Mughal Painting, India
Mogul Art in India: Characteristics, Schools.

Pin it

The Mughal Emperor Akbar depicted
training an elephant. (1610)
Staatliche Museum of Islamic Art,
Berlin, Germany.

Mughal Painting (16th-19th Century)


Babur School of Painting
Akbar School
Jahangir School
Shah Jahan School
Aurengzeb School
Islamicised Sultanates of the Deccan (16th-17th Century)

• For a short guide to the art of the Indian sub-continent,
please see: India: Art of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture.

• For more detailed articles, see: Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE), Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th century), Rajput Painting (16th-19th century) and Indian Sculpture (3300 BCE - 1850).

Painting of a flower (c.1605)
By Mughal court painter
Ustad Mansur (active 1590-1624).

Bhimbetka Petroglyphs at the Auditorium & Daraki-Chattan
caves. Cupule Art in the
Madhya Pradesh region of
India. For details of India's
and Pakistan's first major
Neolithic culture, see:
Indus Valley Civilization
(3,300-1300 BCE).

Babur School of Painting

In 1500, Babur (1483-1530), the last of the Timurids and the founder of the Indian Mughal dynasty, was driven out of Transoxiana and Eastern Iran, invaded the Punjab and took the sultanate of Delhi from the Turco-Afghans. In 1525 a new Mongol dynasty had founded the Mughal empire.

Babur was the first in a line of emperors, artists and philosophers who established a rule of exceptional brilliance in India for three hundred years. They were princes who were devoted to Persian culture and they remained so; the first works of religious art which issued from their court were closely associated with the Herat school. It was only in the second half of the 16th century that the Mughal style proper began to develop; this was at a time when the palace studios of Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) and his son Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627) employed Indian artists and received fresh stimulus from the West. While Mughal painting forsook older Persian art for a new Indian style it never entirely forgot its ancestry, as we can see in the refinement and lightness of its brushwork, its swaying lines, the multiple resources of its palette.

Babur died in 1530; his reign was too troubled and too brief to have produced an art style of its own. His Memoirs, however, inspired many miniaturists under his successors. An amiable philosopher, his reminiscences betray a Persian epicureanism and recall the great poet, Hafiz; here is one line as an example: "A tree's shade, a volume of poetry, some wine, your song in the desert; lo! the desert has become paradise."

During the reign of Humayun, Babur's successor, the empire was still not consolidated. Delhi had to be abandoned and the Sultan lived for fifteen years in exile before he recovered his throne, a year before his death. He spent a long time at the court of Tahmasp, the king of Persia, and brought back to India with him a famous painter, Mir Sayid Ali, who formed, with other Persian painters, the new school of painting founded by Humayun's son, Akbar.

NOTE: For examples of the finest ancient architecture in Asia, please see: Angkor Wat Khmer Temple, (Cambodia); and Kandariya Mahadeva Temple (Khajuraho, India).

To see how Indian Mughal painting fits into the evolution of art in Asia, please see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).


Akbar School of Painting

In the fifty years of his rule (1556-1605) Emperor Akbar extended the boundaries of the Mughal empire as far as the Deccan. He had a genius for organisation and endowed India with a vast administrative network. Skilfully he followed a policy of reconciliation with regard to the native princes who had been enemies of the Mughal regime, and made allies of conquered kings. Unlike his Persian ancestors, he was extremely tolerant in the field of religion. He even attempted to found a syncretic philosophy, with Hindu and Islamic ideas happily merged. It was called the "Divine Faith". He was equally open to ideas from the West and invited Jesuits to his court.

It is from this time that European art began to influence the painting of the Mughal dynasty. Akbar was not only a warrior, an administrator and a diplomat; he was also a man of culture. His court, at Fathepur Sikri, was the Versailles of the East. He founded a studio where artists from all over his empire came to work. Persian artists such as Mir Sayid Ali, Abdus Samad and Farrug Beg taught the Indians the techniques of Iranian miniature painting. The works which came from these studios have an exceptional quality and were produced in such numbers that it is clear the Indian painters were experts at their profession before the arrival of the Persians; otherwise they could not have assimilated the lessons of the foreigners with such ease. The emperor himself kept an eye on the work. He encouraged all artists and rewarded them with rich gifts. Mural paintings were done not by one artist but by a team of artists: the outline, the figures, the landscape, the animals, the colouring could each be the work of a different specialist. In this way the painting became somewhat de-personalised; but there was an evenness of style and a spreading of talent which made up for this. Indian painters were able to introduce naturalistic ideas to the purely decorative art of the Persians. This is clearly seen in the treatment of animals and landscapes. The flora of Persia, the shrubs, the slender cypresses, gradually gave way to the rich vegetation of India, painted over large surfaces, the leaves arranged so as to leave no empty gaps. The influence of Italian Renaissance art, examples of which were brought to the court by the Jesuits and foreign travellers, is seen both in the use of light and in a hint of linear perspective. Its influence in the development of portrait art was also important.

