Mughal Miniatures: Secular Art of India

Paintings: Depicting Hindu Mythological subjects representing the secular history of medieval India when the Mughal Emperors in Delhi and Rajput Kings in Rajputana ruled the most part of India.

Where would the history of Indian painting, especially of it medieval period, stand without the broad mention of Mughal Miniatures? It would be hard for an art critique to paint a complete picture of India’s cultural and artistic journey without putting the miniature paintings on record; these were the exotic and beautiful pieces of art that the artist did under the helping umbrella of the Mughal emperors who ruled most part of India from 16th to 18th century.

The Lord Krishna in the Golden City of Dwarka

Mughal Emperor Humayun had injected artistic flavour into the art of Indian painting when he brought two miniature artists from Persia. By the passing of time this miniature art had percolated up to the deep corners of Indian states which were ruled by Rajaput Kings of northern and southern India.

On seeing the mughal miniatures we would think that this must be a Persian painting; such heavy was the influence of the Persian painting style on the minds of the Indian artists of that time. But the Mughal style of painting concisely narrates the life and choices of the people of medieval India. On close scrutiny, we would find that there is elaborated depiction of lifestyle of contemporary Indian society. May it be costumes the men and women in the paintings put on, or may it be ornaments of the male and female figures have on their bodies; these articles clearly witness the lifestyle of the people living during those centuries.[Image courtesy By Miskin (Smithsonian institute - Freer Sackler Gallery[1]) [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons ]

Krishna Holding Mount Govardhan - Crop

Lord Krishna and Radha : Strangely enough for the historians, too, the paintings commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar were the clear witness of a great endeavor to integrate two different cultures, the majority of population of Hindus and minority of Muslims, into one and create a great and peaceful Indian state. The paintings of Lord Krishna fall under this category. The miniature artworks of other deities of Hindu religion were the proof of the will of the great Emperor. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Mughal miniature paintings are symbol of cultural and religious tolerance that had developed in India during the medieval period.

The above miniature painting shows the mythical city of Dwarika, or Dwarka. Lord Krishna is enthroned on a golden palace. The village-like scene in foreground creates a feel that the God is not far away, He is part of our life. This miniature is believed to be commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556–1605).

Another painting is also of Lord Krishna. It is a mythological story that when a devastating rain was out to destroy the town where the devotees of Lord Krishna loved, the he lifted a mountain named Govardhan with his one finger and saved the crowd of people from the heavy rain. (Image courtesy By Mola Ram (1760-1833) (English Wikipedia) [public domain], from Wikimedia Common ]

Mughal Miniatures, influencing Jaipur School of paintings and Kishangarh School of paintings.

Portrait of the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan, circa 1725-1750. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 11 5/8 x 8 1/2 in.

Rajasthan miniature paintings, mainly by the Jaipur school, largely due to Jaipur’s friendly alliances with the Mughals and the patronage of Akbar in the 16th century, remained rooted in the Mughal style. But the subjects had more varieties and the artists enjoyed more freedom.

Each school of painting had its own features. For instance, the flowing rivers, dense forests, lush green fields of Kota-Bundi region were illustrated, painted into the paintings of these regions. Some depited hunting, where as some painted the animal fights. Women depicted in this paintings are graceful, with well proportioned bodies and sharp features. They used bright colours mainly, with red prominently appearing in the background of the art piece. Rajasthan has been one of the major region and an important center of Indian paintings. The decoration of houses, courts, and other household buildings were the places to depict the creative genius of the Rajasthani paingings. The miniature paintings is perhaps the most interesting and the distinctive styles that have existed in India and in Rajasthan.

Painting of Radha: From the start of the sixteenth century here flourished different schools of paintings. Some of them are the Mewar School, the Bundi-Kota kalam, the Jaipur, Bikaner, Kishengarh school.
Number of schools of miniature painting thrive in Rajasthan. They are a quaint mixture of Mughal and indigenous Indian styles. The Deities, especiall Lord Krishna and Radha, were the favourite themes embedded in the Rajasthani Miniatures of 17th and 18the century. T
he dwellings and household objects were decorated with miniature paintings done by artists of the Rajasthan in 18th and 19th century.


The painting given here is of the woman known as Radha or Radharani. She was devotee and lover of Lord Krishna. Painters of Rajasthan or Rajputana, as it was called in those period, had done many paintings based on the Love Songs of Radha and Krishna. After the spread of Vashavism, the religion worshipping Lord Krsihna and Radha, the theme of these mythological characters became popular in India and in north part of India particularly. The southern India has its own mythological traditions depicted in the art.

Akbarnama: Painting secular Art of Medieval India

Court of Akbar from Akbarnama
Mughal Miniature Paintings are like pictorial narration of the lifestyle of Medieval India. If we are to earmark a golden period in the history of Indian art of painting, the years during which The Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556 – 1605) ruled over India would have a sole claim and strong claim. This was the era when art lover Emperor and kings of other states in Rajasthan augmented the pace of development of the art of painting.

Court of Akbar, Akbarnama.

The court of Akbar, an illustration from Akbarnama. The spiral composition, with horses defining the outer edges, skillfully draws the viewer's attention to the young emperor (age 13). He is portrayed in a powerful central position from which he exercises his first imperial act: the arrest of an unruly courtier, who was once a favorite of Akbar's father.

Akbar’s Father, Emperor Humayun, had called two great painters from Persia. These were the painters who put the foundation stone of miniature paintings of a unique style in India. Besides the court of Emperor Akbar, the other kings of Rajaputana and South India, too, joined the movement of the art and sponsored the works of artists.

If the above painting is any evidence, we can say that the miniature paintings done in seventeenth century are like the pictorial history of medieval India. The artworks of this period depict several aspects of the life of the people: the social norms of living they followed, the costumes and jewellery they wore, and the lifestyle they practiced. Description of the above painting: Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Size 14.4 x 20 cm. Designed by Basawan, painted by Shankar.

Young Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana being received by Akbar, Akbarnama
There were forms of art, which were known as Islamic art. But the art of painting that flourished in India was not confined to any religion. Emperor Akbar had ruled like a real ruler and thus he had behaved not like his predecessor emperors. Akbar was an advocate of peaceful coexistence; he had endeavoured blurring the line that divided people in religious segments, namely Hindu and Muslim. His concept of secularism had affected the art to progress making inroads into all sections of society.

Akabar and Rahim khan, The Poet

The painting given here witnesses the meeting of Emperor Akbar and the famous poet Rahim Khan, who would be the leading literary figure in the court. Rahim was known for his faith in all the religions of India. (First Images courtesy See page for author [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons) [(Second Image courtesy By Anant, born active 1584-1611 (V&A Museum [1]) [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons]

The Mughal Miniature paintings were done in India during the time of the kings of mugal dynasty, especially in the early years. Thw Mughal dynastic line from Timur to Aurangzeb ruled major parts ofIndia from 1370 till 1857. But the real rulers were Akbar, Jahangir and his contemporaries who lived during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The paintings done with sponsorship of the Rajput Kings of Rajastan and other regions of India were greatly affected by this style of miniature paintings. These paintings depicted mainly various activities of the kings, their wives, and the court people.

Baburnama 1
The miniature artists of Mughal era focused their attention on the beauty. They were much attentive to the intricacies of the designs of jewels and drapes, sometimes forgetting the factor of realism that they considered less important.

Emperor Babur Supervising the construction of Garden, BABURNAMA

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 artistic freedom. They applied naturalism in their work and tried depicting the detailed observation of the world in immediate surround. The keen observation of the above painting would prove this changed perspective.

Mughal Court Paintings provides us with invaluable information about the life and times of rulers of the period. The paintings also reflect the contemporary social and political condition of the people. Social customs and courtly customs as depicted in these paintings refer to the social hierarchy, too. In some of the paintings there are presence of foreign ambassadors. That depiction tells us that the Mughal rulers had active trade relations with other countries.

The Style of Painting used in these miniatures shows the technical advancement, particularly in the fine brushwork. One can see that in some of the paintings of this era, the compositions are less crowded and the colours used are more subdued. From examinations of the actors and characters seen within the frame we can observe that their movement is much less dynamic. In the plate given below, the painting represents an image on flat plane that results in a strong two-dimensional design. (Image courtesy By Unknown (Indian, Imperial Mughal ) (http://cybermuse.gallery.ca) [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)

Indischer Maler um 1650 (I) 001

Mughal Miniatures depicting bathing women

The period of three emperors of mughal dynasty is considered the golden period for the miniature paintings. These three Emperors were Akbar (reigned1556-1605), Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan (1628-58). India was a much wider country than it is today, and the Mughal Empire covered most of the Northern India and some regions in present Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Shepherd girl Radha - Color paper
Buchmalerei, Master of the Mughal School

Emperor Akbar was deeply interested in cultural issues , so he helped the artists in the filed of painting and music. He had arranged employment to more than one hundred miniature painters. These artists had illustrated the texts like Babarnama and Akbarnama. The have also illustrated the books of Hindu religion, the scriptures like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

In the time of Akbar’s reign, the Mighal Miniature painting was the secular art, dealing with court life, durbar scenes and portraits of royal men and women. The have also painted natural subjects like birds, flowers, animals and forest scenes. However the assists’ preference was tilted towards depicting the hunting scenes and other daily life scenes of the kings and the princes. It was also customary for the Mughal Miniature painters to paint the flora and fauna and love scenes.

This painting depicts a shepherd girl, her name is Radha. From this painting we can see the Indian consumes and the lifestyle of the women during the seventeenth century, and the medieval period. [ Images courtesy: Shephard Girl Radha Courtesy by By Indischer Maler um 1650 (I) [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons . Radharani See page for author [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons and Portrait of the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan Wikimedia Commons ]

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