Mughal Paintings from the Bharat Kala Bhavan

Mughal painting reached a very high degree of refinement during the last two decades of the sixteenth century. The activities of Emperor Akbar's sprawling taswirkhana (royal artists' workshop) were undertaken by painters recruited from across India and beyond. The imperial atelier was working at a hectic pace to prepare hundreds of paintings commissioned to illustrate the numerous manuscripts being written to meet the insatiable demands of Akbar.

To keep pace with demand, the artists worked on the basis of joint authorship with the master designing the layout and his assistants applying the pigments. Often for the sake of accuracy and authenticity a specialist was called upon to retouch the faces of important figures. In the poetic manuscripts, however, the mood was different and the pace was much slower—only the masters worked, with intense attention to detail, to create a limited number of high quality illustrations taking upon themselves the entire responsibility of designing, drawing, and coloring to perfection, without any assistance. Thus the names of only a handful of master painters are noticed in these manuscripts.—Alok Kumar Das

Below are a selection of miniature paintings from the Bharat Kala Bhavan at the Benaras Hindu University in Varanasi. All image descriptions are by Alok Kumar Das. See also paintings from the Royal Ateliers

The Drowning of the Chinese Beauty
A folio from the Aiyar-e-Danish (A Book of Animal Fables)
Mughal, Reign of Akbar, 1596-7
Painter: Mishkin
Size: 24.8 x 13.9 cm
Bharat Kala Bhavan, No. 9065/22

This startling miniature, one of the finest from the brush of the well-known master Mishkin, illustrates the story of the King of Baghdad getting rid of a beautiful Chinese damsel by drowning her in the waters of the Tigris. It was necessary for him to do this in order to overcome his mad infatuation for her so that he could fulfill the greater need of his distressed subjects who he had been badly neglecting. Mishkin has captured the dramatic moment when the king himself undertook this terrible task as earlier attempts to eliminate her were unsuccessful.

Mishkin was a prolific painter who worked with Daswant, Basawan, and Kesav, and avidly studied the form and technique of European paintings and engravings coming to the Mughal court. The impact of this exposure is apparent in his later works including this painting. Mishkin's treatment of the pensive looking king, the hapless damsel, the young boatman riding on the mast of the boat or drawing and arranging the sails, as well as the careful use of pigments of various shades, aptly reveal his superior vision and his praiseworthy technique.

Dabshalim visits the Sage Bidpai
A folio from the Aiyar-e-Danish (A Book of Animal Fables)
Mughal, Reign of Akbar, 1596-7
Painter: Dharamdas
Size: 24.8 x 13.9 cm
Bharat Kala Bhavan, No. 9065/7

King Dabshalim had a dream one night in which he encountered a sage who instructed him to search for a certain treasure that included the fourteen precepts of Hushang. The following morning Dabshalim set off according to directions given in his dream. After traveling for a long time he came to a cave at the foot of the mountain where he met the sage Bidpai.

Dharamdas, a seasoned master of Akbar's taswirkhana, has created a surreal composition of rocks with strange shapes and colors as a background against which to set the figures of the sage Bidpai with his two young disciples and the visiting king and his retainers. Dharamdas worked as a portraitist in the Chinghiz Nama completed in the same year (presently in the Gulistan Palace Library, Tehran). The figures of the sage, his disciples, and the king amply reveal his interest in carefully delineating observed character types.

Mourning at Court
A folio from the Aiyar-e-Danish (A Book of Animal Fables)
Mughal, Reign of Akbar, 1596-7
Painter: La'l
Size: 24.8 x 13.9 cm
Bharat Kala Bhavan, No. 9065/17

La'l was a major painter of Akbar's taswirkhana who contributed the largest number of miniatures in the Razm Nama, Ramayana, Ta'rikh-i Khandan-i Timuriyya, Akbar Nama and other imperial manuscripts. Yet he failed to develop a personal style of his own. This particular court scene does not differ in any manner from similar court scenes in other Akbar period manuscripts. Though the drawing is powerful, the choice of rather dull and obtuse colors tends to make the painting less remarkable than it might otherwise have been. The artist has, however, succeeded in making the characters—namely the king, the assembly of courtiers, and the men standing in a semi-circle before him—alive and expressive.

