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Indian Miniature Paintings of the Mughal period

During the Mughal Kingdom, Indian painting experienced a significant period of growth and development as it was influenced by Persian art and culture. The integration of these two artistic traditions resulted in a fresh and refined aesthetic that elevated the status of Indian miniature art to an iconic level within India's cultural heritage.

Regarding the history of Persian-style painting, we recognize three distinct periods: Mongol, Timurid, and Safavid. Islamic treatises have traditionally forbidden portrait painting due to the belief that the artist's soul would be transferred to their soul after death. This religious doctrine explains why ancient Arabic manuscripts lack illustrations. However, this prohibition has been relaxed over time, as evidenced by the depiction of Byzantine Christ's head on a coin issued by Ayubi Sultans. The first known instance of hand-drawn illustrations in an Islamic manuscript is found in Market-e-Hariri from 1237 CE and represents a significant milestone for the art form.

In this discourse, I intend to concentrate on the advancement of antiquated Indian miniature paintings of the Mughal period by examining the fascinating Mughal monarchs and their Persian mode of artwork. To accomplish this objective, we must obtain some knowledge regarding those emperors and their cultural pursuits.

Portrait of Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād miniature painting
Kamāl ud-Dīn Beehzād. Miniature art. Safavid style

Babur, the initial emperor of the Mughal realm, arrived in India in 1525 and proceeded to invade and conquer a vast territory stretching from the Oxus to Patna. Despite his general aversion towards most things Indian, he recognized the artistic merit of painting and sought to improve it. Babur held Beehzad, a renowned artist whose name frequently appears in his diary as the preeminent artist of all time, in high esteem. Although there were other exceptional miniature artists during this era, such as Shapur, it is widely acknowledged that Beehzad was indeed an unparalleled genius who earned recognition from many subsequent emperors of the Mughal kingdom. 

Drawing from various historical sources, I know an emperor who commissioned artist Mir Syed Ali to illustrate the poem Dastan-e-ameer-hamza during his wife's pregnancy. What is remarkable about this fact is that at the time, the emperor had lost everything - including his kingdom under Mughal rule - and was in flight from enemies seeking his downfall. Despite being unable to offer compensation for artistic services rendered due to financial constraints, he possessed a deep passion for artistry. The ways he managed to reimburse the artist remain unknown; however, it should be noted that this painting is a significant milestone in Indian art history. What is the name of this emperor? None other than Humayun, son of Babur.

Self-Portrait of Mir Sayyid Ali
Self-Portrait of Mir Sayyid Ali

In 1550, when Humayun regained his throne once more, Mir Syed Ali—illustrator of Dastan-e-ameer-hamza—and Abdus Samad were invited to serve as royal artists within his court. Who exactly was Mir Syed Ali? He happened to be the son of the famed contemporary artist Mir Mansur.

In a fateful decree, Emperor Humayun commanded the completion of Dastan-e-ameer-hamza as a twelve-part book, with each section featuring one hundred paintings. Tragically, the album for which it was intended expired before its creation could be realized. Following his wife's passing after giving birth to Akbar in Umarcote, Humayun dedicated the first volume of this work to her memory. To this day, several paintings from this collection are on display at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, having been acquired from India as an invaluable treasure.

Painting from Hamzanama 1570
Painting from Hamzanama 1570

After Humayun's death, Mir Syed Ali continued to serve in the royal court as he had before. Initially, Mughal painting relied heavily on Safavid techniques; however, significant changes in style and new methods emerged shortly after that. Beehzad's influence on portrait painting in the Iranian style gained recognition and subsequently improved with Mughal tradition. Mughal painting is an exotic Persian-style art form that thrived through Iranian portraiture. Supplementary objects such as flowers and birds were often employed to highlight the central figure of a portrait while also providing decorative elements. Vibrant colors were likewise utilized significantly, with each component painstakingly detailed using fine brushes that undoubtedly reflected Indian artistic traditions - without any trace of Persian influence. 

During that period, the Mughal miniatures were predominantly depicted on cloth due to the unavailability of paper for artists. In the first half of the sixteenth century, it is apparent that many Mughal paintings were derived from the Iranian style; nevertheless, it is remarkable how Indian tradition significantly influenced early Mughal art. None of the artists neglected Indian traditional artistry; instead, they endeavored to incorporate such styles into their paintings.



1. The Hamzanama (Persian/Urdu: حمزه نامه Hamzenâme, Epic of Hamza) or Dastan-e-Amir Hamza (Persian/Urdu: داستان امیر حمزه Dâstâne Amir Hamze, Adventures of Amir Hamza) narrates the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, an uncle of Muhammad, though most of the stories are highly fanciful, "a continuous series of romantic interludes, threatening events, narrow escapes, and violent acts." The stories, from a long-established oral tradition, were written down in Persian, the court language, in multiple volumes.

Most of the characters of the Hamzanama are fictitious. In the West, the work is best known for the enormous illustrated manuscript commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Humayun in about 1562. The Hamzanama contains 46 volumes and has approximately 48000 pages. It is said that Dastaan-e-Ameer-Hamza was written in the era of Mahmud of Ghazni.

The text augmented the story, as traditionally told in dastan performances. The dastan (storytelling tradition) about Amir Hamza persists far and wide up to Bengal and Arakan, as the Mughals controlled those territories.


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