Images of the luxurious Orient that drew adventurers and traders to the Indian subcontinent through the ages were perhaps best epitomized in the Mughal era. The courts of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan drew traders, artists and craftsmen from Iran, the Arab world, Europe, China and beyond. While the splendour of their creations still captivates connoisseurs as well as laymen, the creators have long been forgotten. Susan Stronge, a senior curator at the London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, unearths the stories behind the fabled riches in her latest book Made for Mughal Emperors. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Why is so little known about artists from the Mughal era?
That’s the difficulty. There’s so little information about them in the records. We know some of their names and from that we can tell their religion—Mir Sayyid Ali, Abd us-Samad, Govardhan, Manohar were the important artists of the period. Or there’d be a reference to a house in a certain quarter, which implied the artist had some wealth. When Jehangir wrote his memoirs he frequently mentioned the artists, but never by name. In Akbar’s reign there was a list of leading artists, but it didn’t have any biographical details. Even an artist like Mansur, who we can guess was obviously an important artist, but we don’t know when he was born or when he died or who he was. Unlike, say, Rembrandt, there are no stories to be told about the Mughal artists.
Chronicler: Stronge is a curator with London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times
You mention one Sa’ida and he dabbled in more than one art form. Was he an exception?
He was absolutely outstanding. A genius and multi-talented unlike anybody else. But it wasn’t uncommon for a book artist who was primarily an illustrator to be accomplished in calligraphy as well. Often they would also be poet or enameller or musician.
You also mention some women painters at Jehangir’s studio.
It’s a curious thing, and very rare. We just know that there was this little group of women artists in Allahabad. When Jehangir rebelled against Akbar, he was living in Allahabad. Of the aristocratic women in his studio there, there were two or three women, four at most, who painted. They were all pupils of the same man, whose name we know but, again, nothing else.
The book says the emperors themselves dabbled in the arts—Akbar was an accomplished gun-maker and Shah Jahan a calligrapher.
When Humayun was in exile in Iran, Akbar was taught to paint in the Iranian traditions, which probably explains why he became such a great patron of the art of the books even though he couldn’t read. And he was a gun-maker too. Shah Jahan was also very knowledgeable in gem stones.
You also refer to Hamzanama quite a few times as typifying the Hindustani and Iranian traditions as distinctive to Mughal art. What are these distinctive features?
The Iranian school was characterized by a very different colour palette. It’s got a very sophisticated range of colours. And the folio format. It’s very stylized and has an element of caricature. The indigenous traditions of Hindustan, we know almost nothing about them. But we do know they were horizontal, with very solid blocks of colours but a limited palette. In Hamzanama, there’s a typically Indian yellow used, which was made from the urine of cows that had been fed on mangoes. The royal studios employed quite a few Hindu artists. They worked under two Iranian master artists. Without this coming together of two groups of artists who were trained very differently, Mughal art would not have existed.
You cite quite a few instances of European influence.
Western influence transformed Mughal art. When the Jesuits from Goa visited Akbar’s court, they brought paintings as gifts. Some of the elements the court artists absorbed completely. For example, the paintings of The Virgin and Child, which is a direct copy of the St Luke painting. Others, like the Christian halo, were adapted into the Iranian tradition of the halo of glory, but painted in the Western way.