Paradoxically, portraiture was introduced into India by rulers of the Islamic faith. In fact, Akbar had a struggle with his courtiers when he tried to introduce this form of art, which is contrary to Koranic tradition. The emperor justified it by stating: "There are many people who despise painting: I myself cannot abide this type of person. I feel that painters are endowed with exceptional means of knowing God; a painter in drawing a living person is forced to admit that he is unable to bring his subject to life. He is led to think of God as the sole creator of all life, and in this way learns to know Him better." In this the emperor had been instructed by the Jesuits. Portraiture did become one of the most important aspects of the Mughal school, a school of Islamic art which was always closely associated with court life and the rich patrons who lived there. Painters depicted all the activities of the court - their banquets, their loves and their hunting parties. Portraiture resulted from the aristocratic nature of the state, and princes and their courtesans loved being immortalised by contemporary painters.

The works of the Akbar school are to be found in illuminated manuscripts and in separate paintings, which, however, are grouped in albums, in much the same way as stamp collections. The most important of the manuscripts are: the Hamzah-Nameh, begun under Humayun and finished by the end of the 16th century, which tells the story of Mahomet's uncle, with a considerable number of illustrations, the earlier being entirely derivative while the later paintings show characteristics of the Mughal school; the Babur-Nameh, drawn from the Memoirs of the founder of the dynasty; the Timur-Nameh, devoted to the life of Tamerlane; and the Akbar-Nameh. A number of manuscripts and albums continued to be produced in the studios of the Emperor Akbar who also had the great Sanskrit epics translated into Persian, and illustrated. The Razm-Nameh, a translation of the Sanskrit epic Mahabhavata with 169 illustrations (one of the most sumptuous works of the period), was produced in this way. These were carried out between 1584 and 1589, and among the painters was the great Indian artist, Daswanth, who was discovered by the emperor and whose works are typically romantic. For a comparison with western manuscripts, see: History of Illuminated Manuscripts (600-1200).

When Akbar died his palaces at Fathepur Sikri, Agra, and Lahore were decorated with a number of fresco paintings which have now disappeared. Those which decorated his white marble mausoleum were seen by the Venetian traveller Manucci and showed "The Holy Cross, the Madonna holding the Infant Jesus, and, on her left, Saint Ignatius, archangels and cherubs".

Jahangir School of Painting

Jahangir ruled from 1605 to 1627. He followed, on the whole, the policies of his father, although he refused to continue Akbar's policy of religious reform and reverted to a stricter Moslem belief. He was a great patron of the arts. The new sovereign even allowed the reins of government to be taken over by his wife so that he could devote himself to his two ruling passions (apart from a love for alcohol and opium), which were painting and the natural sciences. It was due to him that animal painting developed and that portraiture was endowed with a psychological depth and individuality which had been unknown before. To bring out the personal characteristics of their models the painters showed them in three-quarter profile, rather than strictly in profile, and gave them natural poses. The emperor was a great art collector and possessed a large number of albums and manuscripts as well as many European paintings. In his Memoirs he writes: "My love for painting and my ability to judge them has reached such a heightened degree of awareness that if a work is shown me, whether it was painted yesterday or today, I can immediately deduce the names of all the painters who were involved in its execution." The sovereign was an eclectic and this produced the complete fusion of Iranian and Indian traditions, which had begun under Akbar. Moslem and Hindu artists were on a footing of complete equality in the Imperial studios. Among the Indians, two names have achieved especial fame: Govardha, who was skilful at synthesising both foreign and Indian styles; and Manuhar, the celebrated animal painter. It was under Jahangir that the European influence reached its height; but it was an ephemeral influence, the passion of the Indians for the paintings of the " Franks " being on about the same level as the passion of Europeans for Turkish decoration and chinoiserie in the 17th and 18th centuries. It did not fill a basic need. The Western contributions were primarily in the fields of perspective and portraiture, sitters being painted as they were, in the manner of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) or Jean Clouet (d.1541).

