India has ceaselessly witnessed unprecedented powers like the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, and the Britishers, and their influences on culture, beliefs, art, music, architecture, etc. The nation has always been overflowing with creativity regarding art and miniature paintings. Indian miniature paintings mark its history since the 9th century, but with the Mughals, there came a rush of finesse and intricacy in miniatures between the 16th and 19th centuries. The Mughal Empire stepped into India with the reign of Babur in 1526, who was connected by his father Umar Shaikh Mirza’s curiosity in manuscripts, art, music, and architecture. Since Babur came from Ferghana Valley (present-day Uzbekistan), every field of art in the newly arrived Mughal Empire had a Persian touch to it. Thus, to understand the gradual and evident identity of Mughal miniature paintings, this article explores the artists’ ateliers of each Mughal emperor’s reign.  

The arrival of Miniature Paintings with Humayun (1530-40 & 1555-56)  

After four years of reign, Babur was succeeded by his son Humayun in 1530 but within ten years he had to leave Hindustan when Afghan Sher Shah Suri took over Delhi. However, he created a remarkable administrative system and made his place in the hearts of people. He was offered shelter by Shah Tamasp where he encountered Persian art and paintings. Immensely captivated by the art, he bought two Persian painters- Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad- when he recaptured Hindustan. This was the most remarkable investment of Humayun to establish the first royal artists’ atelier of 100 artists under Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad. The artists were engrossed in illustrating Persian love stories, manuscripts, royal celebrations, courtly scenes, etc. 

Exploring the colours of the past through the Miniature Paintings of Mughal Architecture in India - Sheet1
Akbar Presents a Painting to His Father Humayun- by Abd al-Samad (1550-56)_©commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E2%80%98Abd_al-Samad._Akbar_Presents_a_Painting_to_His_Father_Humayun._Mughal,_probably_Kabul,_c._1550%E2%80%931556._Golestan_Palace_Library,_Tehran.jpg

The above miniature painting is a detailed work of Persian art by Abd al-Samad that mesmerized Humayun. This Persian intricacy marks the birth of Mughal paintings slowly fostering its originality. The painting is visually bemusing, representing a vibrant celebration of art with a wide color range of Persian palette and the use of symbolic Persian motifs in the architecture painted. Let us analyze the miniature from the outdoors with purple geometric floor tiles where the grooms are arriving with horses and the royal workers have a hunting cheetah, a hunted deer, and two ducks directed by a court man at the threshold. Stepping on the threshold, the servants are walking with the trays filled with wine, soups, and meals in the verandah and upper extension of the pavilion (on the top right) where Humayun is presented with the painting by Akbar which has parts worked by him under Abd al-Samad’s guidance. This incredible miniature painting within a painting is called mise-en-abyme playing with the viewer’s mind, tunneling a series of images.  

The miniature painting has layers of multiple activities and movements in discrete architectural spaces like the threshold separating the outdoors welcoming arrivals, the ground pavilion houses the musicians, poets, and other literary scholars sitting on a Persian patterned carpet. The upper floor with hexagonal chattri has another group of musicians singing for emperor Humayun and his son Akbar on the octagonal platform supported by the branches of a Chinar tree equally detailed as the figures and architectural background. The visual language of the painting is quite formal and reflects the present and the future altogether by painting a painting within a painting. The architectural elements such as the geometric floor tiles, the blue arch with Iranian style motifs and figures, the pavilion, and the detailed platform over the Chinar tree precisely balance the foreground and background in this Persian-style miniature painting portraying the love for art in the art.                       

The originality of Mughal Miniature Paintings in the reign of Akbar (1556-1605)

Emperor Akbar practiced remarkable progress in creating a religious tolerant empire, which led to the amalgamation of Persian, Indian, and European art. The artists’ atelier saw an overflow of accountable painters, calligraphers, portraiture specialists, etc working on various books illustrated in Ketabkhana (house of books) thrillingly acknowledged by Akbar. Manuscripts such as Hamzanama- narration of exploits by Amir Hamza compiled in 14 volumes with 1400 illustrations. Only 100 exist today and Razmnama– Hindu Epic Mahabharata translated into the Persian language were the greatest endeavors of Mughal art under Akbar. 

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Akbar’s adventures with the elephant Hawa’i- from Akbarnama (1590-95)_©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

After accomplishing these two manuscripts, he ordered the creation of Akbarnama authorized by Abu’l Fazl incorporating his legendary accomplishments and the history of his empire. The above miniature painting is from Akbarnama outlined by Basawan and painted by Chetar featuring lively bright color palettes from Indian paintings, fine and detailed brushwork from Persian paintings, and a sense of depth and frame from European influences. There is a sense of tension depicted in the double-page illustrated painting where the background depicts the architectural context viz. the Agra Fort with the foreground of the haywire outburst and River Jumna furiously flowing. The artists have gone to a depth where even the painted river flow enhances the intense situation. It depicts the famous incident of 1561 where both the elephants are known for their fierce and wild nature. The first one is Ran Bagha and the other one behind is Hawa’i who Akbar mounts. Akbar is barefooted valiantly confronting the situation where artists have successfully highlighted the majestic power and heroism of Jahanpanah– The one sheltering the world. The people around are trying to escape while some are laid injured and some quickly escaping taking a boat or plunging into the River Jumna.

