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The History of Indian Mughal Miniature Painting

Updated: Mar 30

Part - 1

Continuing from my previous article on the Mughal Emperors' enduring love for art, I present a comprehensive discussion encompassing all relevant historical events and intriguing facts. While certain aspects may appear repetitive, it is necessary to ensure a thorough exploration of this magnificent period in art history.

Portrait of Akbar by Govardhan
Portrait of Akbar by Govardhan

Akbar ascended the throne of Emperor during his boyhood, unlike his predecessors Babur and Humayun, who were not native to India. This unique background instilled in him a sense of empathy towards India. 1569, Akbar founded Fatehpur Sikri, ushering in a new era in Indian art history. Subsequently, sculptors, masons, architects, and artists were commissioned to embellish the walls of Fatehpur Sikri with paintings that resembled miniature editions rather than being influenced by Ajanta paintings. However, contemporaneously running paintings from Udaipur, Jaipur, and Bikaner explicitly influenced Ajanta's style and form. 

 Paintings were created on sandstone coated with white paint in Fatehpur Sikri. The origin of the white paint is unknown; however, upon closer inspection, it is evident that some paintings were executed in an Iranian style while others followed traditional Indian styles. It is clear that multiple artists were commissioned to complete the mural, and each individual worked in their unique style.

In such a way, it is conjectured that the consolidation of several races had been made up during the reign of Emperor Akbar, which caused prosperity in art. Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad were at the forefront among those artists who were working. At a later time, Mir Sayyid Ali got hold of the post of a royal proctor, and his son was appointed as Amir-ul-Omrah in the royal court of the Mughal Emperor.

Painting from Shahnama by Mir Sayyed Ali
Painting from Shahnama by Mir Sayyed Ali

The murals exhibit a flat style that lacks the traditional Indian dimensionality. The clouds in these paintings are reminiscent of Persian art, and sculpture and painting were closely intertwined during this era. Evidence of this can be found on the Palace of Sultana's wall base reliefs featuring flowers, trees, and animals. However, there is no connection between the Ajanta, Bikaner, and Udaipur murals and those at Fatehpur Sikri. Ajanta paintings embody Indian spiritual beliefs and Buddhism through a devotee's eyes, while Fatehpur Sikri was motivated by decorative illustrations without any spiritual influence. The Mughal miniature painting possesses a distinct characteristic that sets it apart from other Indian styles and forms, indicating that the origin of this art form is not in India. This uniqueness lies in the calligraphy surrounding the miniature's border, elevating its artistic value. The Persian and Chinese fonts have a painterly quality achieved through brushwork, whereas Indian writing traditionally utilizes pens made of wicker. Line drawing has been deemed central to any Indian painting style. Thus, using brushes in Persian and Chinese writing practices highlights a significant difference between their respective methods and those employed by Indians.

Abul Fazl is presenting Akbarnama to Akbar
Abul Fazl is presenting Akbarnama to Akbar

The Mughal miniature gained particular significance through Irani Kalam (Persian art), resulting in its distinctiveness from other Indian art forms. During this time, scriptwriters were highly regarded by affluent individuals who purchased their manuscripts at exorbitant prices. Abul Fazal, the writer of Akbarnama, produced a list of renowned scriptwriters, including Mohammed Husain, one of the foremost scribes. Despite Emperor Akbar's admiration for calligraphies over illustrations due to their versatility, ancient manuscripts predominantly valued calligraphy over artwork. Abul Fazal identified eight different types of calligraphy that had been practiced in Iran, Turkestan, and India; among them was 'Kufic,' which featured skew-typed diagonals written in italic calligraphy and 'nostalgic,' characterized by round-shaped lettering with slight decorations. Emperor Akbar favored the latter due to its compatibility with India's lush river-based climate with six temperate zones - an environment opposed to the dry Middle East where Kufic flourished. As evidenced by his upbringing and birthplace within an Indian setting, it is clear that both human nature and culture are significantly influenced by environmental factors such as climate. Consequently, Abul Fazal devoted chapter 34, titled "Calligraphy and Painting," to the Ain-E-Akbari volume to underscore the importance of calligraphy in Mughal painting history.

A Court Scene from Sadi's Gulistan Indian Mughal miniature
A Court Scene from Sadi's Gulistan (Rose Garden), 1596

The Muslim Indian Emperor's deviation from orthodox beliefs, which began in his youth and later led to a revolutionary approach to art and culture, is unsurprising. He demonstrated exceptional leadership by warmly welcoming Hindu artists into his royal court despite his racism, giving them high honors. Although skilled artists such as Mir Syed Ali, Abdus Samad, and Farooq Kalmak were already present in the court, Akbar invited Basawon, Dushyant Keshaudas, and many others to illustrate poems by poet Nizami. By collaborating, Akbar's generous spirit resulted in the formation of a new style of Mughal miniature painting that showcased both foresight and talent. The newly appointed Hindu artists quickly mastered their Muslim counterparts' techniques while introducing innovative elements that proved India boasted an abundance of highly talented Hindu artisans capable of offering fresh perspectives on traditional forms. It would be remiss not to acknowledge Akbar's appreciation for the immense talents possessed by these Hindu artists. Following Abul Fazal's statement, below is a list of some great master artists who came from both Hindu and Muslim communities.

From the Hindu community: Basawon, Dushyant, Haribus, Keshu, Mukunda, Mishkin, Madhu, Jagan, Mahes, Khem Karan, Tara, Saola, and Ram. Those were master painters in Indian art history. From the Muslim community: Meer Syed Ali, Khwaja Abdus Samad, and Behzad. With the incredible talent of those painters, Part 1 of the history of Indian Mughal Miniature Painting will continue exploring more exciting incidents in Part 2. So stay tuned to Artique.



[1]Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, also known as Abul Fazl, Abu'l Fadl, and Abu'l-Fadl 'Allami (14 January 1551 – 12 August 1602), was the grand vizier of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, and author of the Akbarnama, the official history of Akbar's reign in three volumes, (the third volume is known as the Ain-i-Akbari) and a Persian translation of the Bible. He was also one of the Nine Jewels (Hindi: Navaratnas) of Akbar's royal court and the brother of Faizi, the poet laureate of Emperor Akbar.


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