The Mughals made a special contribution in the field of painting. Mughal painting was largely influenced by the Persian school of painting, which, in turn, was influenced by Chinese, ancient Indian, Buddhist, Bactrian, and Mongolian influences. Before the advent of Mughal painting, ancient Indian painting existed mostly in the form of mural paintings. The portraiture and miniature book illustrations were the two great contributions of Mughal painting.
Babar refers in his Memoirs to Bihzad and pays high tribute to his genius as a painter. Babar’s appreciation of Bihzad and the manner of his portrayal of natural scenes suggest that he was gifted enough to recognize the talent of the great painter of his age. But he did not have adequate leisure to develop his potentials in this regard. Humayun was interested in painting and laid the real foundation of Mughal painting in India. While in Persia, he contacted Mir Sayyid Ali and Khwaja Abdus Samad, the two great masters of painting, who followed him to Delhi. He took lessons in painting himself and put Akbar also under their charge.
Painting under Akbar – Akbar got the services of Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad from the very outset, and he employed them in building up an Indian School of Painting. During his reign, there was a fusion of Persian and Indian styles of painting. Akbar showed great respect to foreign painters, but he was averse to depending merely on imported talent. He, therefore, collected local people with artistic potentialities and placed them under the guidance of Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad. He also made a provision for dividing the painters into different groups according to their special aptitudes and gave them intensive training in only one aspect of painting so that at least in that aspect they might acquire maturity within a short time. That is why the earlier paintings of the reign of Akbar represent the effect of joint labor by a group of specialists, each doing only that part of work in which he had acquired special proficiency.
In the reign of Akbar, some mural painting was also executed, particularly at Fatehpur Sikri. But it was miniature painting and portraiture that received the greatest attention. One of the earliest and most important works of Mughal painting is known as ‘Hamzanama,’ which has nearly 1200 paintings. These earlier paintings are essentially Persian in style and bear a strong foreign impress. But in the course of time, as a result of free association between the Indian and the foreign artists, the Indian element became gradually more and more pronounced until a new style was developed by harmoniously blending the Persian and Indian elements.
According to Abul Fazl, there were about 100 good painters at the Court while there were many others of inferior merit. The best foreign painters were Mir Sayyid Ali, Khwaja Abdus Samad, and Farrukh Begh. Among the local painters, Dashwant, the disciple of Abdus Samad, was decidedly the best. A large number of Hindu painters were employed by Akbar, including Basawan, Tarachand, Sanwaldas, Keshawa, and Jagannath. The painters succeeded brilliantly in expressing the ideals of amity and synthesis preached by their imperial patron.
Painting under Jahangir – Under Jahangir, painting reached its highest watermark. The most important feature of the history of painting in Jahangir’s reign is the decline of Persian influence, which made way for a style that was essentially Indian. In the early years of his reign, he was keenly interested in miniatures, but later on, he became interested in portraits and got a large number of them prepared.
The painters of Jahangir produced much better work in comparison to that of painters of his predecessors. The most distinguished painters of his reign included Mansur, Aqa Riza, Abul Hasan, Muhammad Nadir, Manohar, Bishan Das, and Govardhan. Jahangir himself was an excellent art critic. According to his judgment, the best among them were Ustad Mansur and Abul Hasan, and he had conferred on them the titles of ‘Nadir-ul-Asar’ and ‘Nadir-us-Zaman’ respectively. Ustad Mansur was a great expert in paintings of miniatures. From the paintings that have come down to us, it appears that Bishandas was the ablest portrait painter, while Mansur and Manohar had a special aptitude for painting natural scenes, beasts, and birds.
Shah Jahan, though primarily interested in Architecture, inherited his taste for painting from his father, and he himself was a very good painter. The important painters of his reign included Mir Hasan, Chintamani, Muhammad Qadir, and Anup Chitra. Aurangzeb was bitterly opposed to painting. The result was that the highly developed art of painting steadily declined during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The centers of skilled painting migrated to regional centers, mostly in Rajasthan.
Chief Characteristics of Mughal Painting:
- The Mughal painters scrupulously avoided religious motifs such as Prophet Muhammad, Mecca, or a congregation engaged in prayer.
- Another feature was that their portrayal of nature was of a very high order. Its dominant note is realism, and the flora and fauna depicted in a painting were taken from real life. The scenic background is also taken from real life. For example, a scene from Kashmir will never have a tree that does not really grow at the place represented in a painting.
- The portraiture of Mughal painting is not of imaginary figures but of real individuals. The painter had, therefore, to be a keen observer, not only of physiognomy but also of the proper expression of the face at a particular moment in life, which required great patience and intensive practice.
- The language of Mughal paintings is archaic, and they were small in size, never attaining the dignity and size of Buddhist frescoes.
- Objects of Indian nature, such as trees, animals, and Indian dresses, were faithfully represented.
- The pigments used have been carefully chosen and tactfully employed. The right use of pigments of appropriate brightness imparts great vigor and life to their paintings. The most employed pigments were gold, blue, green, red, and silvery white in different shades and combinations.
- Mounting pictures and embellishing them with artistic foliated borders are also special features of Mughal miniature painting.
- Mughal paintings are noted for rich coloring, sympathetic outline drawing, decorative treatment, and the delineation of actual features.
Drawbacks of the Mughal School of Painting:
- This school was broadly aristocratic and did not mirror the life of the common people; it remained confined to the corridors of the Mughal court.
- Because of peculiar notions of decency prevalent at the Court, the painters had no opportunity to paint a bare human body and cultivate the art of showing correct anatomy and the right proportion of limbs and muscles.
- The painters had not attained as much success in depicting motion and activity as in the portrayal of correct expression and the play of emotions. They had given us an insight into the tastes and court habits of the Emperor but have neglected common themes.