Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Muslim rulers brought to India a new worldview in which the individual’s role in history was more important and the creation of history and religious books was a central part of the culture. At the same time, the Hindu Rajput courts began producing unbound manuscripts. These Muslim and Rajput rulers attracted the finest craftsmen, both Hindu and Muslim, and the prestige attached to their manuscript commissions occasionally afforded great honor to the artist. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“In the early eleventh century, the first large numbers of Muslims began to raid India from Ghazna in Afghanistan. In the subcontinent, Muslims encountered an ancient civilization whose peoples worshipped the powers and perfection of the gods in idealized human forms and, though of different faiths, managed to coexist peacefully. Turko-Afghan invasions continued through the twelfth century and the first Muslim kingdom in India, the Delhi Sultanate, was proclaimed in 1206. Buddhism, which had gradually lost adherents in India, seems to have been dealt a deathblow when Muslim invaders destroyed the great Buddhist monastery-universities in northeast India. Although many Hindu temples were destroyed as well, the Hindu faith continued to be the religion of most Indians. <*>

“The Muslim invaders brought new forms of architecture and art rooted in Persian court traditions. Artistic creativity resurfaced under the patronage of Muslim and Hindu royal courts, and the greatest achievements shifted from the religious to the secular realm. The major Indian art forms, sculpture and figural reliefs, gave way to painting and architecture. However, human and animal figures continued to be the main subjects of “miniature paintings,” that is, pages from illustrated books and folios.” <*>

“The Mughal emperor Akbar’s father brought two outstanding artists from the Persian court to direct his atelier. At Akbar’s court and that of his son Jahangir and grandson Shah Jahan, painters of illustrated books and album leaves became famous and were given impressive titles. However, although we may know their names, scant biographical information about most of the artists has been uncovered. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, in periods when the Mughal atelier was less vital, artists moved to the Hindu courts and created cross-fertilization between the indigenous Indian and Mughal styles. <*>

Manuscripts, Mosque Art and Islamic Calligraphy in India

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The holy book of the Muslims, the Qur’an, was often adorned with beauti- ful calligraphy, geometric patterns, and vegetal designs. The depiction of humans and animals was taboo. However, the production of elaborate illus- trated books was the hallmark of a sophisticated Islamic court. Particularly in Persia, books about the adventures of mythic heroes were filled with remarkable scenes of humans and animals created for the enjoyment of the king and his courtiers. Muslim invaders brought this art of the book to the courts of South Asia, along with the use of paper, which gradually replaced flattened and cut palm leaves for writing and painting. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“The Hindu (Rajput) courts made unbound manuscripts of traditional texts, while the Mughals created bound volumes that included not only Muslim subjects and historical texts but also, under the early Mughal emperor Akbar, great Hindu epics. Although imperial book commissions continued throughout the seventeenth century, illustrations of everyday life became popular as well, including portraits of court officials, harem scenes, and realistic depictions of animals and flowers. The Hindu courts were influenced by these trends, particularly in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, when a number of Mughal artists departed the imperial ateliers to seek work at Rajput courts. <*>

“Inspired by Persian architecture, the Muslim sultanates constructed mosques using the arch and dome, building techniques that were unknown in India. These rounded shapes were set within rectangular walls in harmo- nious and balanced geometrical arrangements. Interiors and exteriors were decorated with traditional Islamic geometric and floral patterns, based on geometric principles believed to reflect God’s order in the universe. These patterns can also be interpreted as a way of visualizing God’s infinite pow ers, since many of them can be repeated endlessly in all directions. The most important decorative element was Arabic calligraphy, which perpetuates God’s words to Muhammad. <*>

“The most famous Mughal religious structure, the Taj Mahal, is not a mosque but a tomb. Built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, it includes a small mosque in its walled enclosure. From a distance the measured geometric architectural shapes and their symmetrical arrangement evoke harmony and grandeur. Closer up, the white marble walls are seen to be inlaid with beautiful calligraphy and delicate patterns of semiprecious stones representing flowers.<*>

