MUGHAL MINIATURES : Painting India's History

AbulFazlPresentingAkbarnamaTheme: Mughal Miniatures Paintings, depicting the culture of Medieval India.

The Mughal period in Indian history had seen widespread cultural development, especially in the field of miniature paintings. These paintings are like binocular through which we can see the Medieval history of India. The introduction of new technique in the field of architect was also owns a noteworthy page in the history of India; but the painting come in fore. As it was rooted in a diverse mix of cultural, religious and artistic traditions, the art of miniature paintings in India became one of the richest and most productive schools. This spell of the art had carved out its own place in the history of Islamic art, too.

Abul Fasl, Presenting, Akbarnama.

The Mughal Art in India can be broadly divided into four phases. The Mughals - descendants of Timur and Genghiz Khan felt strong cultural ties to the Persian world. So they had imported the strong elements of the Persian paintings into Indian culture. Thus the first phase of the Mughal Miniatures in India, which started during the rule of the first Mughal Emperor Babur, had strong resemblance with the Persian miniatures. The main source of knowing about the Mughal Miniatures is the book called Baburnama. This book is an autobiographical writings by Emperor Babur (1483-1530), decorated by illustrations painted by team of miniature artists.

The second phase was during the rule of Emperor Akbar. The Akbarnama depicting the deeds of emperor is decorated by the illustrations painted by the miniature painters. But during this period the art of miniature painting in India had undergone some technical changes. The third phase is the Jehangirnama, which is like a collection of the miniature paintings done under the sponsorship of Emperor Jehangir, the son of Emperor Akbar.

The fourth phase of miniature art in the medieval India can be called as a parallel phase, too, as it ran with the time of these three Emperors. During this time, the art of miniature painting had percolated to the other parts of India, too. The Rajput kings were fond of paintings and they had also sponsored some of the miniature artists. The works done by these painters are known as ‘Rajput Style’ or ‘Rajasthan Style’ of Miniature Paintings, as it was mainly practiced in the state of Rajasthan in India. (Images Courtesy By Евгений Ардаев at ru.wikipedia [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)


Akbar orders punishment of Adham Khan, AkbarnamaMughal Miniature Painting Depicting Life and Lifestyle of Indian Emperors and Kings, narrating the Heroic deed of Rajput kings and Mughal Emperors were the favourite subjects for the miniature artists.

Akbar orders punishment of Adham Khan, Akbarnama(1590-95)

If we were to find out a golden page of history of Indian painting, we would not find a better source than the miniature paintings done in the medieval period. It was the time of sixteenth and seventeen century when the Mughal Emperors and Rajput kings of India loved the art and supported the artists under the umbrella of state.

These miniature paintings carrying a perceptible resemblance to their counter parts in Persia, The Persian Miniature Paintings, depicted the life and lifestyle of the Mughal and Rajput Kings of the time. These paintings narrated the subjects like how the Mughal and Rajput princes lived, what they wear and how they fought their wars. However the major portion of the artists’ endeavours was devoted in drawing the visual narration about the ways in which these medieval kings and princes enjoyed their life. Thus these miniature paintings were not only the mute spectator of India’s medieval history, but they are the honest witnesses of social and cultural mirror of the period.

The above miniature depicts a scene from the Indian history. Emperor Akbar is displeased by what his foster brother Adham Khan did and he orders death punishment for him. Adham Khan had forcefully intruded into the private quarters of Emperor Akbar, and had killed one of his generals, Ataga Khan. This painting, as it happens in Persian Miniature paintings, is depicting a series of incidents. Here are three occurrences: Akabar shown with his sword, the culprit Adham Khan being thrown from the terrace, and the supporters of Adham Khan are scared by the incident. (Image courtesy By Miskin, Shankar. (V&A Museum [1]) [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)

Painting History of India in Colours

Mughal Miniature Paintings are the pictorial history of India’s Medieval. The style of painting known as Mughal Miniature was practiced in India from 16th to 19th century. When Emperor Akbar was ruling in Indian subcontinent, this art gained its prominence.

Noble Mughal Lady

Mughal Emperors, along with contemporary Rajput kings, were fond of wars, women and wine. But they have saved a corner of their their hearts for the art of painting, too. This aesthetically rich part of their hearts have made them being remembered by the history of art. Influenced by pre-existing Persian Style of Miniature Painting, this art was mainly done for illustrations of the books in its initial spell. Afterwards the artists started painting subjects independent from the books. However they kept depicting mythological scenes from Indian scriptures and historical books. Artists depicted various themes and subjects, varying from time to time.

