Mughal and Persian Miniature Paintings - History
This style of painting developed in India around the 15th century A.D. Although very distinct in its style and form, the roots of this style of painting lay in the spirit of eclecticism – that is, borrowing the best from other styles of art and developing a style which is new and old at the same time. New, because it is a form of art which has definite distinct features and characteristics of its own – and old because it has been influenced by art forms belonging to earlier periods. The generous lenders were the Hindu art styles, the Persian school of art and to some extent the western schools of art.
Despite the diversity of the cultures from which it borrowed, the Mughal school of painting justified itself by improving upon its sources and lenders. In fact in many ways the Persian and Hindu schools of art are indebted to the Mughal School for the polish and finesse it gave to what it had borrowed from them.
The style of Mughal miniature painting received the patronage of the Mughal dynasty which ruled India from 1526 A.D. to 1857 A.D.
Although the Mughal rulers were Moslems, the Mughal school art cannot be labeled as either Islamic or Hindu. It was an amalgamation of the two – Indo Islamic. It deviated from the Islamic school of art in a drastic way, that is, it ignored or rather defied the ban imposed by Islam on the portrayal and representation of the human figure or for that matter any living thing.
The Mughal rulers hailed from Central Asia. Persia was the most powerful empire in Central Asia at that time. The influence of Persia pervaded not only the political arena of Central Asia but also the cultural life of the region. The Mughals were also greatly influenced and impressed with the Persian culture and art.
In 1526, when the Mughal ruler Babur established his rule in India and adopted her as his home, he also inspired and attracted many Persian artists to come to India and enrich the newly conquered territory with their artworks. This exodus of Persian painters to India continued all through the Mughal period in India, thus continuously enriching India artistically.
This entry of Persian painters in a predominantly Hindu land made waves in the stream of Indian art. Indian art which had so far been identified with Hindu Art started undergoing a qualitative change. The influence of these two distinct art forms on each other was inevitable and led to the development of a new school of art – the Indo Islamic or the Mughal School.
The Persian painters in the service of Babur and Humayun set up large workshops where “teams” undertook and carried out the illustration of not only monumental rich works such as the famous Dastan – i- Amir Hamzah, but also less extensive and simpler pictorial cycles. Two or more artists often worked on the same Miniature – a designer, a colorist, sometimes a Portraiture specialist and a minor detail painter. Obviously the purpose of this teamwork was to speed and increase production by a sort of industrialization.
Though there were no “academies” as in China and in the West, the Mughal phase of pictorial production was the outcome of imperial patronage of a unique kind. Large workshops were organized, work was distributed on precise orders, and fashions were dictated by the preferences of the court.
During the reign of Akbar, one can notice a definite influence of the European School of Art on the Mughal Miniatures – a direct result of the commercial and cultural contacts which started between India and the European states at that time.
However it was in the reign of Jehangir that the style of Miniature Painting touched the peak of excellence. Jehangir in a sense patronized art at the expense of even his political ambition. His stress shifted from quantitative production of Miniature paintings to qualitative production. He believed that the class of a painting improved if it was the creation of a single artist rather than a handiwork of many. Thus factory line production of paintings started giving way to the concept and practice of a painting being the creation of one artist exclusively. In other words the painting was identified with its artist and vice-versa.
During the reign of Shah Jahan, painting was superseded by architecture which claimed a bigger share of the Emperor’s patronage. He devoted his energy on the construction of majestic monuments like the famous Taj Mahal. Despite this, his reign saw some of the best artists of the times.
In character the Mughal Miniature Paintings were realistic, naturalistic and detail oriented. They were not meant to convey any religious, political or social messages. They merely depicted the life of the times from all angles. Many of these paintings were done with the aim of pleasing the Mughal rulers with their aesthetics. The subjects of the paintings varied from love scenes, court scenes, portraits, scenes reflecting the pageantry of the royal life style, hunting scenes, scenes reflecting the life of commoners, scenes of festivals and ceremonies etc. The concept of abstract was alien to this style of art.
With Aurangzeb the painting activity at the court dwindled. Many artists were dismissed from imperial workshops because of Aurangzeb’s bigotry and his obsession with the following Islam to its letter. With his intolerant Puritanism and his futile bloody wars, Aurangzeb killed every creative impulse. The country donned a mask of austerity and pessimism and, apart from a few genuinely religious works, paintings became exercises in calligraphy.
Despite these ups and downs, Mughal paintings were a remarkable phenomenon. They intrigued and fascinated even Rembrandt, who tried to imitate them. William Schellinks, a Dutch painter and a followers of Rembrandt’s, re-elaborated in European fashion the technique of Mughal Miniature Painting.
Although the Mughal rulers have passed the Indian scene, their legacy – Miniature Painting – is still cherished by not only Indians but by art lovers all over the world. This fine and decorative art is still being practiced and pursued by artists in India without in any way compromising its legendary quality. Nothing has changed in this style of art practiced by present day Artists – except that it has become even more popular and is attracting the attention and patronage of art lovers from all over the world including, of course, the USA.