Mughal Painting


The Mughal school of painting has steadily gained recognition as a distinctive style of painting which had a rich tradition to fall back upon, and which reached full maturity during the seventeenth century. It created a living tradition of painting which continued in different forms in different parts of the country long after the glory of the Mughals had disappeared.

Paintings are referred to in some of the Sanskrit literary works, and the murals of Ajanta are an eloquent testimony to the richness of the pictorial tradition in ancient India. Although the tradition decayed from the 8th century, that it had not died is shown in some of the illustrated Jain palm -leaf works.

A new phase was reached with the introduction of paper in the 13th century. The painter found more freedom in his choice of colours and more working space at his disposal. The miniatures, therefore, began to show “signs of improvement in colouring, composition, delineation and decoration detail.” The change was slow and hesitant. Gujarat and Malwa appear to be the two regions where such improvements took place.

We have no illustrated manuscripts of the Sultanat period, although Amir Khusrau tells us that the art of painting was practised among the ruling classes. Firuz had the wall paintings in his palace erased.

Meanwhile, a rich tradition of painting was developing at Shiraz in Persia. This school was influenced by the Chinese style of painting. During the fifteenth century when the provincial kingdoms of Gujarat, Malwa and Jaunpur emerged as patrons of the fine arts and literature, painters, littérateurs etc. moved from Shiraz to these kingdoms. Thus, the earliest contact between the Persian and the West Indian style of painting took place during the fifteenth century. The best example of this is the Niamat Nama or Cookery Book, illustrated at Mandu in which Indian rounded body contours are displayed against a background of Persian formalized leaves and vegetation.

Painting in the Fifteenth Century:

Until recently it was believed that the art of painting did not flourish during the rule of the Delhi Sultans and that the illuminated manuscripts of the Mughals were, in fact a revival of painting after a lapse of several centuries from the end of the tenth. Lately, however, enough evidence has come to light suggesting the existence of:

  • a lively tradition of murals and painted cloth during the 13th and 14th centuries;
  • a simultaneous tradition of the Quranic calligraphy, lasting upto the end of the 14th century, and
  • a tradition of illustrated Persian and Awadhi manuscripts, originating probably at the beginning of the 15th century.

Of this last tradition, a notable number of illustrated manuscripts from the period between the 15th and 16th century have become known. Some of these works were commissioned by independent pawns in the Sultanate located outside the court. From the former category mention may be made of:

a) the Bostan of S’adi, illustrated by the artist Hajji Mahmud, and

b) Ni’mat Nama (a book on cookery)

c) Miftah al Fuzala by Muhammed Shadiiadi

These manuscripts were illustrated at Mandu (Malwa) during the second half of the fifteenth century. A fine example of the latter category is the illustrated manuscript of Laur Chanda (in Awadhi) executed for a patron seemingly not related with the court.

It is, thus, evident that at the time of the advent of the Mughals in India there did exist a live tradition of painting focused mainly on illuminating manuscripts, made possible by the use of paper as the new material.

Mughal school of painting

Babur, the founder of Mughal rule in India (in 1526), ruled for four years only. He was not able to contribute anything to the growth of painting. His successor Humayun was mostly engaged in containing his rivals till he was forced out of India by Sher Shah in 1540. It was, however, during his refuge at the court of Shab Tahmasp of Persia that Humayun acquired love of the art of painting. Humayun was so influenced by the art practised there that he commissioned Mir Syed Ali and Khwaja Abdus Samad, two Persian masters, to illustrate manuscripts for him. These two painters (first joined him in Afghanistan) joined Humayun’s entourage on his triumphant return to India.

Humayun’s contribution to the evolution of Mughal painting is very important. There are several important features of the Mughal school which seem to have originated in the paintings done during Humayun’s period. An important painting from Humayun’s period is titled ‘Princes of the House of Timur‘ and dated c. 1550. It has been executed on cloth, quite large in size, measuring approximately 1.15m. square. Such a large format is unusual even for paintings in Persia, and it has been suggested that it probably relates to the Mongol tradition of having paintings in their tents.

The Persian master artists Abdus Samad and Mir Sayid Ali, who had accompanied Humayun to India, were in charge of the imperial atelier during the early formative stages of Mughal painting, but large numbers of artists worked on large commissions, the majority of them apparently Hindu.

Mughal painting flourished during the late 16th and early 17th centuries with spectacular works of art by master artists such as Basawan, Lal, Miskin, Kesu Das, and Daswanth.

