MUSEUM

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MUGHAL MINIATURE PAINTING

The Mughal Empire spanned across modern-day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and was the most dominant force in Asia between 1526 and 1858.  Descending from a lineage of conquerors such as Genghis Khan and Amir Timur, the Mughal emperors were not only known for their power and military might, but also as great patrons of the arts. This dynasty pioneered a grand tradition of art forms including miniature painting, which continues to captivate the world today and forms the inspiration behind my work.

Prince Salim, , Bichitr, ca. 1630.  V&A's collections 

"Shah Jahan on Horseback", Folio from the Shah Jahan Album verso: ca. 1630; recto: ca. 1530-–50. The Met , New York

Indian miniature painting had existed in various forms since the 9th century, but there was no cohesive vision. It wasn’t until the Mughal Empire was established in 1526 that miniature painting came into its own. Mughal miniatures are a blend of the bold, vivid colours favoured by Indian painters; the fine, delicate lines preferred by Persian painters; and a European influence from artists like Albrecht Dürer, brought to India by Jesuit missionaries. Just like the empire they came from, Mughal miniatures drew from India, Persia, and Europe to create something entirely new.

The elephant Khushi Khan (‘Lord of Happiness’) , c. 1650 , © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Mughal miniature paintings were small (many not more than a few square inches), brightly coloured, and highly detailed, mostly used to illustrate manuscripts and art books. Despite their tiny sizes, they are incredibly precise, with some lines painted using brushes composed of a single hair. The miniatures were either in form of book illustrations or single works kept in albums and were essentially a product of collaboration. Even where a painting is attributed to a specific artist, there have usually been many people involved in creating the art for different tasks, such as making the paint, priming the paper, calligraphy, outlining and colouring. A lot of careful labor went into creating these incredibly intricate works.

 

At the time, the Mughals were the most powerful economic force in the world. It is estimated that Emperor Abkar’s net worth at his peak would translate to a staggering $21 trillion today, with control over 25% of the world’s GDP! Money was generously diverted to the arts and artists thrived under the Mughal rulers. In addition to the miniatures, Mughal art included lavish architecture (such as the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb) as well as immaculately manicured gardens (Shalimar gardens, Verinag spring, etc.), and these were often portrayed in the miniature paintings.

 

The portability of miniatures enabled them to be easily traded from early times and gave them exposure all over the world. As a consequence, you will find Mughal Art and miniature paintings in museums and galleries across Europe and America.

Exotic flowers, attributed to Muhammad Khan, 1630 - 3. Featured in the British Library exhibition, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire.

 

Portrait of Lal Kunwar,  12th century AH/AD 18th ,paper with ink, paint, and gold mounted on pasteboard, The Walters Art Museum

 

Check out my YouTube channel to discover more about the Mughal miniature tradition and Mughal art in museums.

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