If we decide to classify the paintings of India, that would be in two general sections. One would be the murals, like paintings done on the walls of the Buddhist caves of Ajanta and Ellora. Another section would be of Miniatures. Done of materials like hand made paper and cloth, these paintings are the artistic wealth of India.

Emperor Jahangir Preferring a Sufi sheikh to Kings -miniature painting by Mughal artist Bichitr, ca. 1620 opaque watercolour and gold on paper

History: The miniature paintings were done by Indian artists since many centuries; we can see some paintings done in sixth and seventh century, too. But the art of miniature painting reached its golden period during the reign of Mughal Emperors. Baburnama, Akbarnama, and Jahangirnama were the books narrating the heroic deeds of the emperors. The miniature paintings were done to illustrate the incidents narrated in these books. The miniature artists were impressed by the Sufi saints and Sufism, too.

The Art: When the influence and power of the Emperors of the Mughal Dynasty started decreasing, the art found its home in the palaces of the Rajaput Kings. These kings and princes were ruling the central and eastern parts of India. They loved the art and they patronized the miniature artists. This helped the painters to carry the stream of artistic depiction running. After that happening, the art became more inclusive. The artists started depicting fresh subjects and new technique of perspective painting borrowed from the western countries.

The Materials: The miniature artists used materials easily available. During sixteenth and seventeenth century, the paintings were done on handmade papers, clothes, ivory slabs. These were the support generally used by the artists of the time. Miniature painters did the same. They also used the colours made from crouch, ivory, colourful pebbles available from the bed of the rivers, and indigo. They were used to extract juices from vegetables and made colours out of the same. The brushes they used were of the finest quality, as they need to paint very tiny things with precision. These brushes were made of the hair of horse, camel, sheep and goats, fox, sable, and squirrel.

Subjects and Themes of Miniature Paintings

Subjects painted and People depicted in these miniature paintings were generally the kings and emperors of the medieval India. The biggest Empire of the period was of Mughal dynasty that ruled from Delhi. These emperors were Muslims. But after Akbar had tried peaceful co-existence of the people of all the religions, the subjects of the art were not limited to one religion. The Rajput kings ruling the rest ofIndia had also sponsored many artists. These artists were free to choose the themes and subjects of their choices.

Sixteenth and seventeenth century would be recorded as the era of numerous wars on small scales, and big scams resulting in murders of brothers by brothers. But the scenes of battle field occupied by scattered had not prevented the kings and emperors to make their life style less entertaining. Their life was luxurious; their moods were sensual. They also wanted showing wealth and bravery they possessed.Many of the paintings narrated the characteristics of the warriors who fought battled. The show of elephants and horses used during wars was also a favourite subject of the artists and their sponsor rulers. Artists were also encouraged to depict the lifestyle of prices and princessess, too. All the subjects they painted were put in the visual forms through brilliant colours. Skilful use of dynamic lining work embedded very essence of the scene painted. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Mughal Subjects: The artists who worked under the support of Mughal kings had limited choice in the field of themes to be adopted and selection of the subjects. Their focus was on doing illustrations for the books narrating the deeds of Emperors. Thus they painted the miniatures for the biographical books like Baburnama, Akbarnama, and Jahangirnama. The court scenes and portraits of prices and princesses were their additional subjects. However Emperor Akbar had allowed the Hindu religious events to be painted.

Capturing the vitality and luxurious sensuality of the life of Emperors, Rajput kings and their prices and princesses, the miniature artists had tried narrating the medieval culture of India through their art. The characters of the court of Mughal Emperors and Rajput kings were recorded in an informal and engaging style. Many of the paintings narrated the characteristics of the warriors and the elephants and horses they used during war. These miniatures are done in with brilliant colours and dynamic line work depicting the essence of the scene painted.

Rajaput and other Subjects: The Rajaput kings were following Hindu religion, so they preferred depiction of the incidents from scriptures of India. The artists painted scenes from epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. Their preferred choice was painting Lord Krishna and Radha. During this period some of the artists have experimented non-traditional subjects like putting landscape details in painting. So we can see the inclusion of birds, animals and trees in these miniatures.