Under Akbar

The emergence of the Mughal School of painting as distinct from all otha styles was mainly due to the deep intercst Akbar took in the promotion of this art.

The first major project undertaken during Akbar’s regime was that of illustrating the Hamza Nama. In about 1567, Akbar ordered the preparation of a lavishly illustrated manuscript of the Persian translation of the Hamza Nama a celebrated Arab epic about a legendary Hamza. Under Saiyid Ali and Abdus Samad, a group of roughly one hundred painters drawn from Gwaliyar, Gujarat, Lahore, Kashmir, Malwa etc. were collected. It took fifteen years to complete the work, and one thousand and four hundred pages of illustrations were made. This proved to be a training period for many Indian painters.

Battle cene from the 1570 Hamzanama of Akbar

The illustration of many other manuscripts was also taken up during this period. Thus, Anwar Suhaili, epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, history books such as Chingiz Nama, Akbar Nama etc. were illustrated. Unfortunately, many of them have been destroyed, or scattered over many European libraries. This has made the study of the Mughal paintings a difficult task.

The illuminated manuscript Khamsa of Nizami is a lavishly illustrated manuscript of the Khamsa or “five poems” of Nizami Ganjavi, a 12th-century Persian poet, which was created for the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the early 1590s by a number of artists and a single scribe working at the Mughal court, very probably in Akbar’s new capital of Lahore.

Some of the orthodox thinkers of the time objected to the art of painting as being un-Islamic. Abul Fazl answers their objection by arguing that painting made the painter and others recognize God because while sketching anything which had life they realized that God alone could provide individuality to them.

Establishment of Royal Atelier

Akbar was very fond of painting and during his reign, painting was organized as an Imperial establishment or karkhana called Tasvir Khana where the painters worked. Abul Fazl says: “His Majesty from his earliest youth, has shown a great predilection for this art, and gives it every encouragement.”

Although Abul Fazal enumerates the names of only seventeen artists (thirteen were Hindus), we now know that the number was very large. S.P. Verma has prepared a list of 225 artists who worked at Akbar’s atelier. These artists belonged to different places, but among them the majority were Hindus. Interestingly, several low caste people, due primarily to their artistic skill, were also raised to the status of royal artist. The case of Daswant, who was the son of a Kahar (palki-bearer), may be especially cited. The painters were assisted by a set of gilders, linedrawers and pagers.

Govardhan was a noted painter during the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Farrukh Beg (1545- 1615) was a Persian born Mughal painter who served in the court of Mirza Muhammad Hakim before working for Mughal Emperor Akbar and Jahangir. His most noted work was under the Mughal emperor Jahangir called as the Gulshan Album.

The painters were given monthly salaries, and the Emperor gave them further rewards on the basis of their works which were laid before him regularly. Commodities needed by the painters were provided to them. SP. Verma opines that the lowest paid worker in the atelier received an amount between 600 to 1200 dams. (40 dams = one rupaya).

There are paintings which bear the names of two artists. Sometimes even three artists worked on a single painting. On one painting from Akbarnama, four artists have worked. The painting was thus a collaborative team work. The sketching of figures and colouring were done by a team of two different artists. In cases where three artists have worked the outlining was done by one artist, the other artist coloured the faces and a third one coloured the remaining figure. It is however not known to us as to how was such a complex management worked out. Probably in such a team work the sketching and colouring were done by separate artists.

The atelier was supervised by daroghas with the assistance of clerks. They were responsible for making materials of painting easily available to the artists and to oversee the progress of their work. They also arranged for periodical presentation of the artists’ works before the Emperor.

Style and Technique

The illustration done at Akbar’s court are considered as representative works of the Mughal art. Notably, however, in these paintings, there is evident of a gradual evolution in the style and technique. The illustrations of the early phase are clearly influenced by the Persian tradition, the identifying features of which are listed below:

  • symmetrical compositions;
  • restricted movement of figures;
  • fineness of the lines of drawings;
  • flat depiction of architectural columns; and
  • profuse embellishment of buildings in the manner of jewels.

Later, the paintings acquired a distinctive character of their own. They assumed a more eclectic character composed mainly of the Persian and Indian traditions with touches of European influence.