Color and Pattern in Indian Islamic Art

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Pattern—floral and geometric—is distinctive feature of court art, whether spread across a wall, on a book cover or border of an album leaf, around a dagger hilt, or on a carpet. With straight edge and compass, artists created geometric patterns of intersecting circles upon which they drew grids of equilateral triangles and squares . These in turn could be elaborated into polygons and stars. Vines, leaves, and blossoms grew out of each other in continuous curving patterns. In the Mughal period, these floral designs became more and more realistic, so that many flowers could be identified. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“In the royal art of many cultures, colors are strong and bold. In India, surfaces both large and small—architecture, clothing, and personal art—were enriched with bright color, especially reds and brilliant blues. There was also an appreciation of the softer, subtler colors of jade. Colors in patterns were combined to create the rich floral and geometric designs found in Mughal textiles and carpets. Color in miniature painting was at first fanciful and jewel-like—blue rocks, for instance, and lavender horses—as in the Persian court style. <*>

“Muslim and Hindu patrons delighted in sumptuous polished surfaces: the glisten of gold, silver, and other metals, the reflective qualities of polished gems and stones such as jade and rock crystal, and the sheen of silks and ivory. Another favored way to enrich surfaces was the technique of inlay, in which materials such as ivory and shell were set into wood, and gold and silver into darker metal surfaces. <*>

“The same formal elements—rich geometric and vegetal patterns, rich colors, and rich materials— were applied to architecture, textiles, ceramics, metal- work, and stone, stucco, and wood carvings. No distinction existed between what is called fine art in Western cultures and the decorative arts.” <*>

Mughal Painting

The most dramatic painting in the history of Indian art were made during the Mughal period in the 16th century. The Mughal-Persian school dealt primarily with secular themes: portraits, court scenes, natural life, historical subject, battles, legends and stories revolving around the Mughal rulers. Vidya Dehejia, a Smithsonian curator and professor at Columbia University, wrote: the Mughals “were interested in realistic portraiture, recording historical vents, studies of natural history, and the classic of Persian literature. Emperor Akbar sat for his own portrait and demanded that similar studies be painted of his trusted nobles. Figures were now individualized and placed against a realist background”

Mughal painting features naturalism and a sense of space, and portrayed both historical scenes and mythic events. Figures are individualized through lively expressions, gestures, and poses. Realistic details of costume, adornment, personal possessions, architecture, gardens, and animals abound. Colors are nuanced. The interest in naturalism was fueled by the prints and paintings brought to the court by European merchants and missionaries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Exposed to new ways of depicting the world, Mughal painters experimented with modeling in light and shadow and other European techniques such as perspective to create the illusion of volume and depth.

Persia had a great deal of influence on Mughal art. Persian artists were brought in and Persian became the language of the court. "The Mughals rulers were," Holland Carter wrote in the New York Times, "by all accounts, awful and admirable in about equal measure. Austere political spinmeisters, they were quick to realize the propaganda potential of art."

Mughal painting evolved during the reigns of the three greatest Mughal emperors. Akbar (r. 1556–1605), Jahangir’s court (r. 1605–27), Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58). Although mural paintings are known to have decorated the walls of palaces and mansions, few survive. However, secular manuscripts dating from the sixteenth century onward are extant.

History of Mughal Art

Mughal art was been described as a propagation of Persian culture by Turkish rulers on the Indian subcontinent. The Mughal emperors greatly admired the 15th century calligraphic folios produced in Herat, the great Persian speaking city state in present-day Afghanistan. The Mughal school of art began in the 1550s when Persian artists were invited to Lahore. Mughal art was influenced by works from China and Europe. Perspective and other techniques was picked up from European painting given as gifts to the emperors.

The art critic Souren Melikian in the International Herald Tribune: "In the following 70 years or so, artistic development of a complexity that has yet to be unraveled, took place. Painters from all over India flocked to the Mughal Court. A different spatial organization, a new interest in the natural world, vegetable and animal, a growing concern for distinctive portraiture, appeared in their works. While Persian poetry of Islamic India, produced in huge quantity, was in the main indistinguishable from that of Iran, its painting moved light years away from its sources, irrepressibly attracted to experimentation and exoticism."

Mughal painting and architecture influenced the indigenous Rajput styles and, by the late seventeenth century, constituted the dominant court style. Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Many Indians were attracted to Sufism, an Islamic sect that preached a direct approach to God through love and devotion. Such an approach was remarkably similar to the Hindu belief in bhakti, the personal devotion to God. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“During the period of Muslim rule in India, stoneworkers did not produce figural sculpture because of the traditional Islamic aversion to the depiction of the human form. Instead, they excelled in creating architectural embellishments such as openwork screens, windows, inlaid stone, and brickwork. The Central Asian origins of the Mughals are reflected in a fondness for carved jade objects that could be handled and admired. Jade is such a hard stone that shaping it requires immense skill. It cannot be carved with traditional tools. Rather, the jade worker covers the surface with pastes of ground stone and then gradually shapes the object by abrading it with stone and metal tools. Once the desired form has been created, the artist brings the surface to a high polish with further abrasion. <*>

