At the beginning of the year, while spending a few days in London, I visited the V&A and was taken with the museum’s South Asian rooms. In particular, I was captivated by the Mughal paintings on display: with their flattened perspectives, and their rich colour palettes of prominent reds and oranges, amber yellow, gold, and subtly complementing shades of viridian green and Persian blue.
The Mughal Empire extended over the Indian subcontinent between the early sixteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. The Mughals were Muslims of Mongol origin: the founder of the empire, Babur, could trace his descent from both Chagatai Khan, the second son of Genghis Khan, who inherited what would become known as the Chagatai Khanate; and Timur, founder of the Timurid dynasty. Against a background of infighting within the Timurid dynasty, and conflict between the Timurids and the Uzbeks, who were led by Muhammad Shaybani, Babur was forced to base himself at Kabul following the loss of his homeland Farghana and his repeated failure to take Samarkand. Seeking refuge from the Uzbeks, he eventually took his forces into northern India, and established the Mughal Empire upon the First Battle of Panipat in 1526.
The capital of Babur’s Mughal Empire was at Agra; and it shifted between Agra, nearby Fatehpur Sikri, and Lahore, before settling in 1648 in Shahjahanabad, known today as Old Delhi. The walled city of Old Delhi was constructed between 1638 and 1648 by Emperor Shah Jahan. The period of his rule has been characterised as the golden age of Mughal architecture, seeing the construction of the Taj Mahal, in Agra (1632-1653); the Red Fort, which served as the Mughal emperor’s Delhi residence (1648); the Jama Masjid, Delhi’s most famous mosque (1650-1656); and the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore (1641) and the Shalimar Bagh in Delhi (1653), both inspired by the Shalimar Bagh of Srinagar, Kashmir, built by Emperor Jahangir (1619). The Mughal Empire reached its greatest extent under Shah Jahan’s successor, Emperor Aurangzeb, before declining rapidly in the century following his death in 1707.
Babur had been heavily invested in Persian culture, and developed a strong relationship with Safavid Persia. This connection was further cultivated when Babur’s son, Humayun, was forced by the rise of the short-lived Suri Empire to spend fifteen years in Persia in exile. Humayun recovered his kingdom in 1555, with the help of the Safavids, and in the process extended the land he would leave a year later to his son Akbar.
Akbar’s reign as Mughal Emperor saw a flourishing of the arts. Persian culture – with the Persian language now consolidated as the official language of the empire – merged with the local Indian culture, and Akbar upheld Islam while embracing Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, nascent Sikhism, and aspects of Christianity and esoteric belief, as these diverse influences resulted in the emergence of the distinctive forms of Mughal art. The Mughal school of architecture burgeoned under Akbar, and scholars of various faiths gathered in his empire to debate, study, and teach. Akbar had Sanskrit literature, including the Upanishads, translated for the first time into Persian and Arabic. Under his rule, the Mughal Empire tripled in size, expanding the full breadth of the subcontinent.
Mughal painting similarly blossomed. Mughal painting stands as part of the Asian tradition of the miniature: a tradition related to the Western practise of the illuminated manuscript, but which sees manuscripts illustrated in ornate detail, with single works also produced and collected in albums. Mughal painting typically utilises gold and opaque watercolour on paper. Master artists would draw the outlines of an illustration, with their juniors filling in the colour before the master added the finishing touches. A third artist occasionally contributed their expertise in portraiture, or other points of detail.
Beyond its predominant Persian and Indian influences, the perspective utilised by Mughal painters recalls something of the Trecento, fourteenth century early Italian Rennaisance art. But the sense of movement which characterises much Mughal painting more evokes Pieter Bruegel the Elder; while its strong, rhythmic line and blocks of vivid colour suggest ukiyo-e. As with ukiyo-e, Mughal painting displays expressive figures and a stylised transition between foreground and background. Nature – foliage, hills, animals, and so on – is painted realistically, but there is little tranquil space amid the throngs of people.
The V&A’s collection of Mughal painting comes largely from the Akbarnama, literally the Book of Akbar. The official chronicle of Akbar’s reign, this was commissioned by Akbar and written in Persian by Abu’l Fazl – his vizier and court historian; whose brother, Faizi, was Akbar’s poet laureate – between 1590 and 1596. Between 1592 and 1594, at least forty-nine different artists worked on the chronicle’s illustrations. The V&A acquired the Akbarnama in 1896 from Frances Clarke, the widow of Major-General John Clarke, who had served in India as Commissioner of Oudh from 1858 to 1862.