Distinctive Features

The Mughal style became recognisable within a span of fifteen years since the setting up of royal atelier under Akbar. In the next decade or so, i.e. by about 1590 it acquired a distinctive form which was marked by:

  • naturalism and rhythm
  • clothing objects of daily use assuming Indian forms
  • picture space having subsidiary scenes set in background
  • extraordinary vigour of action and violent movement
  • luxuriant depiction of foliage & brilliant blossoms

It should be emphasized here that the identity of the Mughal paintings under Akbar was as much made of an original style as a fusion of the Persian and Indian traditions. Specific mention may be made here of the depiction of action and movement which is not to be found in either the pre-Mughal art of India or the art of Persia.

Painting under Akbar’s period distinguishes itself as a tradition from Persian painting as well as from Indian styles particularly by the presence of historical subject matter. The two most commonly used themes are:

  • daily events of the court, and
  • portraits of leading personalities.

While portrait painting was known in Persia, painting as a chronicle of actual events was certainly a new emphasis. Painters used familiar forms for hunting or battle scenes regardless of the fact that the literary reference for the scene was historical or purely imaginary.

Moreover specific events illustrated are frequently reworkings of scenes ‘recording’ quite different events in the earliest known historical manuscript of this period, the Timur Nama of about 1580 AD. Possibly, painters conceived scenes according to a repertoire of types e.g. the seize of a fortress, crossing a river, an audience or battle scene. In the working of whole volumes such as the Akbar Nama, the artists seem to have reworked or adapted these compositional types. Painters usually created new compositions only when no prototypes existed, and only a few artists were capable of such invention.

Other features

The painters covered a vast field. Their themes included war, hunting scenes, mythical beings, building activities etc. Portrait painting was another favourite theme. Akbar ordered to have the likeliness taken of all the grandees of the realm. He also sat for his portrait. According to Abul Fazl, Basawan was excellent in drawing of features, portrait painting and several other branches.

1573- Akbar receiving his son at Fatehpur-Sikri

However, there was little scope for specialization: two or even three painters could be used to complete a picture. If one drew the outline, another would fill in the colours, and a third complete the face. The person who drew the outline might be asked to colour the next one, and the one who drew the face draw the outline. Later, Jahangir claimed that he could distinguish which painter had drawn the outline, and who had filled in the colours or drawn the face.

Despite the composite nature of many of the pictures, differences of style did emerge. Overall, the Akbari period not only established painting firmly, it freed itself from the Persian rigidity of form by introducing the plastic roundness of Indian painting in order to give a three dimensional effect in place of the flat, two dimensional effect.

Indian trees and flowers, Indian buildings etc. were also introduced in the pictures.

Indian colours, such as peacock blue, the Indian red etc. also began to be used. Attempts were made to improve the mixture of colours.

Under Akbar, European painting was introduced at the court by the Portuguese priests. Abul Fazl praises the skill of the European style of painting. Under its influence, the principles of fore-shortening whereby near and distant people and things could be placed in perspective was adopted. However, Indian painters never fully mastered the art of perspective. Distant objects are often shown in a vertical manner rather than foreshortened as necessary. The earlier bird’s eye-view perspective whereby action at different levels could be shown in the same picture was replaced by circular effect.

Under Jahangir

Mughal painting reached a climax under Jahangir who had a very discriminating eye. Jahangir took a deep interest in painting even as a prince. He maintained his own studio apart from Akbar’s large atelier. Jahangir’s preference was for paintings of hunting scenes, birds and flowers. He also continued the tradition of portraiture.

Jahangir was a keen naturist. Whenever he came am a strange animal or bird, his artists painted the same immediately. We have paintings of birds and animals in the most realistic fashion.

Apart from painting hunting, battle and court scenes, under Jahangir special progress was made in portrait painting and paintings of animals, flowers, etc. Ustad Mansur was the great name in this field.

Painting by Ustad Mansur
Nur Jahan

Introduction of New Styles

In the period of Jahangir’s rule (1605-27), manuscripts became less important than individual pictures. Jahangir, with his personal involvement, may have functioned effectively as head of the royal studio. Therefore, artistic decisions were made by the Emperor himself consequently introducing his own stylistic preferences in the printings.

Brushwork became finer and the colors lighter.

Jahangir was also deeply influenced by European painting. During his reign he came into direct contact with the English Crown and was sent gifts of oil paintings, which included portraits of the King and Queen. He encouraged his royal atelier to take up the single point perspective favoured by European artists, unlike the flattened multi-layered style used in traditional miniatures.