Art Under Mughal Shahs

Akbar (1542-1605, ruled 1556-1605) is regarded as the greatest of all the Mughal emperors ("Akbar" in fact means "Great"). He employed a large number of artists to create illustrations about things other men read about. Much of the Mughal art hanging in museums is illustrations from manuscripts in Akbar's library. Akbar was infatuated with Persia culture. He made Persian the official language of the court. Great art was produced in Akbar’s rule. He commissioned illustrated dynastic histories and translations of Hindu classics into Persian.

Mughal painting reached it greatest heights under Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627, ruled 1605-1629), Akbar's son. Artists arrived from Persia at a rapid clip. The works included pages from the Koran illuminated and decorated with tiny flowers and geometric designs, miniature battle scenes from manuscripts and "paintings by rare artists" from Jahangir's place. Under Jahangir, Lahore attracted craftsmen from all over Asia: tilemakers weavers, carvers and miniaturists. The artists of Jahangir’s court gratified the emperor’s taste for individual portrait studies of birds, animals, flowers, and members of his court.

Shah Jahan (1592-1666, ruled 1629-1658) is known mostly as the Mughal ruler who built the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan ruled India during the golden age of Mughal art an architecture. He oversaw the merging of Hindu and Muslim art to produce spectacular miniature paintings. Shah Jahan shared Jahangir’s this interest in lifelike portraits, especially of the royal family and court members, and resumed his grandfather’s interest in history painting.

Mughal Miniature Painting

The Mughals often produced their art for books. They introduced the vertical page format of the Persian and European work to India. Miniature paintings were created for these books, which were largely made to be privately viewed by their owners, often Mughal emperors. Paintings were mounted with elaborate borders and bound in imperial albums.

The Mughals adopted Persian miniature painting. Mughal-period craftsmen were very good at miniature-style sculpture, engraving and calligraphy. The Mughal emperors carried Korans that were so small they fit into a compartment on a ring. Under emperor Jahangir (1605-1627), Western engraving and English-style miniature portraits were depicted using Eastern techniques.

Manuscript paintings were often treasured more by shahs and sultans than their gold and jewels. It is not unusual for single pages from treasured manuscripts to sell for over $1 million at art auctions today. Persian miniaturists were perhaps arguable the most praised Persian artists. They helped found the Mughal school of painting and their influence is found throughout the Islamic world, Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia.

Moraqqa-e Golsham ("The Rose Garden Album") is regarded by some as the most important work of Mughal art. It is a volume of illuminated miniature paintings made for the 17th century Mughal emperor Jahangir. Taken to Tehran in the 18th century, when Delhi was sacked by the Persians, it contains many interesting blends of Western and Eastern art, including images of the Virgin Mary and angels surrounded by Islamic motifs and Persian miniatures. The problem with the Moraqqa-e Golsham is that most of the manuscript sits in the Golestan Palace in Tehran, where no one can see it.

Miniature Painting

The miniature painting was one of the most developed form of painting in the Islamic art. Most of these works came from manuscripts. They feature flat, two-dimensional surfaces, fine draftsmanship, exquisite details, and a brilliant, jewel-like pallet. Some of the details are so tiny that museums that display them often have magnifying glasses on hand so that viewers can examine details that are difficult to make out with the naked eye.

The idea behind miniature painting was not to create grand works of art for all the world to see—such as Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. But, rather to produce a personal work of art that one could carry with them and examine when they felt like. Muslim rulers moved around quite a bit, leading soldiers into battle and checking on the state of their kingdoms, so it made more sense for them to make small works they could carry with them as opposed to large works in a palace that was rarely visited.

The artists who created miniature paintings generally worked in a studio and painted with water-colors using single-squirrel-hair brushes. They may have also worked with lenses but no one has been able to prove it. Illustrators first outlined the compositions with the single hair brushes. Then paint was added. Pigments were prepared from plant, mineral and animal substances, such as gold, silver, lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl, and mixed with a binding medium such as gum arabic.

Subjects and Images in Miniature Painting

Some of the earliest known illustrated works came from the great Arab Islamic kingdoms in Syria and Iraq in 11th and 12th centuries. These included medical and scientific treatises and Arab literary classics. Later subjects included the reigns and lives of Ottoman sultans; episodes from the Shah Nameh ("the Book of Kings”), the Persian national epic, Mogul stories and works by famous poets.

