top of page

The Preeminence of Shah Jahan in Miniature Painting

Updated: Mar 28

During Shah Jahan's reign, Mughal painting achieved its zenith. The contributions of previous emperors, including Humayun, Akbar, and Jahangir, facilitated the emergence of a skillful successor in Shah Jahan, who further nurtured this art form with his artistic prowess.

Dilpasand, the favorite horse of Shahjahan.
Dilpasand, the favorite horse of Shahjahan.

Primarily in the realm of portrait painting, the artists of Shah Jahan's court exhibited unparalleled mastery. During Jahangir's reign, "Morakka" referred to a collection of paintings that captured the essence and grandeur of various subjects on an enormous scale. However, during Shah Jahan's rule, "Morakka" took on a new meaning - an album featuring portraits of the Emperor with his beloved courtiers, including beautiful women adorned in opulent attire and jewelry. The album was meant to showcase the most prominent members of the Mughal Court. One particularly famous Morakka from Shah Jahan's era features his eldest son, Dara Shikoh, and is believed to be housed at the India Office Library in London. In 1630 AD, Dara Shikoh presented this very album as a gift to his wife Nadira Banu, who shared her husband's passion for art and had impeccable taste. Historians have discovered several stunning works within this collection, such as Manohar's depiction of Dara Shikoh's favorite horse 'Dilpasand,' which remains unmatched even today. Amongst Emperor Shah Jahan’s most favored artists were Ramdas and Bulchand.

Sir Thomas standing before the Great Moghul, c. 1908
Sir Thomas standing before the Great Moghul, c. 1908

The prominence of portrait painting was first recognized during the reign of Jahangir, as evidenced by a historical account that showcased the exceptional skill of the king's court artists. During this time, British Governor Sir Thomas Smith sent several paintings created by British artists to Emperor Jahangir's court, hoping to impress him with their expertise. The emperor, known for his passion for art, received the artwork warmly and stored it carefully. When Thomas Roe, envoy of the British Emperor, learned about Jahangir's enthusiasm for art, he presented a gift - a portrait painted by Izaak Oliver depicting his friend - to showcase British artists' prowess. Jubilant at receiving such a thoughtful present, Jahangir accepted it graciously but also challenged Thomas that his own royal artists could create equally impressive portraits. Thomas took this challenge lightly and even underestimated Indian artistic skills somewhat; however, after one or two weeks had passed since his departure from India back to England, the Emperor summoned him once more to evaluate five portraits made by Indian royal court painters and select which one was Izaak Oliver's work among them all!

Sir Thomas Roe
Sir Thomas Roe

This proved quite tricky for Mr.Thomas, who found it hard to distinguish between them all at first glance; eventually, though, he managed successfully enough to select one piece out from among these many fine examples on display before him- an act which surprised him significantly given earlier assumptions about inferiority regarding indigenous talent versus foreign ones. Ultimately confessing in his diary how impressed he was with their abilities in portraiture painting techniques (which were far better than what he expected), he left India feeling much more enlightened about its rich artistic heritage than when he arrived there initially some months prior. In conclusion, then, It is clear that despite initial misconceptions held by both parties involved here (British vs. Indian) regarding each other’s respective levels of expertise within their particular fields (artistic & diplomatic), ultimately, they came away from this encounter having gained a newfound respect and admiration towards those whom they previously regarded with suspicion or disdain due primarily perhaps cultural differences perceived over time.

Emperor Shah Jahan is credited for conveying the same fame in portrait painting as it had during his father's reign. Moreover, it got a new horizon in his reign, which is still unmatched. 

Todi Ragini. Artist Unknown. Mughal India, Mid 18th century.
Todi Ragini. Artist Unknown. Mughal India, Mid 18th century.

Shahjahan's most remarkable contribution to the Mughal miniature art form was undoubtedly his creation of the Ragamala paintings[1]. These works are a testament to the Mughal Dynasty's lasting impact on Indian culture and art. Each painting depicts one of several rhythms from classical Indian music while also representing one of six distinct seasons in India's climate. The credit for bringing these musical rhythms to life through figurative forms goes to the skilled miniature artists who served at Akbar's court; they drew inspiration from ancient descriptions penned by anonymous sages. It is believed that this was an unprecedented feat, as no other artist before Shahjahan had succeeded in capturing musical rhythms using human-like figures on canvas.

