The 17th-century manuscript of the Padshahnama, a magnificently illustrated history of Shah Jahan’s reign, perfectly demonstrates both the aesthetics and the politics expected of Mughal art. Each of its exquisite paintings is designed to display the imperial court’s wealth and pomp, to flatter the emperor and his crown prince, or to celebrate military battles that Shah Jahan and his generals won. Could there be an art of resistance in such Mughal paintings? The whole purpose of the imperial painting workshop was to flatter and aggrandize the emperor and his chosen ones. No doubt workshop supervisors watched the artists closely as they laboured, with ensuring they did not waste their prized skills and precious materials on projects that were not authorized. One artist’s inscription says it took him two years to paint one page – a claim that becomes credible when one sees the dizzying detail in every face, textile, weapon, or element of background.
And yet even in such conditions artists found ways to slip in their own commentary and puncture the grandiose narratives they were obliged to construct. Often they did this through allegory, where details in the background offered a foil to triumphal scenes, and birds and animals were used to show us the dilemmas of a hapless Everyman.
The Siege of Kandhar by the artist Payag shows the detonation of mines that Mughal forces have laid under the walls of a Deccani fort. In the foreground a bejewelled general gestures grandly towards the flames and billows of smoke. These will destroy the fort’s outer walls and cause the defenders to capitulate. Mughal soldiers in the nearby trench stolidly watch this explosion, but those in the middle ground betray more emotion as they look at the bloodied bodies of three fellow-soldiers, now reduced to bloodied dead bodies on the battlefield. Near them, in barely visible strokes that blend into the background, the artist sketches corpses that have decomposed and become skeletons, yet they grimace and flail about in pain.
This is not a naturalistic detail as the bodies of Mughal soldiers would not not have been left to rot; these are apparitions of the future that awaits the living men. As the eye moves along the arc of ghoulish bodies and down the little hillocks to the bottom of the page, it comes to a little oasis of quiet in the foreground. Here in the herbs that grow beside a little pool are two rabbits. One turns towards the tumult but the other, facing us, seems flecked with golden light as it contemplates its own reflection in the still water.
What is it seeing, and what is it asking us to see? In these rabbits, in the stillness of this quiet corner, is the artist not asking us to reflect upon the hollowness of power in the face of the fragility of our lives? It is through such small and silent insertions that Mughal artists managed to fulfil, exceed and even defy the purposes they were expected to serve.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.