The lives and exploits of kings and princes were often the subjects of miniature paintings. Some depicted battle scenes with spurting blood, severed limbs and wounded animals. Other showed the rulers enjoying peacetime pursuits such hanging out in their gardens or enjoying their harems. From the late 16th century artists began to create works of art free from any specific text. The paintings, which were often collected in albums ( muraqqa), were inspired by poems, the artist’s imagination and direct observation.

Images in miniature painting tend to be idealized, mystical and surreal rather than realistic. Their intent seems to be to entertain the eyes. Describing an image in a miniature painting, Paul Richard wrote in the Washington Post, “A multicolored bird, half hen, half Chinese dragon, swoops through golden skies. On the grassy plain below an archer stare. We can see, if we peer closer, the jewels in the scimitar and the tiny golden arabesques that decorate his bow and his arrows and their feathers and the thin string of his bow.”

Some Islamic painting of mountains and trees resembles the landscape silk screens of Chinese artists. This partly the result of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century that brought Chinese culture to the west for the first time on a grand scale.

Producing Miniature Paintings

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Miniature paintings, as book illustrations and album leaves are often called, involved the collaboration of many artists and apprentices in the court workshops. The process began with discussions between patron and artist to determine subject matter. After creating a sketch and then a finished draw- ing for approval, the artist would “pounce” (trace) the lines of the drawing. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“This was done by putting a transparent material, often gazelle skin, over the drawing and pricking the outlines. The tracing was placed on the paper to be painted and black pigment was pushed into the tiny pricked holes creat- ing dotted lines. Then the tracing material was removed and the dotted lines were connected with brushwork. <*>

“Apprentices would grind costly minerals such as malachite (green) and lapis lazuli (blue). Other pigments came from colored earths, the lac secreted by a beetle (shades of red), indigo (blue) from the plant, and brilliant yellow made of urine from cows fed on mango leaves. These colors were mixed with a binding medium of gum arabic or glue to make an opaque watercolor paint. <*>

“Apprentices were often the younger members of a family of craftsmen in a workshop. The youngest made the paintbrushes by inserting very fine ani- mal hairs into quill handles. Older assistants painted the less important details. Often the artist applied several layers of paint to create particularly bright or strong colors. The unfinished painting was laid on a smooth sur- face and its back was typically burnished with a smooth agate to create a hard and permanent paint surface. Details were added after this process.” <*>


One the greatest work of miniature painting is the “Padshahnama,” a 10-inch-wide book with 478 pages of text handwritten on gold flecked paper. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, Padshahnama literally means "Chronicle of the King of the World." It is a handwritten history of the first 10 years of Shah-Jahan's reign, containing 44 paintings and two illuminations of major events such as battles. court scenes, executions and hunts. Most paintings measure 9 by 13 inches. Some are so detailed they must have taken years to paint. [Source: Paul Richards, the Washington Post, May 18, 1997]

Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote: "The pictures on its pages—which show elephants, walled kingdoms, dancing girls and diamonds—aren't like any pictures you've every seen. They're clearer and deeper. The little puff of dust in the upper corner of 'The capture of Orcha by imperial forces' becomes, if you peer into it, an army on the march, with cavalry and infantry and colored banners flying.If you look more closely you can see the saddle blanket on the elephant. If you peer close you can see the fringes on the saddle blanket."

Among the painting in the Padshahnama are "Prince Awrangzeb facing a maddened elephant named Sudhakar," "The delivery of presents for Prince Dara Shiko's wedding," and "Shah-Jahan honoring Prince Awrangzeb at Agra before his wedding." The "The death of Khan Jahan Lodi" shows severed heads with little specks that on close examination are flies with abdomen's full of blood. "The wedding procession of Prince Dara Shiko," is only 10-x-5 inches but contain 18 elephants, 31 horses and 282 different people."


The Hamzanama, an illustrated manuscript executed in the 16th century for the great Mughal emperor Akbar, is regarded as one the greatest masterpieces of Islamic art. Some scholars rank it with the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa. The Hamzanama is a series of stories about Mohammed’s uncle, Hamza, illustrated with exquisite miniature paintings. Produced and made over a 14 year period starting in 1557 by a “factory” of 50 artists under the direction of the Persia-born artist Mir Sayyid Ali, it is a fine example of both Persian and Mughal art. It originally contained 1,400 paintings, of which 200 survive. [Source: Blake Gopnik, Washington Post, July 21, 2002]

The Hamzanama contains scenes of the exploits of Hamza, a legendary Muslim hero. It is not a collection of miniature paintings intended for private reflection. The pages are huge—over two feet high—and were kept in boxes for public storytelling sessions in which a story teller read the text from the back of the pages for the illiterate emperor and his court.

