Mughal life recorded in miniature art - an anthology
Madhusree Chatterjee New Delhi
Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar was not a man of letters. History says bulk of his worldview as a statesman, a theologian, political theorist and history came from art. The emperor commissioned the posse of painters— he employed in his studios — to visually interpret the sacred Islamic texts, HIndu epics, Persian folklores and manuscripts into artistic renderings that were narrative in their linear format of story telling. The objective was to apprise the emperor— who apparently did not find time to educate himself amid the din of the numerous battles he fought — of the chronology of events and describe the texts in pictures.
Art has been central to the history of Islam in India because it was one of few sources of information about the growth and spread of Islam, the way life was during the rule of the Mughals — in their “zenanas” (women’s quarters in veil) and in the king’s courts. The miniatures, the most popular visual formats used by the artists — gave us an idea about their culture, architecture and the people in general. The archive is mammoth – spanning nearly 350 years beginning with the rule of Babur around 1526 CE and ending with the deposing of Bahadur Shah in 1858 CE.
Art lovers say had there been no “artistic awareness” in Mughal India, the long line of 15 Mughal emperors would have been a posse of faceless names on the pages of history books. Their regal splendour and Oriental faces were best captured by the miniature painters — who made up a motley crowd of Persian artists, Indian miniaturists from the Hindu states and new expressionists inspired by the early Christian art that the Jesuits brought to India during Akbar’s reign.
A pictorial anthology, “The Mughals: Life, Art and Culture (The Mughal Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library ) published by Roli Books in 2014, has reproduced more than 100 Mughal miniatures as a document to reveal a fragment of the country’s past — that was rich in colours and aesthetic refinement. Art was a stylistic evidence of reality, painstakingly implemented by miniature painters from Persia, northern Indian states and the fiefs in Deccan to the south. Mughal miniatures, a derivative of the Persian school, were geometric in composition with emphasis on details, anatomy and intricate line drawings — of figures, landscape and architecture.
The anthology is divided into seven segments — with the pictorial journey beginning with the “The Founding of the Mughal Empire” followed by a section listing the 15 Mughal empires in portraits, life in Mughal India, the art of painting, religion, literature, science and medicine and decline of the empire.
Art historians say Mughal miniatures conjure up images “of phantasmagoric romance that cannot be distorted by the ravages of time”. In the past 700 years, Islamic calligraphy has been the legitimising template for Islamic art to script a textual and visual language in India that related to the social, political and cultural mosaics of the “settlers and imperial colonialists” from Islamic Asia.
Founder of Roli Books, Pramode Kapoor, who described the volume as one of the special publications to mark 35 years of the publishing house, recalled that the idea to publish the anthology was sown at a meeting with the lead curator of the British Library, John Falconer in 2012 after the London Book Fair. In the cluttered space of his office, Kapoor came across ”some wonderful Mughal miniatures, long panoramic maps and curious calligraphic prints ready to be bubble wrapped”, They were on their way to an exhibition in Kabul.
“Why not Delhi”, Kapoor said. In no time, an India specific catalogue was put in place by a team at the British Library and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts agreed to host an exhibition — the basis of of the publication. .
The first chapter of the volume is built around Babur (1483 to 1530) – a central Asian prince from Samarkhand who became the first Mughal emperor of India. Babur’s reign was marked by war for control of new territories and consolidation for his descendants to expand and reinforce.
Two major battles —the Battle of Panipat and the battle of Kanua in 1526-27 decided the fate in favour of the Central Asian regent in India. History says an army of nearly of 12,000 men led by Babur defeated nearly 10,000 of Ibrahim Lodhi’s troops at Panipat. Painted by miniature artists Deo Gujarati and Mahesh (as pictorial illustrations in Baburnama), the art works convey profusion — of figures, beasts, landscapes and conflict in motion. Each figure is painted in detail in colours that are “striking in their clarity and purity”. The style is one of tapestry- vertical calendar like renderings with ornamental frames. The landscape of Panipat is distinct and different from Kanua. While the former is rugged, hilly and remote — Kanua seems tame in comparison. The colours are natural, extracted from rocks and organic sources.
Line was important to the Mughal miniaturists as were frugalities of scale, precision and a flowing drift in the landscapes — a direct influence of Chinese miniatures after the Mongol wars, which saw mingling of Mongol and West Asian Islamic stock. The techniques could be compared to the Turkish art and the illuminated embellishment of the Byzantine era. The Mughal miniaturists of India often illuminated their art and manuscripts with gold pigments to infuse it with fluorescent light.
The Persian influence on Islamic miniature art is direct and enduring — history cites that when emperor returned to India after ending his exile in Iran, he brought back a retinue of miniature artists from Persia, who engaged with their Indian counterparts in exchange of styles, practise and themes. The central Asian artisans and architects, employed by the regents, influenced art as well. A large portion of the existing Mughal miniature art are in form of illustrated manuscripts— either Quranic, literary, scientific or the biographic accounts of the five key Mughal rulers — Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Not much is recorded about the reign of Aurangzeb— barring a handful of documents.
Scholars say traditionally, a Persian miniature ”is a small painted motif on a paper, whether a book illustration or a separate work of art to be kept as a folio known as a “muraqqa” (album).
The works in the anthology, “The Mughals…” from such albums and textual documents. One of the striking work – though simple— is an uncharacteristic head study of Emperor Akbar in brush strokes on a sepia surface – cloth paper. It digresses from the stylised grammar of Persian art to “show a flair for realistic contemporary portraiture like a sketch” by artist Govardhan — one of the acclaimed studio painters in Akbar’s art studios.
It features the emperor in a rare moment of introspection – probably studying a manuscripts. It shows a portly emperor with a genial face. A separate section, “Science and Medicine”, lists calligraphic interpretations of human bodies, discomforts common to different body types and reproduces royal “remedies” from texts. The astronomical drawings show use of telescope, a hand drawn world map as it was interpreted by the Islamic artists and cartographic maps.
The natural history of 15th-16th century in depicted in the individual drawings of the flora and fauna of the land – like crocodiles, pangolin birds and insects. A series of illustrated poetry and love stories told in miniature essays – for the entertainment of the listless princes with an unending appetite for romantic tales — breaks the drudgery of war imagery with their creative story-telling in animation like narratives. .
A little sketchy in textual explanation about the art and its semantics, the book, nevertheless, serves as a colourful visual album about the grand Mughals in India.