Mughal miniatures reveal the big picture

Arts of Mughal India

February 25, 2005

In the world of the visual arts of India, Robert Skelton needs no introduction. As one of the foremost postwar authorities on Indian painting and fine objects, he started as a young and enthusiastic scholar in the 1950s at the Victoria and Albert Museum under William G. Archer, who had been in the Indian Civil Service before the war. Until this time, Western scholarship on India was expected to be in the hands of those who had served there, but times were changing and a new breed of scholar with a fresh viewpoint was emerging. Archer soon recognised Skelton's sharp and critical powers of observation, which led to a thorough re-evaluation of the museum's Mughal miniatures. Skelton was later in charge of the Indian collections and nurtured many young scholars, not just in the museum, but worldwide. It is not surprising that he is admired by all those involved with Indian art.

Arts of Mughal India is a finely produced volume presenting a number of essays, mainly, but not exclusively, on Indian painting, written by Skelton's eminent friends and colleagues. The book opens with reminiscences by three old friends, Pramod Chandra, Simon Digby and Stuart Cary Welch, and is followed by a select bibliography of Skelton's publications that may not appear extensive but shows his wide knowledge of all aspects of Indian art and includes a paper on Shah Jahan's wine cup, one of the V&A's finest Mughal jade objects, obtained through his efforts.

The essays follow. Daniel Ehnbom discusses a single painting from the Hamzanama , a magical and heroic tale of the legendary Persian hero Amir Hamza. The work, apparently painted in the early days of Akbar's court, is almost entirely Persian in style and detail, and Ehnbom recalls the formative influence of Persian artists, in this case the celebrated Mir Sayyid 'Ali, on Mughal court painting.

In the next essay, Welch demonstrates a similar influence through the illustrations of the Shahnama , the great Persian epic that was at the time also regarded as history, illustrated by Mir Sayyid 'Ali. Welch compares the Shahnama illustration with another painting attributed to Mir Sayyid 'Ali and comments on the extent of the influence on Indian art of the older Persian masters at the height of their powers. This paper should have perhaps been the opening essay.

Linda York Leach's essay is on the illustrations of a royal copy of the Akbarnama , an official history of the Emperor Akbar, many illustrated copies of which were produced in the Mughal court in the late 16th century and given to princes and courtiers. Persian influence is still present in this example, but elements such as costumes and architectural features are Indian.

In spite of the early Mughals' leanings towards Persia, book illustration had long antecedents in pre-Mughal India, for both Hindu and Muslim works.

The influence of such illustrations on Mughal works is explored in essays by B. N. Goswamy on a series of paintings of the time of Akbar depicting the Hindu goddess Devi Mahatmya, and by Asok Kumar Das on paintings related to a number of copies of the Razmnama , a Persian translation of the Mahabharata epic. Non-Muslim regional book illustration is presented in essays by Shridhar Andhare and Catherine Glynn, while Joachim K. Bautze studies the Rajput wall-paintings at Karwar, Rajasthan. This is a pioneering work on the subject because Rajasthan is a region where there are many Rajput palaces with fine wall paintings awaiting investigation, among them the private rooms of the palace at the fort of Nagaur.

For Mughal painting in its maturity, we should turn to studies presented by Terence McInerney, John Seyller and Milo Cleveland Beach. Friedericke Weis introduces yet another influence on later Mughal art, European imports to India through Portuguese trade; and Barbara Brend writes on the possible influence of European botanical illustration.

Europeans and Mughal India are also represented in a number of essays. Nuno Vassallo e Silva goes back a step and discusses the treasures presented by the Portuguese to the Sultan of Gujarat even before the appearance of the Mughals. None of these well-documented treasures has survived, but the records are of considerable interest for understanding the initial attitude of the Portuguese towards the local powers. Gauvin Alexander Bailey, on the other hand, discusses the Catholic churches founded by Portuguese Jesuit missions in Mughal India. Ebba Koch, in turn, looks at the influence of Mughal painting in Europe, not just through Rembrandt's well-known version of a Mughal miniature, but through a detailed study of the Mughal-style wall paintings at the Schonbrunn Palace at Vienna. These paintings, although Europeanised, are clearly based on specific Mughal miniatures.

Other aspects of the arts are not neglected. Manuel Keene studies Mughal jewellery, and Rai Anand Krishna a group of Rajasthani painted panels from Jaisalmer. Navina N. Haidar Haykel writes on painted and lacquered papier-mâché objects, mainly pen boxes, of the late 17th and early 18th century that are closely linked with Iranian traditions of the same period.

There is much to study here, particularly on the Iranian side. If Mughal painting originally owes much to the earlier Persian masters, at the end of the Mughal period and after their fall there seems to have been a migration of Indian artists to Iran, but little attention has been paid to their influence, evident in pen box decoration and miniature painting. The book ends with essays by Debra Diamond and J. P. Losty on late-Mughal cartography, a subject that provides a wealth of material for those interested in the architecture and urban planning of the period.

Credit for the production of this attractive volume should go to the editors, colleagues of Skelton who have also each contributed a paper.

Rosemary Crill writes on a piece of 17th or early 18th-century chintz ( qalamkari ) painted and dyed with floral borders and animal and birds surrounding a medallion in the middle. Through comparative material, she demonstrates how far textile design in India benefited from the international textile trade, which spread patterns and design worldwide.

What could have perhaps been added is the close similarity of the treatment of the birds and even the background colours of this textile with those of the wall paintings of Ali Qapu at Isfahan.

Susan Stronge's contribution is on Robert Hughes, a merchant and amateur artist in India during the reign of the Emperor Jahangir. With the help of an Armenian, who apparently knew English and Persian, Hughes produced a little-known Persian dictionary with Persian words transliterated in Roman letters. For philologists, this book could be a mine of information on how Persian was pronounced in Mughal India.

Finally, Andrew Topsfield discusses the representation of court musicians in the paintings of the Udaipur Rajputs in the late 17th and early 18th century. Through a number of paintings, he surveys court traditions concerning music and musicians. His work is a rare attempt to reinvestigate cultural history not just through written material but through physical evidence - a useful model for young scholars to begin looking at Indian miniatures not only as art objects but in a wider perspective, as documents of social and cultural history.

Admirers of Indian visual arts will find this book an up-to-date and informative work with finely produced illustrations. It will serve as a reference tool for scholars for years to come.

Mehrdad Shokoohy is professor of architecture and urban studies, Greenwich University.

Arts of Mughal India: Studies in Honour of Robert Skelton

Editor - Rosemary Crill, Susan Stronge and Andrew Topsfield
Publisher - Mapin Publishing Distributed by Art Books International
Pages - 308
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 1 890206 71 7

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.