The art of miniature painting was becoming a secular one. Hindu kings were adopting the Islamic subjects and the Muslim emperors were respecting the Hindu scriptures. Due to such changes in the concepts, the artists were inspired by scriptures and some of them were inspired by popular books of love poems like Geet Govind. Some of the artists concentrated on the classical tunes and evolved a new type of painting, Ragamala, based on Indian classical Ragas.

Schools of painting

During the period of eighteenth century and onward, many other Indian kings started supporting the miniature artists. This made the art getting pan Indian character. The artists functioning in different areas of the country acted with more freedom. Thus their arts can be identified by their special features they received from the local influences. There emerged numerous schools of painting during this period. Some of these schools are still functioning in India. Here are names of some of these schools of paintings: Kangra painting , Phad Painting , Deccan Miniature , Tanjore painting , Mughal Miniatures, Rajasthan Paintings.


Mughal Period : When we talk about Mughal Paintings; we talk about Miniature Paintings. The term Mughal paintings refers to the Miniature Paintings done during the reign of Mughal emperors who ruled over India from 1920 to the 1957 when the British Army finally took over the reigns. The Mughal era of miniature paintings owns a noteworthy page in the history of art of paintings in India.


This book Baburnama or Babarnama is autography of the first Mughal Emperor Babur.Being himself a poet, he had written and assisted in writing the script of the book. We can se from the writing of the book that how learned man he was. Though he kept fighting many wars on the soil of India to establish his kingdom, he had kept his literary spirit alive. His autobiography and the illustrations depict many scenes from the wars he fought and won. The war of Panipat was one of his great and fate-deciding wars. The artists have painted emperors Babur’s life in miniature paintings. In these paintings the miniature artists succeeded in creating a chain of visual images leading the viewers' eyes to the four corners of frames they painted.

The Mughals - descendants of Timur and Genghiz Khan felt strong cultural ties to the Persian world and imported the same with their rule over Indiawhen they conquered most of the north India. After Babur won the crucial war of Panipat against Rajput Kings, the Mughal became the most important artistically active Muslim dynasty on the Indian subcontinent.

After death of Babur, who was a poet and an artist himself, his heirs carried the artistic journey. The following Emperors Mumayun, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan added their vision and transported the car of the art ahead. Mughal miniature paintings put India's medieval cultures into the colours; the miniature artists injected history into the paintings, through their skill and the indigenous colours. Mughal Emperors and Rajaput kings explored the undefined aspects of the art of paintings, through their patronage and help provided to the artists.

Akbarnama: After death of Emperor Babur, his son Humayun succeeded him. He saw many ups and downs in his career as an emperor; he lost wars and he won wars until he finally regained control of the capital of his empire, Delhi. During the time he was wandering around Afghanistan and Persia, he met some of the miniature artists. He impressed upon two great Persian artists of the time and invited them to India. The work of these artists changed the fate of the miniature painting style of India.

After Humayun’s death, his son Akbar carried his noble intention towards the art of painting, making it a Art of Court. It was his period (1556 – 1605) during witch the art of miniature painting flourished in India. Though the artists working under the patronage of Akbar kept following the basics of Persian paintings, they had added their vision and took some freedom. We can see a clear change of style while looking at the paintings done during this era. Natural scenes were an addition as subject, and the illustrated events were enclosed within detailed objects lying in the surrounding.

Mughal Art: The miniature style of paintings practiced during this period was clearly influenced by the Persian style of paintings. The Persian painters of miniature style used upright format and general setting with emphasis on flat aerial perspective. The Mighal era artists, especially in the time of King Akbar (1556-1605), maintained that qualities of the Persian style in their work. But they added their vision and took some freedom. They applied naturalism and the tried the depiction of the detailed observation of the world in immediate surround.

The art of Miniature painting known as the Mughal Miniatures painting was imported in India by the Mughal emperors. It was the period of sixteenth century.

One of the Mughal emperors, Humayun, was wandering in Iran after suffering a great defeat in Northern India. He was forced to live there for a period of about twelve years. During this time Humayun had seen Persian Miniatures and had been fond of the same. He developed a liking for elegantly painted Iranian Miniature Paintings.

When he returned to India and regained his empire, he was accompanied by two of the best artists in the Sultan’s place. [Images courtesy By Евгений Ардаев at ru.wikipedia [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons), ( Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons) ]

MUGHAL MINIATURES : Painting India's HistorySocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

No comments: