The Deccani kingdoms also maintained close contacts with other Muslim countries and courts of West Asia, and with Turkey in particular. Moreover, apparently both poets and artists moved about freely among the three kingdoms; thus, a somewhat different artistic milieu existed in the Deccan than in northern India.

The complete story of the Deccani style of painting and of its various centres and schools still remains to be told. Although Deccani pictures of the sixteenth century are quite distinctive and are not difficult to distinguish from Mughal paintings of the same period, some of the seventeenth century pictures are more troublesome. For instance, an attractive seventeenth century portrait of a prince, probably a Persian, drinking wine (D4) could be either Deccani or Mughal. It displays few of the eccentricities or the conscious stylishness that are characteristic of Deccani pictures, but its rich colouring, the purple background, the geometical placement of the two carpets below and behind the sitter, and the elegant turban may indicate a Deccani origin.

In contrast to Mughal paintings, both the quantity and repertoire of the Deccani pictures were limited. There were three principal centres of painting in the Deccan during the second half of the sixteenth century: Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda (the latter was perhaps better known for its diamonds than its paintings). Prior to 1565, when the three formed an alliance to defeat their richer, Hindu neighbour, the kingdom of Vijayanagar, whatever painting was done in these Muslim kingdoms was inspired largely by Persian pictures, especially by Safavi pictures of the school of Bukhara. Soon after the conquest of Vijayanagar, however, a new style came into existence that appears to have combined the pictorial and compositional elements of the Persian tradition with the sensuousness and brilliant palette of the native South Indian style as exemplified in surviving murals. It must be admitted that this does not give the entire picture for we know very little about the royal patrons or the artists involved. We do know that Persian artists, the most notable of whom was Farrukh Beg, were welcomed in the Deccani courts, particularly by Ibrahim II Adil Shah of Bijapur who was a contemporary of both Akbar and Jahangir. Moreover, before the end of the sixteenth century, both European art from neighbouring Goa and Mughal pictures from the north must have become familiar to both the Deccani artists and their patrons. Nevertheless, the Deccani artists did not quite espouse the cause of naturalism as passionately as did their Mughal colleagues. Even after their contact with Mughal pictures, they continued to show a penchant for gold back grounds and sky and preferred to enliven natural forms with a stronger decorative flair. In contrast to Mughal paintings, there is greater whimsy and earthy opulence in the finest examples of Deccani pictures, indicating the artists' overriding concern in creating a poetic mood rather than expressing emotion. The landscapes were made far more flamboyant and fanciful with stronger distortions, more stylized undulations and more gorgeously and imaginatively painted flowers, plants, streams and skies.

Some of these traits are clearly visible in two charming pictures concerned with fauna and flora. One of these (D1) shows a buffalo fight that is a strange combination of fact and fancy. While the outlines enclosing the buffaloes' forms are drawn deftly and with assurance, worthy of a Mansur, their bodies, however, are filled in with a technique known as marblizing. Marblized paper was popular in Turkey from where it may have been introduced to the Deccan. In other respects too this lively animal study is curious. Superimposed on the darker buffalo is a magnificently rendered lion across whose body is a feline. Similarly, a graceful cheetah chasing a deer is superimposed on the body of the second buffalo. The exact significance of the iconography remains elusive but the representation is as delightful as it is intriguing. The animals which were observed were rendered as naturalistically as the finest Mughal animal studies, and yet the entire picture, with its golden flowering shrubs, is engagingly decorative, especially in the interesting surface textures created by gold and marblizing.

That the Deccani artists could be as perceptive as their Mughal counterparts in observing nature and recreating its marvels with accomplished self-confidence is evident from a beautiful flower study (D2). It was painted by an unknown master who rendered the texture of the leaves and the delicate petals of the pink roses with extraordinary skill and eloquence. We feel that the blooming flowers will wither the moment we touch them. And yet, characteristic of the Deccan, this remarkably authentic flowering plant was placed against a background of gold relieved at the top by a strip of blue sky and with a narrow band of grass at the bottom. Typical also of Deccani paintings, other smaller flowering shrubs were placed on either side in a formal, symmetrical arrangement.

