William Dalrymple spoke about the extraordinary art produced after the reign of the high Mughals

Muhammad Shah Rangeela and Bahadur Shah Zafar were not the most popular Mughal emperors. The latter, in fact, is known to be the last Mughal emperor, under whose leadership the 1857 revolt crumbled.

But then, their reign witnessed and took part in some of the most extraordinary art produced in the Mughal period. This is what William Dalrymple spoke at length about in his recent talk, taken from his book Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, at the National Gallery of Modern Art as part of the quarterly lecture series organized by Tasveer.

Dalrymple’s talk focused on late Mughal art from the period of 1707-1857. He began by talking about the reign of Shah Jahan who built a new capital Shahjahanabad (old Delhi) where art continued to remain a central part in the identities of Mughal rulers, who were great patrons. But the end of Shah Jahan’s rule saw the end of a great phase of Mughal art since Aurangzeb never took any interest in promoting the arts.

Patronage was carried on half-heartedly under the sons of Aurangzeb, Dalrymple said, but a shift took place under the reign of Muhammad Shah Rangeela

“He seems to want to create a balm to rub on the bruise of the empire, which is falling apart. One doesn’t know much of the biography of the artists who returned from Rajasthan and paint pictures that were far more imaginative, far more bold and striking than anything under Shah Jahan.”

The lines between Hindus and Muslims were blurred in these paintings that show the emperor playing Holi with his courtesans or depict interactions between Hindu saints and the Muslim people.“You would never know there was any danger in these scenes of tranquillity showing trees and rivers and images of peace and calm and pleasure.”

But this period came to an end in 1779 with the invasion of the Persian emperor Nadir Shah. There is a complete closure in art in the empire for 60 years, then Delhi revived under the most unlikely patronage, Dalrymple said.

The British continued to arrive, now in the form of David Ochterlony in 1803. Ochterlony loved the existing Mughal culture and embraced it. There are a few paintings depicting this lifestyle of Ochterlony. One of the most popular ones shows him in traditional clothes, smoking a hookah and being entertained by courtesans.

“The artists are back in business. Ghulam Murtaza Khan and his nephew Ghulam Ali Khan start producing extraordinary work sometimes for the British, and sometimes for the Mughals. But it makes no sense to say one is Mughal art, one is company art. Artists had the capacity to alter their style very subtly depending on who is commissioning them.”

His assistant William Fraser also took up the Mughal life. But he spent a lot of time in the Indian villages, taking with him an artist whose name he never mentioned in his writings. The artist painted the villagers, some of whom become part of William’s families after he married a local.

“His paintings show astonishing transformation, they are different from anything done before. He captures penetrating look of each individual, which is usually reserved for nobles and royalty. The artist has brought out their individual personalities.”

Meanwhile Bahadur Shah Zafar II took over from his father (Akbar II). By then the power had gradually shifted to the British. Zafar’s reign, Dalrymple said, saw some of the last masterpieces of Mughal art. One of the most famous of these is a painting by Ghulam Ali Khan shows Zafar almost levitating in his seat, weighed down by his crown. His pose is unusually still and regal.

Dalrymple described how Zafar was a good mystic poet, though not as good as Ghalib and could write in over five languages. After the revolt, whose leadership was given to him, he died in under British imprisonment alone in a cell writing couplets.

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