The Hamzanama paintings features bold colors and are filled with figures, details and psychedelic designs that seems inspired by opium dreams. The paintings were large executed by Hindu artists overseen by Persian masters who tried to incorporate some Western ides of perspective. Different artists worked on different pages. On its pages are graphic images of beheadings and blood-drenched battlefields, leopard-spotted and elephant-tusked demons, and depictions of Hamza as he travels around the world.

Nilgai (Blue Bull)

Describing a 18.2-x -24.2-centimeter opaque watercolor and gold leaf from an album made for Shah Jahan during the reign of Jahangir by Mansur in 1620, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Emperor Jahangir combined a fascination with the animals, birds, and flow- ers of India with an interest in naturalistic painting. One of his favorite artists, Mansur, accompanied the emperor on travels through his empire and on hunting trips, making sketches of the local flora and fauna. The nilgai, a wild bull with a blue-gray hide, is a dangerous and wily animal to hunt. Mansur probably studied and sketched this nilgai from life in Jahangir’s game park. Later, in his studio, he added the fine brushstrokes suggesting volume and texture. After another artist created the floral border, the picture was ready to be bound in an album for Jahangir to study and admire at his leisure.[Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“A few faintly sketched plants suggest the field where the nilgai is grazing. All other background details are eliminated to focus on the bull. Mansur’s ability to depict precise natural details of the animal is remarkable. Notice the sense of the bone structure and muscle beneath the short hair on the nilgai’s head. In contrast, the muzzle seems soft and velvety, the hair of the mane bristly, and the tufts beneath the chin and at the tail’s end soft and long. <*>

“Mansur was an admired member of Jahangir’s imperial workshop. His signa- ture in a small curving script immediately to the left of the nilgai’s front legs says, “the work of the servant of the court, Mansur, the Wonder of the Age.” This impressive title was bestowed upon Mansur by the emperor and was his official name at court. <*>

“In contrast to this noble and formal portrait of the nilgai, the borders are filled with elegant, colorful floral scrolls created by another artist whose specialty was painting borders for album leaves. Vines circle about each other, producing flowers such as lilies, narcissus, and morning glories. The borders combine Islamic floral and vine patterns with classical floral motifs recently reinterpreted by Renaissance artists whose works were brought to the Mughal court in the form of prints. <*>

Prince Khurram (later, Shah Jahan) with His Son Dara Shikoh

Describing a 39-x -26.2-centimeter ink, opaque watercolor and gold leaf from an album made for Shah Jahan during the reign of Jahangir by Nanha in 1620, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “On this album page, Prince Khurram and his five-year-old son, Prince Dara, are portrayed sitting quietly upon a golden throne engaged in one of the Shah’s greatest pleasures—admiring and examining jewels. Prince Khurram leans back against an embroidered pillow and studies a large, deep pink gemstone called a spinel (or balas ruby), which he has removed from a dish of emeralds and other gems. Prince Dara, a miniature gold- hilted dagger in his belt, holds a peacock-feather turban ornament and a sweet-smelling flower. Like his father, he wears a turban with ornaments and lavish pearl drop, emerald jewelry, and silk leggings under a belted silk coat. Although the artist seems to have captured a relaxed, private moment between father and son, both their faces are in perfect profile and Prince Khurram’s head emanates a pale golden halo. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“European visitors to the emperor’s brilliant court brought gifts of art from their own lands. There is evidence in this painting that Mughal artists were increasingly aware of European styles of representation. In portraying Prince Khurram’s face, the artist experimented with three-dimensional modeling in light and shadow, and tilted the throne up to show his ability in drawing objects in perspective. The halo around Prince Khurram’s head may also have been inspired by European works of religious art. <*>

The royal pair are portrayed against a plain, light green background that is isolated from the outer border by a dark blue band with gold floral designs. In contrast to the quiet concentration suggested by the expressions and poses of father and son, the outer borders team with flowering plants and with peacocks, cranes, partridges, and pigeons. At the top, two birds swoop toward each other from opposite edges of the page, flying into a realm that symbolizes paradise within a heavenly park. The carefully observed portrayal of plants and birds reflects the great interest of early Mughal rulers in flora and fauna. Both Jahangir and Shah Jahan commissioned floral bor- ders for their album leaves whose forms may have been influenced by books on herbs brought by European ambassadors and merchants.