This project began during Akbar's reign and continued until its conclusion under Shahjahan. More than 1500 paintings were created as part of this series (known as Raga-Mala), but today, only 25 pieces remain on display at the Indian office library. Interestingly enough, all these surviving pieces were once owned by Shah Jahan himself; however, their current whereabouts were traced back to Varanasi after being acquired from an unknown source.

The aforementioned artworks predominantly draw inspiration from the Rajput Kalam[2]. It is worth noting that Indian miniature art comprises various styles, including Kangra Kalam[3] and Basoli Kalam[4], which are influenced by regional communities. These diverse styles are amalgamated in Mughal miniature art, which the Emperors of the Mughal Kingdom greatly influenced. They skillfully blended different forms and styles with exotic Persian elements to create a unique Indian genre.

It is not easy to determine Shah Jahan's preeminence in Indian miniature painting. He was an experienced art critic with a vast knowledge of painting, inspiring the court artists accordingly. As a result, we see a new horizon in Indian painting that makes it an icon of India.



1. Ragamala paintings are a series of illustrative paintings from medieval India based on Ragamala or the "Garland of Ragas," depicting various Indian musical modes called Ragas. They stand as a classic example of the amalgamation of art, poetry, and classical music in medieval India. Ragamala paintings were created in most schools of Indian painting, starting in the 16th and 17th centuries, and are today named accordingly as Pahari Ragamala, Rajasthan or Rajput Ragamala, Deccan Ragamala, and Mughal Ragamala.

In these paintings, each raga is personified by color, mood, and a verse describing a story of a hero and heroine (nayaka and nayika); it also elucidates the season and the time of day and night in which a particular raga is to be sung; and finally most paintings also demarcate the specific Hindu deities attached with the raga, like Bhairava or Bhairavi to Shiva, Sri to Devi etc. The paintings depict not just the Ragas but also their wives (raginis), their numerous sons (ragaputra), and daughters (ragaputri).

2. Rajput Kalam, also called Rajasthani painting, evolved and flourished in the royal courts of Rajputana in India. Each Rajputana kingdom evolved a distinct style but with certain standard features. Rajput Kalams depict a number of themes and epic events like the Ramayana. Miniatures in manuscripts or single sheets to be kept in albums were the preferred medium of Rajput Kalam, but many paintings were done on the walls of palaces, inner chambers of the forts, havelis, mainly, the havelis of Shekhawati, the forts and palaces built by Shekhawat Rajputs. The colors were extracted from certain minerals, plant sources, and conch shells and were even derived by processing precious stones. Gold and silver were used. The preparation of desired colors was a lengthy process, sometimes taking 2 weeks. The brushes used were very fine.

3. Kangra Kalam is the pictorial art of Kangra, named after Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, a former princely state that patronized the art. It became prevalent with the fading of the Basohli school of painting in the mid-18th century [1][2] and soon produced such a magnitude in paintings, both in content and volume, that the Pahari painting school became known as Kangra paintings. Though the main centers of Kangra Kalam (paintings) are Guler, Basohli, Chamba, Nurpur, Bilaspur, and Kangra. Later on, this style also reached Mandi, Suket, Kulu, Arki, Nalagarh, and Tehri Garhwal (represented by Mola Ram), and now are collectively known as Pahari painting, covering the style that Rajput rulers patronized between the 17th and 19th centuries. As the name suggests, Pahari paintings were executed in the hilly regions of India, in the sub-Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh. It is in the development and modification of Pahari paintings that the Kangra School features. Under the patronage of Maharaja Sansar Chand (c.1765-1823), it became the most important center of Pahari painting. One can visit the Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum, adjoining the Kangra Fort in Kangra Himachal, to see some of these masterpieces. The erst-while Royal Family of Kangra has founded this museum.

4. Basholi Kalam (Basoli) is a town in Kathua district in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India. It is situated on the right bank of River Ravi at an altitude of 1876 ft. It was founded by Raja Bhupat Pal sometime in 1635. It was known for its magnificent palaces, which are now in ruins, and miniature paintings (Basohli painting). A famous Sikh-Mughal battle was fought at Basoli. Basholi is widely known for its paintings called Basholi Kalam, which was considered the first school of Pahari paintings and evolved into the much prolific Kangra paintings school by the mid-eighteenth century. The painter Nainsukh ended his career in Basholi.


4 views0 comments


bottom of page