The other side of the page covers the petrified audience witnessing the collapse of the bridge. Amongst them is the prime witness- the royal minister Ataga Khan with his hands joined to pray for the situation to settle. There is a hierarchy depicted in the humans painted from Emperor Akbar to Ataga Khan to royal court members, the troops, and the servants. This miniature painting shows a progression of realism and authentication of the Mughal art style where the red sandstone facade of the Agra Fort in the background is equally eminent as the audience gazing from the top of the fort. The painting shows the growing architectural legacy and its desirability in the Mughal empire. 

The sophisticated Mughal Miniature Paintings in the reign of Jahangir (1605-1627)

The stylistic narration and storytelling in miniature paintings of Akbar’s reign were replaced by sophisticated details of courtly scenes, portraiture, flora, and fauna during Jahangir’s reign. Unlike Akbar’s interest in illustrated books created by many artists together, Jahangir aimed to possess lesser paintings but quality work by a single artist. He received many art presents from the Europeans who visited his court, influenced by that he introduced naturalism and a level of spatial depth using perspectives in the Mughal Miniature Paintings. Hence, Mughal paintings went through higher scrutiny of technicalities with European influences in the Indo-Iranian style. 

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Emperor Jahangir with Holy Men in a Garden by Abu’l Hasan(1615) _©The San Diego Museum of Art

The above miniature painting demonstrates the stillness incorporated leaving behind the transitions and overlays designed by Akbar’s artists. It talks about the elegance and etiquettes of courtly life in each portrait created. When analyzing this painting, one encounters the Mughal garden layout with grid divisions of plantations and a pavilion right at the frontage creating a framed scene and the linear water channel above which is the bridged platform where Jahangir is addressing the people around him. It is probably the night scene as there are candles lit in front of Jahangir and a young boy is also holding a candle. 

The flatness of view in the previous style is overpowered by the perspective angle estimating the spatial layout. The colors are subdued and subtle fusing the orderly composition of the garden and the poised men around. Royal ministers are standing poised behind Jahangir, in front of him are the holy men delighted by some news, and on his left at the base of the miniature painting are the locales mystified with the news. The margins are in gold with the frame of the floral patterns within frames adorned in gold which is a prominent feature of miniature paintings commissioned by Jahangir. Abu’l Hasan has created an utmost relevance between the architecture and the courtly people of the time in this stunning artwork.   

The architectural Mughal Miniature Paintings in the reign of Shah Jahan (1628-1658)

Shah Jahan did an accountable contribution to Mughal architectural style by commissioning Shahjahanabad, various walled gardens in the North, the Taj Mahal, and many more. However, he was a tenacious curator and continued the miniature painting tradition in the artists’ ateliers with a crisp contemplation of architectural details like pietra dura also known as Parchin Kari which is the mosaic of semi-precious stones inlay, geometric floral patterns in textiles, canopies, domes, and arches as emerged in reality. Shah Jahan assigned Padshahnama to record each day of the royal court with magnificent durbars, grand processions, and glorious victories in his reign. It is a manuscript of 22 single and 11 double page miniature paintings authored by Abd al-Hamid Lahawri and illustrated by Shah Jahan’s royal masterly artists. 

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Shah Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies by Bichitr and Ramdas (1630-40) _©Royal Collection Trust

The painting above is a double-page miniature painting from Padshahnama bordered with arabesque designs in metallic gold paint. It depicts the jubilant accession ceremony of Shah Jahan sitting on the stepped jharokha delighted to receive his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan on the right side page. The background has marble with colourful pietra dura and intricate patterned textiles in front of Shah Jahan and marble jaalis creating a sense of strict hierarchy among the royal members and the common public present. The artists depict nuances of the rigidity adapted in the miniature paintings with minute details of the rituals performed during the ceremony where we see attendants holding imperial insignia which include the sunshade (aftab-gir) and standards (alam) wrapped in scarlet cloth and the holy men right in front enchanting prayers. 

The left side shows the celebrations held in the outdoors of the palace where all of them are regally dressed-up in colours of celebration and even the elephant and horses are adorned. The artists have used relatively bright colors giving life to the procession painted. These are set against the background revealing the facade of the Agra Fort where in the carved marble and red sandstone chattri’s cusped arches, one can frame the royal singers and musicians oscillating melodies and rhythms in the air. Thus, Shah Jahan’s monarchy saw a sense of eliteness and wealth in the miniature paintings with jewel-like splendour in the techniques and colours used.      