Mughal Carpet with Pictorial Designs

Describing a 833.1-x-289.5- centimeter, late-16th-or-early-17th-century. Mughal period cotton and wool carpet, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Across the imperial red field of this carpet, wild animals move freely about among decorative trees and plants. One lion is attacking an ibex, a type of wild mountain goat. Small birds are perched on the branches of the blossoming trees. Beneath them, large cranes stand about. It is as if one were looking into a royal Mughal hunting park filled with lions, tigers, ibexes, and palm trees, all native to South Asia. Closer examination reveals, however, that not all the beasts are real. Some lions and ibexes have flamelike attachments on their bodies, resembling those that appear on the qilin, a mythical Chinese beast. Since the thirteenth-century Mongolian invasions in Iran, Chinese motifs such as the dragon, phoenix, and decoratively curled clouds often appeared in Persian art. The Mughals, who greatly admired Persian art, brought to India this taste for Chinese motifs. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Iranian court weavers imported by the early Mughals introduced the Persian style of carpets in which a symmetrical field of stylized flowers, birds, and sometimes animals in combat were arranged in dense arabesque patterns based upon geometric order. The challenge faced by later Mughal weavers was how to adapt this traditional ornamental style to the growing imperial interest in pictorialism. Here the animals, birds, flowers, and trees are placed in a design that repeats three and a half times, each revers- ing the direction of the last. Although a sense of decoration and repetition still prevails, the area in which the birds, animals, trees, and flowers exist is more like a landscape. The field has opened up, the patterns are less insistent and symmetrical, and the animals charge about with natural energy.

Mughal Personal Art Objects

The Mughals produced outstanding jeweled objects d' art. One of the most outstanding pieces, owned today by Sheik Nasser al-Sabah of Kuwait, is a dagger with 1,685 rubies, 271 diamonds, 62 emeralds and many pieces of emerald green and deep blue glass. It features an Italian Renaissance grip, a blade inscribed with English words, Iran-style gold overlay and a scabbard with Central Asian silk designs.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “It was a tradition in the Mughal and Rajput courts to give elaborate gifts to impress and gain favor at court. Giving beautiful, skillfully made objects that could be held or worn advertised the refined taste of the donor, another way to advance one’s position at court. The most treasured possessions, and therefore the most prized gifts, were jewels, bejeweled daggers and turban ornaments, fancifully designed containers made of precious materials for food and drink, incense, jewelry, perfume and water for bathing, writing implements, and hunting equipment. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“At the biannual weighing ceremony of the Mughal emperor, his weight in gold and silver, made from gifts by his courtiers and subjects, would be distributed to holy men and the poor. The emperor, in exchange, bestowed costly personal objects on his favored princes, ambassadors, and officials.” <*>

Priming Flask Used in Mughal Hunts

Describing a 25.7-centimeters,17th–18th-century Mughal-period, ivory and bronze priming flask Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Images of royal hunts not only symbolized the courage and skill of the king, they also affirmed the king’s control of his lands, since he alone granted to others the privilege to hunt. Elegantly designed hunting equip- ment was a sign of one’s status at court. Priming flasks like this one were worn suspended from a belt or from the neck so that when the court hunter needed to pour fine gunpowder into the firing pan of his gun, the flask would be close at hand. He would press down on the brass metal fitting to open the lid of the flask (the smaller end). [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“At least ten carved animals are visible here. At the tip of the curving tusk on the right is a cheetah attacking an antelope. Indian rulers often hunted with tamed cheetahs that were trained to overtake and bring down swift animals. Other images of cheetahs crowd among other animals on the flask. Notice how the ivory carver adjusted the sizes of animals and over- lapped them so that he could include as many as possible on the given shape of the ivory. To combine so many of them so cleverly requires great skill and imagination. <*>

“There was a Persian tradition of fitting together, like a puzzle, animal or human forms to create an image of a single creature. In India, such con- trivances were often seen in miniature paintings. On another level of meaning, the animal images on this flask may refer to ancient beliefs that making magic images of animals brings good luck to the hunter. Their presence on hunting equipment would lend supernatural abilities to the hunter; his bullet would be more likely to hit its target and the cheetah more likely to capture its prey.” <*>