He particularly encouraged paintings depicting events of his own life, individual portraits, and studies of birds, flowers and animals.The Jahangirnama, written during his lifetime, which is an autobiographical account of Jahangir’s reign, has several paintings

Two important new elements in the style of Mughal painting during the first half of the seventeenth century have been identified as below:

  • Jahangir’s paintings seem to accentuate a formalist style, i.e., making the work realistic and preferring the precise recording of contemporary reality.
  • The paintings of this period have broad margins which are gorgeously decorated with the depiction of flora and faces of human figures, etc. designs from plant motifs.

Despite very lively studies of animals and birds, the Mughal painters had little interest in the study of nature independently. However, trees, birds, streams of water, hillocks often formed the background of many hunting and war scenes. A special feature was the tonal and rounded effect of the tree trunks.

Under Shah Jahan

Painting continued to be patronized by Shah Jahan, but he lacked Jahangir’s aesthetic sense in this field. Hence, there is a profusion of court scenes and a lavish use of gold. The colours of the paintings became more decorative and gold was more frequently used for embellishment.

Shah Jahan was a great patron of architecture, but he did not neglect the painting. Under him, the previous tradition of doing portraits, preparing albums, and, illustrating books, was continued.

Additionally we find the paintings depicting charming love scenes and portraits of female members. Another important theme chosen for painting was super imposition of animals and the scenes of performing acrobats.

Shahjahan on globe
From left top clockwise:(1)A Mughal woman holding a Veena(2)A Mughal Prince and Ladies in a Garden(3)Shah Jahan on a Terrace Holding a Pendant Set with His Portrait(4)Portrait of Bahadur Shah(5)1561-Akbar riding the elephant Hawa’I pursuing another elephant across a collapsing bridge of boats (6)Payāg Princess on elephant

Aurangzeb and later Mughals

Aurangzeb, who succeeded Shahjahan, had begun his rule on a bitter note by executing his brothers and imprisoning his father. The arts were ignored during his regime. Painting did not stop altogether, though it list the patronage of the Emperor and became confined to the studios of the nobles. There exist some commissioned portraits of the nobles and their relations from the courts of the Rajput principalities. Large number of karkhana records (on paintings) are located in the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner. There also exist a few interesting pictures of the emperor himself during his campaigns. The skill of the painters is evident, though the paintings are more formal and seem to have lost their earlier liveliness.

Aurangzeb’s lack of interest in painting led to a dispersal of the artists to different places of the country. This helped in the development of painting in the states of Rajasthana and the Punjab hills. During the first half of the 18th century, many Mughal-trained artists left the imperial workshop to work at Rajput courts. These include artists such as Bhawanidas and his son Dalchand.

A brief revival was noticed during the reign of Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’ (1719–48), when interest got renewed in depicting pleasure loving scenes. By the time of Shah Alam II (1759-1806), the art of Mughal painting had lost its glory. By that time, other schools of Indian painting had developed, including, in the royal courts of the Rajput kingdoms of Rajputana, Rajput painting and in the cities ruled by the British East India Company, the Company style under Western influence.

European Impact on Mughal Painting

In its later phases, especially during the Seventeenth Century, the Mughal painting was influenced by the European art. Some of the themes of European art were incorporated by Mughal painters and they also adopted a few of the techniques of European artists. According to A.J. Qaisar, a large number of European paintings were either copied or adapted or even reinterpreted, sometimes, by Mughal painters. At the same time many original prints from Europe were collected and preserved in the albums of Jahangir, Dara Shikoh and several Mugbal nobles.

The contact Mughal court painters had with European paintings prompted them initially to make exact copies in their own hands. Such imitations, as noted by contemporary European travellers, were impeccably done. But Mughal painters also made experiments by making new paintings on the subjects chosen from European paintings.

  • One important feature that becomes noticeable in some Mughal paintings is the attempt to make them three dimensional. Clearly it speaks of the impact of European technique.
  • Another European convention acceptable to Mughal painters was the effect of light and shade, mostly utilized in fight scenes.
  • The depiction of motifs like ‘hals’, winged angles and roaring clouds in Mughal paintings was again under the influence of European paintings.
  • Jahangir encouraged his royal atelier to take up the single point perspective favoured by European artists, unlike the flattened multi-layered style used in traditional miniatures.
  • One important technique that of oil painting from Europe, somewhat did not attract the Mughals. There is no work from this period that was executed in oil.



7 thoughts on “Mughal Painting”

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