A Royal Line of Art Connoisseurs
THE term Mughal used in the history of the art of India is a puzzler. While this spelling is customary in art history, it may be spelled Mogul (or Moghal) for political history. If the word Mogul suggests to you the word Mongol, you are correct. The Mughal emperors were descendents of Genghis Khan and his successors who swept over and out of China in the 12th and 13th centuries. As the huge empire broke up, the princes in the western parts became Islamized. Babar was among these princes, but he moved east again, and founded the Mughal Empire in India in 1526 A.D. The early Mughal emperors were all connoisseurs of art. This was in spite of prohibitions in Muslim tenets forbidding the delineation of the likeness of anything ``in heaven or on earth.''
Babar was of the Iranian (Persian) House of Timor and his son and successor, Humayun, had spent a year at the court at Tabriz where he became acquainted with two prominent painters. When Humayun was enthroned in Kabul he sent for these two painters, desiring them to oversee the illustration of a lengthy story of Muslim chivalry and romance. Naturally, these examples of early Mughal paintings are Iranian in character - very stylized and decorative.
The work was continued under the Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) who was an extraordinarily enlightened ruler. In order to better understand his Hindu subjects, he ordered Hindu manuscripts translated and illustrated. He supported both Muslim and Hindu artists, as well as a few venturesome Europeans. He hoped to end the religious hostility which unfortunately has continued to this day in India. His religious tolerance as well as his artistic eye may have been a legacy of the Khans who, while ruthless conquerors, granted full religious freedom to their subjected lands.
The resulting art became a graceful mix of the indigenous Rajput style and the Persian. Akbar established himself in a new capital in Delhi, and his new palace included spacious studios for painters who executed wall paintings and other large works, as well as the small illustrations we associate with Mughal art. He is said to have employed over a hundred master artists with innumerable assistants and apprentices. He was so interested in the progress of his art projects that he personally reviewed the work each week granting royal rewards and honors which must have kept the artists at a competitive edge.
The tolerant Akbar welcomed Christian missionaries who, having been informed of his predilection for art, brought along numerous paintings as gifts. In this way, the modeling of the figure in the manner of the Renaissance became familiar to the artists and portraiture became important.
Jehangir (1605-1627), Akbar's son, continued the interest in painting. It is from his reign that our example, ``A Falconer and a Gamekeeper,'' comes. Typical of the puzzle of Mughal miniatures (this painting is approximately 9 by 7 inches) is the title. The calligraphic inscription in the upper right corner indicates that the falconer is none other than Jehangir himself with a courtier. However other sources believe that the writing was added at a later date and it is a portrait of another royal prince, a contender for the throne who lost out to Jehangir.
The painting definitely shows European influence. This style is sometimes called high Mughal. Its composition is similar to that of Iranian miniatures, but it has been simplified from elegant fantasy into a realistic landscape. The coloring - the brilliant red set off by the dull green - seems more like the native Indian schools. The two men, the deer, and the hawk are now depicted with close attention to realistic color and detail. The brilliantly dressed falconer is probably royalty, but the man in drab brown attire is likely a gamekeeper, not a courtier.
Jehangir delighted in flowers, trees, and animals. He probably kept a menagerie, because the small deer in the painting seems to be wearing a muzzle and to be kept on a short lead by the gamekeeper. Jehangir insisted upon realism. Not only are the two men presented with detailed likenesses but the animal and bird are fully developed. He also commanded his artists to record any remarkable event which occurred during his reign: the emperor hunting the maneless Indian lion or a trained elephant running amok among river boats.
It is thought that Jehangir probably had even more artists at work for him than his predecessor. So great was his demand for illustrations, portrayals of court life, decorative scenes, and murals that mass production entered. The composition was outlined in red chalk and corrected in black chalk by the master artist in charge of the project. Then in an ordered sequence specialists painted in faces, animals, landscape, and decorative details. Whether this example was done in this manner is not ascertainable.
The small illustrations were done on fine paper imported from Persia burnished to a glossy smoothness, primed with some fine plaster-like substance. Opaque water colors were applied layer on layer and burnished again on the reverse side. Delicate squirrel hair brushes were used.
ALTHOUGH Jehangir's successor, Shah Jehan (1628-1658), is the most famous of the Mughal emperors because of the magnificent Taj Mahal he ordered built as a memorial to his wife, he was not as personally involved with his artists. His reign was peaceful and sumptuous. Paintings reflect this rich lifestyle with gorgeous effects. But Mughal art had already started downhill.
The next emperor, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), was a fundamentalist. He took the Islamic prohibitions against representation literally and even whitewashed over the murals on the walls of Akbar's tomb. Some of the artists departed for other courts; some found employment among favorably disposed nobility. The less fortunate fell upon difficult days. The accounts of French travelers noted that many artists and craftsmen who had to sell their wares in the market or take employment where they could were treated harshly and unfairly by officials and nobles.
Court painting was revived under the succeeding emperors but in a debased form. Harem themes reflected the decadent pleasures. Later, as in Europe, the patronage of art enlarged to include the merchant class. Genre themes depicted in a rather naive manner became the mode. The empire deteriorated into princely states.
It is very unusual in the annals of art that the one designation, Mughal, should be applied to some 300 years of art with the inevitable changes in style in a country as large as India.