Mughal Pierced Screen

Describing a 731/4-x-513/16-inch Mughal-era sandstone pierced screen from the reign of Akbar (r. 1556–1605), Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Pierced screens (jalis) are set in the palace walls, each one in a different geometric openwork pattern, and red textile hangings with tree patterns cover the tower windows. The central scene is full of rich details of court life such as the court members’ gestures, costumes, turbans, turban ornaments, daggers, and jewelry. They sit or stand at attention while the Maharana, in a long gold-covered coat, lounges against a soft bolster. In contrast, the performance before them is very lively. The dancers move in three different groups involving different poses and gestures. Four of them are men wearing orange turbans. A fourth group of dancers waits to perform in a line on the right. There appear to be two singers, one male and one female, and six musicians. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“All these precisely painted details of court life are organized within clearly outlined architectural spaces. The color red leads the viewer’s eye from the central dance scene to the garden to the open roof and back again, and a broad red border outlined in black encloses the entire composition. This type of court painting based on Mughal prototypes was first adopted in Mewar in the early eighteenth century. However, the naturalism of the Mughal school has been tempered by Rajput decorative painting, a some- what limited palette, and the use of multiple perspectives. <*>

“The earliest extant jalis, or pierced screens, are found in a mosque in India dated to the early sixteenth century. They became a common feature in Mughal buildings of the late sixteenth century and were later adopted in Rajput architecture as well. They functioned as windows, room dividers, and decorative features. They were ideal openings in outer walls of buildings in the warm climates of South Asia because they screened the sunshine yet allowed air to circulate freely. From early morning to sunset, the shadow patterns they cast continuously moved, adding richness to the interior of the room. <*>

“The patterns of the intricate openwork design of a jali consist of octagons containing eight-pointed stars around which radiate hexagons containing five-pointed stars. These geometric patterns could be endlessly repeated in all directions yet are contained within a typically shaped Mughal arch and rectangular outer frame. Within the corners above the arch is a smaller, more delicate pattern based on overlapping circles and stars. The most skilled craftsmen carved openwork out of one piece of sand- stone—a feat requiring tremendous precision. Although most jalis are geometric, some incorporate flowers and leaves into their designs. <*>

Rajput Painting

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The indigenous Rajput painting style favored flat areas of bright color, shallow space, and decorative patterning to depict timeless events. In contrast, Mughal painting featured greater naturalism and a sense of deeper space, and portrayed both historical scenes and mythic events. As Mughal power and patronage waned in the late seventeenth century, some court painters were drawn to the many small Rajput kingdoms. They began to develop increasingly distinct artistic styles. Some drew inspiration from Mughal art, adopting its naturalism, deeper space, more varied colors, and subject matter. Others produced paintings inspired by the indigenous Rajput love of bright color, shallow space, expressive gesture, and mythic subject matter. Still others synthesized elements of both. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“In the early Rajput style, a limited number of colors were used with little attempt at naturalism. In Mughal painting, color became increasingly naturalistic, although artists also used them to lead one’s eye through detailed scenes of court crowds, battles, and hunting so favored by the Mughals. In the nineteenth century, this profusion of styles, at first vivid and exciting, seemed at a loss for inspiration in the face of India’s changing world. Painting ateliers declined, as the British preferred to build elaborate palaces, and the advent of photography to record royal events further undermined the traditional role of painting at the courts. <*>

Vasant Ragini: a Rajput Painting

Describing a 24.9-x-20-centimeter, early 17th century opaque watercolor and gold page from a ragamala manuscript from Rajasthan, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Scenes illustrating ragas (musical modes) were popular subjects in Rajput painting. The raga, a melodic phrase used for improvisation, is the harmonic backbone of Indian music. The word raga is derived from the Sanskrit ranga, meaning color. A raga is usually associated with a particular time of the day and season of the year. In the late medieval period, many ragas were envisioned by poets and musicians as embodiments of human or divine stories. By the fifteenth century, artists began making visual analogues for them. These developed into series of stock representations whose formulae were repeated over and over by artists. Only a small number of the known ragas have pictorial equivalents. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Groups of ragas, called ragamalas (literally, garlands of ragas), were arranged into families, with a male raga presiding, five or six raginis (wives), and groups of ragaputras (sons) and ragaputris (daughters). Most albums of ragamala paintings included thirty-six or forty-two paintings. The presiding raga and the modes of illustration vary somewhat in different parts of India. The audience for these paintings was mostly aristocratic Hindu or Muslim male patrons, together with their extended (polygamous) family. The preva- lence of female love imagery in the paintings may point to their having been particularly popular with the women in the family. <*>