The revalidation of Mughal Miniature Paintings 

Mughal miniature paintings began to decline from Aurangzeb’s reign (1658–1707) when the Mughal art had reached its zenith. It was temporarily revived during Muhammad Shah between 1719–1748. The painting below is by Fayzullah showing a narrative within narratives where his focus was women bathing in the harem garden. It is highly augmented with a vertical depth creating overlays of the carefree luxurious life in the harem and the tensioned warships taking place at the borders of the forts. This painting has a marvellous architectural language with the usage of perspective, colors injecting vibrancy to the maneuvers, crisp elements and portraiture intacting multiple narrations of the royal life. 

Exploring the colours of the past through the Miniature Paintings of Mughal Architecture in India - Sheet5
Women bathing before an architectural panorama (1765)_©The Cleveland Museum of Art

Ghulam Ali Khan signs off the art of Mughal Miniature Paintings

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The Peacock Throne in Diwan-e-Khas by Ghulam Ali Khan ©Bonhams

Ghulam Ali Khan marks his creativity in the first half of the 19th century renowned for his topographical views and architectural attributions of monuments. He never failed to record the notable architecture pieces amongst which was the Diwan-e-Khas of Qila-e-Mubarak (Red Fort) painting two significant spaces viz. the Peacock Throne highlighting the Mughal power and the two arches seen in the painting below with the famous verses ‘Agar Firdaus’ truly defining Diwan-e-Khas. Unlike other paintings where we saw the arabic motifs, this miniature painting clearly shows the meenakari Indian art with symbolic peacocks representing the playful Indian motifs. While the painting below represents the symmetric adornment of spaces to enhance the human transition around and the cultural depictions blurring the boundary between the tangible and intangible.       

The Interior of the Dewan Khas and the Tusbee Khana by Ghulam Ali Khan_©Bonhams

Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.

English Translation:
If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this

References: 

Online sources:

  1. Surya Tubach (2018). The Astounding Miniature Paintings of India’s Mughal Empire [online]. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-astounding-miniature-paintings-indias-mughal-empire  [Accessed date: 05 April 2022]. 
  2. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. The arts of the Mughal Empire [online]. Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-arts-of-the-mughal-empire  [Accessed date: 05 April 2022]. 
  3. Lumen Learning. The Mughal Period I Boundless Art History [online]. Available at: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/the-mughal-period/#:~:text=Mughal%20painting%20is%20a%20style,%2C%20Buddhist%2C%20and%20Jain%20influences  [Accessed date: 05 April 2022]. 
  4. ncert.nic.in. The Mughal School of Miniature Painting 3 [online]. Available at: https://ncert.nic.in/textbook/pdf/lefa103.pdf [Accessed date: 05 April 2022]. 

Paintings:

  1. Abd al-Samad. (1550-56). Akbar presents a Painting to his father Humayun. [Painting]. Source: commons wikimedia. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E2%80%98Abd_al-Samad._Akbar_Presents_a_Painting_to_His_Father_Humayun._Mughal,_probably_Kabul,_c._1550%E2%80%931556._Golestan_Palace_Library,_Tehran.jpg [Accessed date: 04 April 2022]
  2. Chetar and Basawan. (1590-95). Akbar’s adventures with the elephant Hawa’i- from Akbarnama. [Painting]. Source: Victoria & Albert Museum. Available at: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O9408/akbar-painting-basawan/ [Accessed date: 04 April 2022]
  3. Abu’l Hasan. (1615). Emperor Jahangir with Holy Men in a Garden. [Painting]. Source: San Diego Museum of Art. Available at: https://collection.sdmart.org/objects-1/info?query=_ID%20%3D%20%22ALL%22%20and%20Period%20%3D%20%22Mughal/Jahangir%20(1605-1627)%22&sort=0&objectName=Emperor%20Jahangir%20with%20Holy%20Men%20in%20a%20Garden [Accessed date: 04 April 2022]
  4. Bichitr and Ramdas. (1630-40). Shah Jhan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies. [Painting]. Source: Royal Collection Trust. Available at: https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/publications/eastern-encounters/shah-jahan-receives-his-three-eldest-sons-and-asaf [Accessed date: 04 April 2022]
  5. Fayzullah. (1765). Women bathing before an architectural panorama. [Painting]. Source: The Cleveland Museum of Art. Available at: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/2013.344 [Accessed date: 04 April 2022]
  6. Ghulam Ali Khan. (1817-55). The Peacock Throne in Diwan-e-Khas. [Painting]. Source: Bonhams. Available at: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20833/lot/352/ [Accessed date: 04 April 2022]
  7. Ghulam Ali Khan. (1817-55). The interior of Dewan Khas and the Tusbee Khana. [Painting]. Source: Bonhams. Available at: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20833/lot/352/ [Accessed date: 04 April 2022]
Author

Trishla Doshi is a philomath designer and an architect in Mumbai. She aspires to foster cultural resurgence among people through reaching out to them sometimes in the form of words and sometimes design. She is in the constant exploration of the space between herself and her illustrative narratives breathing history.

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