The Mughal Empire established by Babur in 1526 was one of the most powerful empires at the height of its glory. The world over, the very term “Mughal” is able to ignite images of opulence and grandeur in the popular imagination. Such was the spell cast on the medieval European imagination that in the 17th century, John Milton (1608-1674) referred to the Mughal cities of Agra and Lahore, in his epic poem Paradise Lost – first published in 1667 – as being revealed to Adam after the Fall, as future wonders of god’s creation.

In Reflections on Mughal Art and Culture, edited by Roda Ahluwalia, thirteen eminent scholars explore its rich aesthetic and cultural legacy. Their insights take us into a world where the art of calligraphy, painting, lapidary, architecture, textiles and books are being honed to perfection under imperial patronage, and some long-held beliefs are questioned and challenged. Comparisons are drawn between the artistic expressions and material culture of the powerful Islamicate triumvirate of the early modern period – the Safavids in Iran, the European-based Ottomans and the Mughals in the Indian subcontinent.

We see painters and calligraphers sitting together companionably with books they’ve worked on jointly lying between them: but Kavita Singh asks whether the image and the text were also as companionable. This essay sets the tone of this excellently researched and produced book. A lay viewer would see the obvious, but in the hands of an art historian of the calibre of Singh, a painting from Padshahnama unfolds in magical ways in front of our eyes.

It’s not just a rendition of an historical act but a tweaked version paying homage to the imperial might of an Emperor who isn’t present but is symbolically represented. Singh’s reading of the painting opens up myriad ways of looking at each painting to get its nuances and allegories. It’s about interpretation, not representation, about a painting transcending things by using purely visual elements.

Women, architecture, libraries

Mika Natif addresses the way Mughal women were portrayed in illustrated histories making the point that elite Mughal women become symbols of cultural prowess and legitimacy not very different from the portrayal of Mughal men. Natif makes the point that Central Asian, Turko-Mughal lineage was given precedence in visual representation of the dynasty, and during Akbar’s and Jahangir ‘s reign the images of Mughal ladies in paintings portray them as “part of the political mechanism of the empire, oscillating between public and private spheres, acting as guardians, mediators, governors, envoys, patrons, and advisors, according to the political needs of the time.”

While most of us interested in Mughal miniatures have heard of Ustad Mansur, Abul Hasan, Manohar, Bishan Das, Govardhan and Basavan, Roda Ahluwalia casts a masterful glance at the career of a relatively unknown painter from the middle of Akbar’s reign to the middle of Jahangir’s, whose paintings in fact epitomise the link between the idiom of the two emperors. Ahluwalia introduces us to Nanha, the short-statured painter who had one of the longest artistic careers in the history of Mughal painting, with a mature style, and excelled in real-life genre studies. Ahluwalia’s ode to this painter bring out his spontaneous originality whose “skills enabled him to portray the psyche of a person with uncanny skill”.

Mughal architecture is profusely decorated with calligraphy, painting, carving, moulding, pietra dura and glazed tiles. Given the restrictions in the depiction of human figures in Islam, many of the paintings are vegetal, floral or geometrical tiles. However, we do find human figures ornamenting the walls of some Mughal buildings, many of them Christian themes as described by European travellers. Unfortunately, due to the passage of time many of these murals are lost to us and we can only conjecture at their beauty. Subhash Parihar traces these figurative Mughal murals, giving us a glimpse of a tine gone by.

Ursula Sims-Williams takes us into the fascinating world of Mughal kutubkhanas (libraries). We know the fondness of the Mughal emperors for books. Akbar is said to have had a library containing over 25,000 books. These were catalogued and sorted and had many components, with separate collections stored in different locations. The manuscripts were inspected and evaluated regularly, categorised according to value and content and bear seals and inscriptions of the dates.

Sims-Williams studies four manuscripts in the British Library collection to trace their history through the seals, inspection notes, and inscriptions by owners and readers, taking us into those libraries piled high with precious manuscripts, read by emperors who sometimes also recorded their emotions in the form of notes in the margins.

Temples, Mughals, multicultural life

Catherine Asher delves into the legacy of India’s multi-cultural history, describing temples made under the Muslim kings. The focus has often been on destruction and so details of the constructions are welcome. She writes “True, some temples were destroyed even after the initial introduction of political Islam to North India, in particular during the time of Alauddin Khilji in the late 13th and early 14th century, but the most important temples were rebuilt soon after such attacks. Examples include those of Mount Abu. Temples were also built in areas under Muslim political control, for example two 14th century examples in Bihar.”

Citing examples of temples built in the 16th and 17th century, she describes the development of the major pilgrimage areas of Brajbhumi and Varanasi by the Bundela, Kachhwaha and Bundi rulers. Raja Man Singh of Amber (1550-1614) was especially prolific covering a huge geographical area.

The Bundela ruler, Bir Singh Deo (r 1605-27), apart from endowing the Keshava Temple in Mathura, also provided several temples in Orchha, including the large Chaturbhuj Mandir. That wasn’t all. The Sisodia ruler Jagat Singh (1607-52) built the Jagdish temple in Udaipur in response to – and with remarkable resemblance with – Shah Jahan’s Jama Masjid in Delhi. The 18th century Govinda Deva temple in Jaipur built by Sawai Jai Singh resembles the Diwan-e-Aam of Red Fort, Delhi.

