Exquisite colouring and details of the paintings of the Mughal court at its zenith were captured at the exhibition The Indian Portrait – 1560-1860 at the National Portrait Gallery in London recently.

The Indian Portrait – 1560-1860 is a small and intimate show of just sixty portraits over a three hundred year period. Curated by the well known textile and painting expert, senior curator Rosemary Crill of the Victoria and Albert Museum with Kapil Jariwala, an independent curator, the show is an insight into what Jariwala mentions in his opening curatorial comments:

“The development of the genre within the vast body of Indian painting, it looks at the different ways in which Indian artists have approached the portrait over a 300-year period at various places across the geography of the Indian subcontinent. The story of the Indian portrait is a fascinating journey, encompassing notions of the real and the ideal, the observed and the imagined. The selection presented here consists mainly of paintings of known people and documented portraits, but also includes some that remain anonymous. These images reveal the history of the period, the role of patronage in driving innovation in artistic representation, and the emergence of the artist as an observer with a distinct and subtle vision… Many of them also illuminate the personal histories of the individuals they depict. These works are a record of a rich and complex past, embracing influences from Iran and Europe as well as local Hindu and Muslim traditions. They not only demonstrate the growing self-awareness of how Indians saw themselves, but also how they wished to be seen”.

There is already a history of portraiture that predates the period of the show. Ajanta paintings, the frescos in the temples of Thanjavur as well as portraiture on the Jain and Buddhist manuscripts not to mention those shown in sculptural hints left in temples. However, as art historians will tell us, these were idealised portraits where there seemed a certain prototype/archetype followed and while the characters depicted were definitive they were to be imagined from a classical pictorial grammar. All this started changing with the Mughals, who brought with them painters from the Persian firmament. Celebrated artists, these men set up ‘Tasvir Khanas' to train the locals and every successive Mughal monarch improved and perfected the art of portraiture.

The starting of this is mentioned by Susan Stronge in her essay “The Chronology of Portraiture at the Mughal Court”.

“In the late sixteenth century, a radical innovation in Mughal court painting was recorded by the historian of the Emperor Akbar's reign. Abu'l Fazl wrote his magisterial chronicle the ‘Akbarnama' between 1589 and 1596. Its third volume, entitled the Ain-i Akbari (Akbarian Ceremonial) described various court institutions, including the ‘tasvir khana', or atelier of figural painting. Here the historian mentions the excellence of the royal artists at producing the likenesses of prominent individuals. Due to the Emperor's encouragement, Abu'l Fazl reported, the ‘magical art' of tasvir, or ‘representing figures', had gained in beauty. By order of Akbar himself, portraits (surat), have been painted of all His Majesty's servants, and a huge book (ketab) has been made.”

Abu'l Fazl measured the royal artists' work against two standards: the world renowned unique art of Behzad and the magic- making of the Europeans (farang). Kamal al-Din Behzad was the supreme artist of the Timurid and Safavid courts. A decree appointing him director of the royal library under Shah Tahmasp of Iran is cited by historians, his name was famous across the Persian-speaking world to which the Mughals belonged and his paintings were collected in the country and aristocratic circles. European art, on the other hand, was a relatively recent arrival at the court and at this period was predominantly Christian in subject.

Emperors and hierarchies

The show has a wonderful selection of paintings from the Mughal era and one of the finest is a miniature of Jahangir. In size it is 73 mm by 57 mm. But the work shows his face and side profile at the jharokha or window where a subject could view him; attributed to the artist Daulat who had been in the Mughal Court this painting may have been amongst the last of Jahangir's as he died later that year. In its subtle glow there is a golden aura about the portrait. Besides the royal nimbus with gold lines, the clothes, turban and jewels accentuate a grandiose majesty. For that size, there is an incredible detailing at the eyes, the gradations at the chin and the greying hair at his sideburns as well as the layering folds of his dress at the arms. Another beautifully rendered composition is from a page of the Padshanama attributed to Abid around 1635 from the Royal Collection of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II. Here however, as the Emperor has a great likeness to the earlier small painting, what is noteworthy is the faces of the various levels of the court or Darbar hierarchy. The prince Khurram who would later be the Emperor Shajahan is shown paying his respects, but underneath the balcony a series of nobles are shown in various clothing styles – some opaque and embroidered and others in fine summer muslins, gossamer fabrics printed with gold motifs of Mughal flowers or Chinese inspired clouds. One of the courtiers even has a multiple collar /lapelled front obviously very fashionable at that time. What this painting also does is show various commoners in different postures. A bearded laughing man and others with a multiplicity of turban styles. The finesse of the colouring and detailing make paintings at this time the high point of Mughal art.