Shah Jahan School of Painting

Under the reign of his son, Shah Jahan (who succeeded in 1627), the splendour of the Mughal court reached a height which in a sense paralleled the magnificence of the court of the French King Louis XIV. Like his contemporary, the "sun-king" with his Versailles, the "king of the world" built a sumptuous fortified palace at Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra, the finest jewel of Indo-Mughal architecture, which was a mausoleum built for his beloved wife. He did not share his father's great passion for painting, but the new emperor continued to extend patronage to artists who continued the marvellous tradition of the Jahangir epoch. Animal paintings were of great beauty and some of the portraits remarkable, but in general, the style of the period, while remaining technically perfect, degenerated into a constant repetition of similar themes which led to a dullness of execution. There were intimate scenes of great preciousness - in the harem, meetings of lovers, nocturnal escapades - which had a great success during the last years of the empire.

Aurengzeb School of Painting

The brilliant reign of Shah Jahan came to an end with a fratricidal struggle for succession. The emperor died, a prisoner of his youngest son, Aurengzeb, who took over as ruler when he had eliminated all his brothers. The new sovereign of India, who ruled from 1659 to 1707, was a skilful militarist, annexing the last remaining sultanates of the Deccan. He was also a great administrator and completed the centralisation of the empire. But while his predecessors had sought an alliance between Islam and Hinduism as the basis of their power, Aurengzeb, by a brutal return to the days of a fanatical Islam, alienated the Hindus, and the end of his reign was marked by a series of uprisings which preceded the final disruption of the empire.

The religious zeal and austere character of the new ruler led to the suppression of all luxuries at court - even music was banned. A censorship of morals was instituted. Imitating the furious iconoclasm of the first Moslem invaders, Aurengzeb had many works of art destroyed, disfiguring portraits painted on walls and white-washing frescoes, even those on the walls of his ancestor Akbar's mausoleum. However, the emperor did not close the royal studios and had several portraits painted of himself and his family. But he only allowed artists who were willing to illustrate his own great deeds, or who did purely decorative work. Many of them, as a result, left the capital and sought refuge at the courts of local princes, playing an important part in the development of the Rajput schools of painting.

The whole of the 18th century was marked by the disintegration of the empire, a breaking away of many subordinate states, the Afghan invasions and the uprisings of the Sikh and Mahratta peoples. In spite of the confusion, battles and pillaging which accompanied the rapid fall of the Mughals, a school of painting continued at Delhi, the greatest painter of which was Mir Chand, an Indian by birth. The painters of this school contented themselves with reproducing traditional styles, with the introduction of European figures into late Indian scenes providing delightful lighthearted digressions.

Islamicised Sultanates of the Deccan (16th-17th Century)

The Islamicised sultanates of the Deccan - Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmadnagar, originally founded on the ruins of the ephemeral Turco-Afghan empire - did not survive the collapse of the Mughals. They had inherited the art of building from the Seljukids and introduced the cupola into India. From the 15th century they developed a type of building which was really Indo-Islamic; its original form was borrowed from Islam but it was enriched and enlivened with the extraordinary Indian genius for decoration. However, there is no known painting style native to the northern Deccan before the beginnings of the Mughal school. In the second half of the 16th century there appeared some original manuscripts which combined both Persian and Mughal influences and also that of the Vijayanagar school, particularly in the treatment of female figures and in a certain freshness and spontaneity of movement. From the same period come the beautiful ragmalas of Ahmadnagar and Bijapur, similar to many works from Western India but with a specifically Persian richness of decoration. At the beginning of the 17th century the passion for Mughal miniatures gave rise to a very particular style, notably at Bijapur and Golconda. There are beautiful portraits, delicately and romantically painted, the rounded figures of the sultans surrounded by courtiers and courtesans swathed in a halo of flowing white muslin, set off by golden scarves. Landscapes in the distance, with fine perspectives, reveal marvellous palaces - the princes were great builders - while with the green intensity of the jungle we feel the atmosphere of the warm Indian earth. Most of the portraits are done in three-quarter profile: their nobility, humanity and lyricism give the Deccan school its great originality.

For more about Mughal painting, see: Museums of Islamic Art.

Articles about Arts and Crafts in Asia

For more about Asian art (from 38,000 BCE), please see the following articles:

Chinese Painting
Characteristics and aesthetics.

Chinese Painters (c.220-present)
Chronological list of selected artists.

Japanese Art (14,500 BCE - 1900)
Introduction to selected arts & crafts of Japan.

Jade Carving in China (c.4900 BCE onwards)
Characteristics, Types and History.

Ming Dynasty Art (1368-1644)
History, characteristics, painted vases.

Origami: The Art of Paper Folding
History, types, origamists.

• For more about Mughal arts and crafts in India and Sri Lanka, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.