The Charbagh or paradisiacal tombs derive inspiration from paradise as described in the Quran with rivers of milk and honey and gardens with trees in it. the word “paradise” is derived from pairidaiza (Persian for “walled garden”). The Charbagh plan is a quadrangular or rectangular garden, intersected with flowing waterways intersecting with pools of water with fountains flowing into them and fruit-laden trees. That is the design we see in Humayun’s tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Laura E Parodi challenges the assumption that charbaghs were a four-part (quadripartite) garden, explained as a Persian equivalent of the Garden of Eden, and defines them as a “specific garden type, which hosted residential and administrative functions”. Clearly more work needs to be done on this theme.

Museums the world over pride themselves on their collection of Mughal lapidary art. Highlighting a few important artefacts manufactured in the Mughal empire, Anamika Pathak takes us into the world of Mughal decorative art from 1526 to 1707, displayed in their lavish courts, magnificent palaces and luxurious lifestyles. Along with agate, jade and nephrite, prized objects were made of rock crystal.

We get a glimpse of the karkhanas and artisans, their crafts and techniques; considerable ability was required to make artefacts from agate, jade, nephrite and rock crystal, since these hard stones can’t be carved. They were shaped “using a bow drill to manipulate lap wheels of different sizes and diamond points wearing away the surface of the stone with abrasive powder suspended in water.”

An album folio of Persian calligraphy made in Burhanpur, dated 1620, bearing the inscription, “in the land full of intoxication, Burhanpur” takes Vivek Gupta on the quest to understand the problem of place in Mughal India and “how we put together fragmentary evidence to conjure a clearer sense of how places were defined and experienced”. Even though several Mughal objects, especially textiles, are attributed to Burhanpur, we know very little about a city that was the capital of the Mughal province of Khandesh.

The importance of this province can be gauged from the fact that Mughal princes such as Akbar’s son Daniyal, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, and an important nobleman, Abd al-Rahim Khan-e Khanan, were appointed as its governors at different times. Using Abd al-Rahim’s Hindi verses with its use of the idioms of rang (colour) and rangreja (dyer) in the description of the innocent heroine, Gupta examines how textile culture pervades the vernacular.

Gupta traces the presence of the poppy in textiles, paintings, and murals to the prevalence of poppy cultivation in the nearby Northern Deccan and Malwa regions. Is this the reason for the intoxication of Burhanpur, for “the pleasure world of opium also resonated strongly with Burhanpur in literary texts”? Gupta’s essay is fascinating as it fills the gaps for all art lovers, shedding light on the city through Persian and Hindi poetry written in response to it .

Contexts, confluences

In an absorbing essay, Gülru Necipoğlu examines comparative reflections on the architectural cultures of the Mediterranean-based Ottomans, the Safavids in Iran, and the Mughals on the Indian sub-continent, with the aim of establishing a history of transregional interactions. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and the interconnections between these three great empires are demonstrated by her.

The architectural cultures of the three have generally been treated “as if they were hermetically sealed entities”, but there were compelling structural parallels in their developmental stages from minor to major dynastic empires. New capital cities were built by emperors of all three dynasties, which provided them with an ambitious stage to display their imperial power and collective identities. “The formation of early modern empires thus brought about new verbal and visual representations of territoriality, spatiality and materiality that were determined by frontiers.”

Sheila R Candy examines how four Iranian artists who joined the court of Humayun between 1549 and 1556 influenced the Mughal School of Painting, reflected in the adoption of the conventions of the early Safavid paintings in some works; even the copying of some compositions from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp (r 1524-1576), and the development of a distinctive style under Akbar (r 1526-1605). Using one of the earliest Mughal paintings, “The Princes of the House of Timur” (now in The British Museum), painted on cloth, as a case study, Candy walks us through comparisons with and influences of the Shahnama.

In his fascinating essay on “The Indian Women in a Persianate World: across Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman Literary and Visual Cultures”, Sunil Sharma traces “the poetic and visual representations of the Indian/Hindu woman in the early modern period providing a useful case study to map the different aesthetic systems in what we sometimes consider a monolithic Persianate world”, giving us a taste of a world of inter-connectedness.

These Persianate societies are influenced by non-Persian cultural elements in the formation of distinctive genres and idioms of representation. Zulaikha, Laila and Shirin blend with the generic nayika or actual heroines of the Indic world such as Padmavati, Devaldevi and Rani Rupmati.

The flirtatious heartbreaker, moulded in the tradition of the cruel beloved of the Persian ghazals, and the chaste woman/wife of verse romances in Indic literary traditions are now the inspiration of poets. These ground-breaking comparisons across the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal spheres make it an absolutely enriching experience for the reader.

This book is sumptuously produced with beautiful illustrations to highlight the points made in the essays and should appeal to connoisseurs, collectors and scholars alike. I hope this is just the beginning as we have only touched the tip of the iceberg of the treasures that the Mughal world produced. There is so much more to study, to savour and to enjoy.

Reflections on Mughal Art and Culture

Reflections on Mughal Art and Culture, edited by Roda Ahluwalia, Niyogi Books and The KR Cama Oriental Institute.