A fine example of a seventeenth century formal portrait (D3) originating in Bijapur shows that despite Mughal influences the artist preferred the Deccani predilection for strong and brilliant colours. Although we do not know who the sitter was, the halo around his head indicates that he was a ruler. Normally, the halo is absent in early Deccani portraits but made its appearance in the second half of the seventeenth century. Specifically Deccani features are the long patka, even though the design is of the Shah Jahani period, the shorter second sash, the shawl across the shoulders (rarely if ever seen in Mughal portraits), the throne with its elaborate legs and the design of the carpet on the floor. Sumptuously mounted with elaborate floral borders, the portrait gives us some idea of the luxury and opulence for which the Bijapur court was well known.

The sense of humour and the element of surprise that are often characteristic of Deccani pictures are nowhere more evident than in two late seventeenth century tinted drawings of fragile delicacy. One of them is more Persian (D5), while the other (D6) could easily be mistaken for a Mughal work. In the highly Persianized work we see a young man, perhaps an errant lover, entreating his lady love as he drops on his knees and tries in vain to put his arms around her ample mid-region. As if to humiliate him she has removed his turban revealing his bald pate. Behind him stands a female companion pouring wine into a cup, no doubt to console the young man when he regains his dignity. The forms of all three figures are typically Persian, although one of the ladies wears a Portuguese hat. Note also how bland the faces are, completely devoid of any expression.

In the other picture we encounter a more familiar genre of both Mughal and Deccani painting; a prince has taken a group of ladies in various stages of deshabille by surprise. Such scenes can still be seen in village India where ladies often bathe openly in a tank or a river. Obviously it was customary in Mughal times for princesses and "society ladies" to seek out a secluded stream and enjoy a leisurely bath or swim. It would not have been unusual, of course, to prearrange a rendezvous with a lover on such occasions; however, in this instance, the gentleman seems to have been uninvited, judging by the hastily improvised attempt by one of the women to obstruct his view with her garment, and by the some what stern expression on all the faces. Typically Deccani is the unexpected placement of the stream as it leaps down from behind a rock and the complete disregard for perspective in the drawing of the animals. The lion and the lioness who have come to drink water at the stream are of the same size as the pair of rabbits, who seem to be more concerned with the man's presence than with that of the predators. Indeed, such improbable juxtapositions of fact and fantasy are not unusual in Deccani pictures and add to their disarming charm

Two delightful pictures of the last quarter of the seventeenth century reveal the Deccani artists' penchant for bright colours and playful designs to great advantage. In one of these we see the ascension of King Solomon (D7) in all his glory. Most of the angels are females and are given heavily painted faces. Some are wearing hats, while others have their hair tied like yoginis. With one exception, all the males have animal heads as if they are wearing masks. The bearded male in the lower left hand corner of the painting is carrying a peacock, which is not inappropriate considering that the bird was very likely introduced in West Asia by Tamil merchants at the court of Solomon. Some of the angels are supporting the monarch's throne while others are holding flywhisks; some are carrying animals and food, and still others are playing various instruments. Scattered rocks along the bottom of the painting indicate that the celestial beings with their precious passenger have just left the earth, while along the top are the Persian simurgh and the Indian geese, both birds symbolizing paradise. The beautiful pinks, reds, yellows and oranges glow against the lively blue of the sky, and we are left in no doubt that this was the creation of a rich imagination.

Less animated and fanciful than the Muslim subject but no less festive in its delightful use of colours is an illustration to the Bhagavatapurana, one of the sacred books of the Hindus that recounts the life of the god Krishna (D8). In this grandiose composition the cowgirls (gopis) have come to complain to Krishna's foster father, Nanda, who is seated like a king in an elaborate palace, of the mischievous behaviour of the divine child. The consternation of the gopis as well as Krishna's chastisement by Nanda are expressed compellingly with a few simple gestures and postures in the typical Indian fashion. The spatial organization totally ignores laws of perspective. Architecture is dominant and the composition is divided into several horizontal bands, while the vertical columns and walls simply serve to separate one flat area of colour from the next. Indeed, even in Rajput paintings, rarely does one encounter such startling juxtapositions of so many different colours which seem to be held together with a remarkable tour de force. Stylistically, the picture shares many features with Bikaner paintings of around 1690, and it is possible that this Bhagavata was painted for the raja of Bikaner at Aurangabad, which was the temporary capital of the Mughals after 1681.