A King in Court
A folio from the Aiyar-e-Danish (A Book of Animal Fables)
Mughal, Reign of Akbar, 1596-7
Painter: Basawan
Size: 24.8 x 13.9 cm
Bharat Kala Bhavan, No. 9065/3

The Sassanian King Anushirvan sent his physician-counselor Burzoy to collect animal fables from India that later formed the basis of Ibn al-Muqaffa's 8th-century Arabic Kalidah wa Dimnah and Husayn Vaiz al-Kashifi's Persian Anwar-i Suhayli. The "introduction" relates the story of King Dabshalim who wanted to travel to distant Sarandib, but his viziers would not let him undertake such a long and perilous journey.

In this opening miniature, Basawan, one of the most talented and mature painters of Akbar's taswirkhana, has recreated the splendor and glory of the Mughal court in an amazing manner. Abu'l Fazl has described him as a master in every part of picture making: designing, drawing, coloring, and portraiture. In this example his deliberate use of jewel-like pigments to depict the brilliant red and blue floral carpets, curtains, thrones, railings, costumes, and paraphernalia is remarkable. At the same time his sympathetic comprehension of human individuality is apparent in the figures of the king, the argumentative viziers, the startled courtiers, the musicians and attendants, and even the restless horse and the grimacing cheetah.

A King while Hunting accidentally shoots a Woodcutter
A folio from the Aiyar-e-Danish (A Book of Animal Fables)
Mughal, Reign of Akbar, 1596-7
Painter: Sanwala
Size: 24.8 x 13.9 cm
Bharat Kala Bhavan, No. 9065/25

Though Sanwala did not possess the innovation of Basawan or Mishkin, he was also a keen observer of men and nature. This is apparent in this composition illustrating the story of the King of Yemen who, while on a deer hunt accidentally killed an unwary woodcutter.

Sanwala has made his men subservient to nature, as the rolling landscape with mauve, yellow, ochre, and blue colored hills and rivers, trees, and plants, and also a distant cityscape, fill almost the whole of this composition. The king on a majestic blue-colored horse is seen wearing an expression of helpless despair while the dead woodcutter, a replica of a detail from a European engraving, and the king’s retainers as well as the caparisoned elephant in the background all occupy only the lower half of the composition.

Meeting of Prince Murad and Khusrau Sultan
Detached miniature from the Padshah Nama of Abd-al Hamid Lahori
Mughal, Reign of Shah Jahan, c.1650
Painter: Fateh Chand
Size: 27.3 x 18.4 cm
Bharat Kala Bhavan, No. 5403

This painting of Prince Murad and Khusrau Sultan, son of Nazr Muhammad Khan, the ruler of Balkh and Bukhara is an illustration from the second volume of Lahori's Padshah Nama. The scene is described in Inayat Khan's Shah Jahan Nama, an abridged version of Lahori and Muhammad Waris' bulky chronicle, in the following manner, "When Khusrau Sultan arrived in the vicinity of His Royal Highness' camp at Sirab, the Prince immediately sent Amir ul-Umara out to bring him into his presence. When the Sultan entered the pavilion, the Prince advanced to the edge of the carpet to embrace him.

The painter Fateh Chand, though not as prominent as Abid, Balchand, and Payag, has excelled in his task by vividly depicting the opulence of Shah Jahan's court. Prince Murad is shown embracing the visiting prince, both standing on a raised platform under a richly embroidered canopy within a pavilion made of delicately designed white kanat. The courtiers stand in rigid rows arranged in such a manner that the viewer's focus is effortlessly set on the figures of the princes. The background with its stark mountains, a large reservoir, and the sprawling encampment of the Mughal army, is treated with unusual and marked realism.

Created by | Updated May 2016