MUGHAL MINIATURES : Painting India's History

Emperor Akbar

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. 

  • The first phase of the Mughal Miniatures in India, which started during the rule of the first Mughal Emperor Babur, had a strong resemblance with the Persian miniatures. The main source of knowledge about the Mughal The miniature is a book called Baburnama. This book is autobiographical writing by Emperor Babur (1483-1530), decorated by illustrations painted by a team of miniature artists.
  • The second phase was during the rule of Babur's grandson Emperor Akbar. The Akbarnama depicting the deeds of the emperor is decorated by the illustrations painted by the miniature painters. During this period, the art of miniature painting in India had undergone some technical changes. 
  • The third phase is the Jahangirnama, which is like a collection of the miniature paintings which were done under the sponsorship of Emperor Jehangir, the son of Emperor Akbar.

  • The fourth phase of miniature art in medieval India can be called 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 practised in the state of Rajasthan in India

Abul Fasl Presenting Akbarnama

Theme: 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 technologies in the field of architect has also owned a noteworthy page in the history of India, but the painting comes to the 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.

HEROIC DEEDS AS SUBJECT FOR MINIATURE PAINTING: The above miniature depicts a scene from 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, Aga Khan. This painting, as it happens in Persian Miniature paintings are depicting a series of incidents. Here are three occurrences: Akabar is shown with his sword, the culprit Adham Khan being thrown from the terrace, and the supporters of Adham Khan are scared by the incident. 

Akbar orders punishment of Adham Khan, Akbarnama
Akbar orders Punishment
of Adham Khan Akbarnama

Mughal 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.

If we were to find out a golden page of the 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 the sixteenth and seventeen century when the Mughal Emperors and Rajput kings of India loved the art and supported the artists under the umbrella of the state.

These miniature paintings carrying a perceptible resemblance to their counterparts 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 to 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 the social and cultural mirror of the period.

Noble Mughal Lady

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 practised in India from the 16th to 19th century. When Emperor Akbar was ruling in the Indian subcontinent, this art gained its prominence.

Mughal Emperors, along with contemporary Rajput kings, were fond of wars, women and wine. But they have saved a corner of their hearts for the art of painting, too. 

This aesthetically rich part of their hearts has 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.

Emperor Jahangir ca 1620

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 for many centuries; we can see some paintings done in the 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 Rajput 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, art became more inclusive. The artists started depicting fresh subjects and the new technique of perspective painting borrowed from western countries.

The Materials: The miniature artists used materials easily available. During the 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 colours made from a 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.

A Horse and His Trader

Subjects and Themes of Miniature Paintings: Subjects painted and People depicted in these miniature paintings were generally the kings and emperors of medieval India. The biggest Empire of the period was of the 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.  Rajput kings ruling the rest of India had also sponsored many artists. These artists were free to choose the themes and subjects of their choices.

The 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 battlefield occupied by scattered had not prevented the kings and emperors to make their lifestyle less entertaining. Their life was luxurious; their moods were sensual. They also wanted to show the wealth and bravery they possessed. Many of the paintings narrated the characteristics of the warriors who fought battle. 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 princes and princesses, too. All the subjects they painted were put in visual forms through brilliant colours. Skilful use of dynamic lining work embedded very essence of the scene painted. 

Brooklin Mesum The Execution of
Mansur Hallaj From the
Warren Hastings album

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 princes and princesses were their additional subjects. However, Emperor Akbar had allowed Hindu religious events to be painted.

Capturing the vitality and luxurious sensuality of the life of Emperors, Rajput kings and their princes 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 the war. These miniatures are done with brilliant colours and dynamic line work depicting the essence of the scene painted.

Rajput and other Subjects: The Rajput kings were following the Hindu religion, so they preferred the depiction of the incidents from the 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 with non-traditional subjects like putting landscape details in the 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 classical tunes and evolved a new type of painting, Ragamala, based on Indian classical Ragas.

Schools of painting: During the period of the 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 the 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 refer to the Miniature Paintings done during the reign of Mughal emperors who ruled over India from 1920 to 1957 when the British Army finally took over the reins. The Mughal era of miniature paintings owns a noteworthy page in the history of the art of paintings in India.

After the death of Babur, who was a poet and an artist himself, his heirs carried the artistic journey. The following Emperors Humayun, 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 Rajput kings explored the undefined aspects of the art of paintings, through their patronage and help provided to the artists.

Mughal Art: This book Baburnama or Babarnama is an 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 see from the writing of the book that how learned a 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 India when they conquered most of 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.

Akbarnama: After the 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 face 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 an Art of Court. It was his period (1556 – 1605) during which 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 added as a subject, and the illustrated events were enclosed within detailed objects lying in the surrounding.

The miniature style of paintings practised during this period was clearly influenced by the Persian style of paintings. The Persian painters of the miniature style used upright format and general setting with an emphasis on flat aerial perspective. The Mughal 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 tried the depiction of the detailed observation of the world in immediate surround.

Lahore. Museum Mughal Miniature,
originally uploaded by 
bijapuri ( Ed Sentner ).

The art of Miniature painting known as the Mughal Miniatures painting was imported in India by the Mughal emperors. It was the period of the sixteenth century. When Humayun returned to India and regained his empire, he was accompanied by two of the best artists in the Sultan’s place. 

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.

The History of Indian Miniature Paintings: We can trace the tradition of Indian miniature paintings from the earlier time of the Ninth and Tenth century. It was the time when the paintings were done in smaller and bigger sizes. The period is known as Buddhist Pala Time. They painted in smaller size support and on leaves, too. But with the advent of paper in the 12th century, miniature artists started using paper as their main material. It was the time of Emperor Lodhi in Delhi. The time was around the 15th century to the 16th century. Thereafter came the Mughal Emporers and the miniature art got much-needed help from the courts. [All the images are in Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons] 

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