By 1687 both Bijapur and Golconda succumbed before Aurangzeb's patient and relentless siege, and both kingdoms were at last incorporated into the Mughal empire. The great seventeenth century Deccani capitals began to lose their lustre and in the following century Hyderabad and Aurangabad, and perhaps also other towns which are yet to be identified, became the leading centres of painting. In general, however, paintings produced in Hyderabad or Aurangabad show very little differences from contemporary Mughal schools. This is particularly true of a picture representing the Kedara Ragini: a prince listening to a musician in the middle of a lake while his poor oarsman has fallen asleep in the dinghy (D9). Only the pale moon at the upper edge of the picture tells us that this is a night scene, which, together with the rolling hills on the other shore, are the slender clues for a Deccani attribution.48 Mughal artists usually represented such night scenes in a more convincing fashion (M72), whereas the Deccani artist was more interested in creating a poetic mood.

More typical of eighteenth century genres in the Deccani style are a painting of two royal ladies (D10) and a mother and child (D11). The first again, shares features with eighteenth-century Mughal paintings, but the treatment of the horizon with three decorative trees and the impressionistically rendered clouds as well as the colourful garments of the ladies reflect the Deccani artist's greater delight in imaginative forms and bright colours, rather than in pure naturalism. Much bolder are the distortions of perspective and juxtaposition of interesting shapes in a charming painting which we may venture to christen the "madonna of the rocks" (D11). The decorative use of the rocks and the trees, the sudden appearance of the stream from the middle of the rocks (compare D6), the delicately rendered flowers contrasted with the unrealistically sized trees and palms, the luminescent grass and rocks beside the purple water, combined with sensitively rendered cranes, ducks and fish, are some of the elements that are typical of Deccani aesthetic and are assimilated with remarkable audacity and panache in this engaging picture. The sweep of the madonna's drapery that envelops the child in a protective cocoon and the expression of tenderness delicately displayed with their right hands touching are other examples of the lyrical subtlety of the Deccani style that one normally finds in seventeenth century pictures. Finally, one must not fail to note the artist's sense of humour evident in the tiny squirrel that is trying to balance a nut as he stands on his hind legs (on the tree to the left of the seated figures).

A touch of whimsy is also characteristic of the several Deccani portraits included here (D12-15). There was less concern for exact likenesses and sitters were more idealized than in Mughal portraits. The main personage, whether royalty or religious, was generally portrayed larger than life, in contrast to the attendants. The depictions have a hieratic grandeur and, in the case of holy men, their spiritual eminence is emphasized more by their sheer physical presence and their haloes (which are generally reserved for Muslim saints) than by their inner radiance. How different both in feeling and expressiveness these Deccani representations of mystics and mullahs are from their Mughal counterparts (M24, M26). The naked yogi is a mountain of rolling flesh (D12); Sayyid Ahmad Kabir of the desert (D13) is strangely reminiscent of a Byzantine icon; Imam Husayn (D14), despite his rosary, looks like a prosperous courtier with his rakish hat; and without the inscription across the sky, we could hardly have identified the enthroned figure in D15 as a saint.

The figures are generally set off against deep colours, usually green but also blues and grays, contrasting prominently with the equally strong hues of the garments. If they are shown standing, the foreground is left plain and without much vegetation. Once again, the primary aesthetic effect is achieved through broad areas of colours which retain their separate entity and yet are combined with pleasing harmony.

The connection between the Deccani style and the Rajput tradition has been vaguely suggested by scholars but not yet fully defined. There is direct evidence for asserting a close relationship between Bikaner and the Deccan towards the end of the seventeenth century. There may also have been some artistic intercourse between the Deccan and the early Pahari schools, even though the two regions are geographically widely separated. Intriguing as such issues are, they must remain mere conjectures until the fascinating story of the Deccani style itself has fully unfolded.