“Vasant Ragini visualizes a raga celebrating springtime, the season of music, dance, and love. A hero wearing a skirt of peacock feathers dances with four young women. He holds a vina (a string instrument with a gourd at each end, one for resonance, the other acting as a counterweight) in his right hand, and in his left a golden water pot containing flowers. Three of the four women around him are making music. One sounds a double-headed drum (mridangam), another marks time with a pair of handheld cymbals, and the third claps her hands in rhythms reinforced by her jingling bracelets. The fourth woman waves a fly whisk, an ancient symbol of honor and deference shown to a great leader. <*>

“The scene is set in a semicircular forest glade with a background of dark green flowering trees and a foreground of springtime vegetation. The five figures, with their minutely detailed costumes and possessions, stand out against the plain light color of the glade. Everywhere around them, out- lines and forms of nature are alive with curving energy. One can imagine what the celebration of spring must sound like in the melodies, rhythms, and variations of this Vasant Ragini. <*>

“By the seventeenth century, most of the Rajasthani princedoms had become feudatory states of the Mughals, and their maharajas were obliged to attend the emperor at court and provide military support. One of the first courts to ally with the Mughals was Amber (an old name for Jaipur) and the emperor Akbar had married an Amber princess. It is not surprising that some of the Rajasthani court workshops were influenced by the new artistic styles being created by Mughal court artists such as a more naturalistic use of color and treatment of space. For instance, here there is a definite fore-, middle, and background, and the colors are lifelike. However, the stylized flowering plants and trees of the forest echo traditional Rajasthani pleasures in pattern and decoration. <*>

Courtiers at the Jagniwas Water Palace

Describing a 67.9-x-83.8-centimeters ink, gold, silver, and opaque watercolor on paper called “Maharana Ari Singh with His Courtiers at the Jagniwas Water Palace” (1767) from a royal folio from Mewar, Rajasthan, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Ari Singh (“Lion”) was Maharana (Great King) of the Rajput kingdom of Mewar. Like other rulers, both Hindu and Muslim, he commissioned his court painters to record palace festivities, royal hunts, elephant fights, diplomatic exchanges, and battles—always featuring his rank and abilities.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Udaipur, the capital of Mewar, is built around an artificial lake. At the center of the lake is Jagniwas, the palace pictured here. Silver paint, now tarnished dark gray, originally suggested the lake’s shimmering surface. The architectural style of the palace is influenced by Mughal architecture with its curving, scalloped arches, which the Rajputs adapted as the Mughal Empire waned. Very close inspection of the tiny wall paintings that line the arcade in the Maharana’s private garden reveals depictions of the ten avatars of Vishnu and several erotic scenes which are traditional Hindu subjects. <*>

“In the open courtyard of the palace, Ari Singh and his Rajput clansmen have the privilege of sitting, each in a formal profile pose. Although a dance performance is taking place before the royal group, all eyes are on the Maharana. Were he to stand up, he would be much larger than his courtiers, and they in turn are much larger than the dancers and musicians, despite the fact that they are farther back in the picture. Obviously, scale indicates rank. <*>

“Ari Singh appears in two other episodes within this painting. Below, on the left, he admires his garden from a balcony while being attended by two servants. In the middle window on the second floor of the pavilion, he views his kingdom and his people view him. The Mughal emperors are often shown in a like position hearing petitions from the populace. In all three appearances, the Maharana’s head, large in proportion to his body, is further emphasized by a brilliant green halo emitting gold rays. This sym- bol of royal power derives from images of Mughal emperors whose halos were inspired by pictures of Christian saints brought to India by Europeans in the sixteenth century. <*>

“In this unusually large painting from a royal folio, court artists depicted the palace spaces from many viewpoints, with walls tilted up and out to reveal inner chambers and courtyards that would otherwise be hidden to us. For example, we look down upon the black and white marble courtyard and into the Maharana’s private garden. At the same time, the royal entourage seated in the pavilion appears to be at eye level. The open roof gallery of the palace is tilted up and recedes in one-point perspective to show the floral carpet. However, the roof gallery towers and the smaller towers in the walls sur- rounding the garden are depicted in a reverse one-point perspective in which the sight lines diverge rather than converge, so that three sides of each tower can be seen. These multiple perspectives can also be understood to indicate the three different time frames contained within the picture. With its luxurious fittings and sumptuous activities, the palace proclaimed the wealth and power of the Mewar rulers. <*>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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