Produced towards the end of Akbar’s reign, the Akbarnama showcases a highly refined form of Mughal painting – which had developed with remarkable cohesion across earlier commissioned illustrations of the Tutinama (‘Tales of a Parrot‘), which took Akbar’s studio of artists fifteen years to complete; the Hamzanama (‘Epic of Hamza‘); Gulistan (‘The Rose Garden‘); Darabnama (‘Book of Darab‘); and the roughly contemporaneous Khamsa of Nizami, which is in the collection of the British Library, but with five detached miniatures held by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. A second Akbarnama was commissioned even later in Akbar’s reign, and completed between 1602 and 1603; in contrast to the V&A’s Akbarnama, this lesser-known manuscript features a cooler palette of blues and greens and brown washes.
The two Akbarnama illustrations which caught my eye in the V&A were Rai Surjan Hada Making Submission to Akbar, designed and finished by Mukund, painted by Shankar; and Bullocks Dragging Siege-Guns up a Hill, designed by Miskina, painted by Paras.
These paintings depict scenes from the same military campaign. At the end of 1568, Akbar led an army of more than 50,000 towards Ranthambore Fort – today one of the six Hill Forts of Rajasthan which together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Passing through Delhi and stopping to pay homage at his father Humayun’s tomb, the Mughals lay siege to Ranthambore Fort from the beginning of February, and had secured the fort by the end of March. In the process, Akbar completed the vital conquest of the region of Rajputana. This triumph was the impetus for his moving of the Mughal capital, a couple of years later, west to Fatehpur Sikri.
Bullocks Dragging Siege-Guns up a Hill displays the Mughals – and their bullocks – in the process of positioning the large cannons which would fire upon Ranthambore Fort. Bombarded for more than a month, and with the Mughals gaining the surrounding territory, on 21 March Rai Surjan Hada – the Hada Rajput holder of the fort – finally submitted. Rai Surjan Hada Making Submission to Akbar shows him bowing in submission to Akbar, who sits enthroned under a canopy within his imperial camp.
Both works of art were painted with opaque watercolour and gold on paper. Rai Surjan Hada Making Submission to Akbar is defined by the gold detail and rich orange of Akbar’s throne, the blocks of red and amber yellow with green highlights which make up his camp, and the clusters of people which pack the route between the camp and the fort – with a dreamlike vista in the top right, which sees a lone tree perched on a rocky outcrop and distant foliage hovering in the sky. By contrast, Bullocks Dragging Siege-Guns up a Hill shows something of the imperial camp, with the same rich colour scheme, in its bottom right corner; but its depiction of figures is more fluid, as they coalesce and strain to help Akbar’s cannons uphill; and the foliage is more detailed and the cliff face multicoloured and carefully shaded. Where Rai Surjan Hada Making Submission to Akbar impresses through its bold use of colour and ability to lead the eye on a course from camp to fort and beyond, Bullocks Dragging Siege-Guns up a Hill compels by means of a lively, variegated texture, as its cannons fire off above with a cloud of smoke.
In the third volume of the Akbarnama, the Ain-i-Akbari, which is full of administrative detail, Abu’l Fazl listed for special praise seventeen of the master artists who had worked as part of Akbar’s studio. Abu’l Fazl also recounted Akbar’s own sense of the value of art:
‘I cannot tolerate those who make the slightest criticism of this art. It seems to me that a painter is better than most in gaining a knowledge of God. Each time he draws a living being he must draw each and every limb of it, but seeing that he cannot bring it to life must perforce give thought to the miracle wrought by the Creator and thus obtain a knowledge of Him.’
Miskina and Mukund were two of the royal artists on Abu’l Fazl’s list. Miskina, though not one of the oldest artists in Akbar’s studio, worked on most of the illustrated manuscripts which appeared throughout Akbar’s reign. By the time of the Akbarnama, he had become one of the main composers of illustrations. He specialised particularly in the designing of animals, as Bullocks Dragging Siege-Guns up a Hill aptly demonstrates. One of his single works – a version of a print of Saint Christopher with the Christ Child – shows how European art came to influence the Mughal painters, brought to Akbar’s court often by Jesuit missionaries. Mukund established his talent from the early 1580s, and composed prolifically across the later manuscripts of Akbar’s reign.
V&A, Rai Surjan Hada Making Submission to Akbar : http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O9608/rai-surjan-hada…
V&A, Bullocks Dragging Siege-Guns up a Hill: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O9611/painting-miskina/
V&A, ‘Life and Art in the Mughal Court’: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/l/life-and-art-in-the-mughal-court/
J.P. Losty, ‘A Prince’s Eye: Imperial Mughal Paintings from a Princely Collection; Art from the Indian Courts’ (Francesca Galloway sale catalogue, London: 2013): https://www.academia.edu/4651733/A_Prince_s_Eye…
The Met, ‘The Art of the Mughals after 1600’: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mugh_2/hd_mugh_2.htm