Besides this painting, there are many pictures significantly devoid of royalty. There is a court musician a falconer, a Jain monk, courtesans and even a court scribe hunched up over a project. These give us insights into the common people of that time.

Mingling cultures

The Mughals interacted with the Rajputs, capturing their kingdoms, marrying their daughters and respecting their traditions. As a result Rajput painting also benefited from a cross-cultural engagement at the courts of the Mughals. Their rulers were shown in a similar manner, in profile, usually against a background of green, holding a jewel or flower in their hands, or finery, hunting or in processions to reaffirm their majesty. The poster for this show shows Anup Singh of Deogarh, Mewar atop his horse with his falcon, having just slain a bird. His tasselled horse and his profile create a composition of great beauty.

Through out the show we meet royalty from the courts as well as those from the Deccan and Rajput and Pahari (hill) states. One of the rare and most beautiful pieces is a famous piece of the Museum Reitberg, Zurich showing Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota watching a miniature while the artist Nainsukh is behind him proffering his opinion or recommending the artist. The scene is done in complete simplicity and has an aura of minimalism. Nainsukh is amongst the most beloved of Pahari painters and museums and private collectors vie with each other for his work even today.

As things progressed new genres interjected themselves with European portraiture as Jesuits, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English came to bring painted portraits to Court. Jahangir is said to have displayed gifts of portraits during Navruz festival and there are paintings depicting a Madonna in some of his durbar scenes.

The British Company school produced paintings as keepsakes and also to send back as officers and gentlemen sat in profile with hookah pipes like the royalty of that time. Landscapes allowed for telling details to be filled. Soldiers, courtesans and the minions that worked for the company were shown in styles influenced by Rajput, Mughal and the Pahari traditions of portraiture. The result of this was how people saw themselves. There are three wonderful portraits that show this intermingling of genres. Seth Manekchand at the balcony is a huge portrait of a merchant much in the style of earlier Jharokha views of the Mughals but here in a large format painting probably one that graced his home and this is how he probably wanted to be seen. A prince among merchants. Then there is portrait of the Sindhia General Ram Rao Phalke, with his typical Maratha headgear and scarf, the picture, though flat allows a wonderful colour balance in its border and the subjects placement has a strong graphic element. Finally the Mona Lisa of the show. ‘Sahib Jan' is shown looking directly at the painter. Her hookah pipe about to be put to her lips. This is a rare composition as Zenana women were inpurdah.There is no threat of a smile and yet her imposing presence fills the composition.

An interesting essay on materials by curator Jariwala, throws light on the incorporation of certain colours in the Mughal palette allowing dating. “One of these that makes its appearance is Indian yellow - a transparent yellow pigment that gives a deep luminescent yellow. It was probably developed in India, as it does not occur previously in Iranian painting. It was manufactured in rural India from the urine of cows fed a diet of mango leaves and water. The urine was collected and dried; the resulting solid matter was formed into balls of raw pigment, called piuru or peori.

The peori was then washed in water and purified, separating the yellow and greenish tints. Interestingly, the first known uses of Indian yellow appear in the illustrated manuscript Harivamasa and in the Akbarnama, dating from about 1590. Its finely divided particles and high tinting strength made it ideal for mixing with indigo to depict foliage; it was also used as an under-painting to ‘lift' the appearance of other colours. The pigment is easy to detect under ultraviolet light, as it is fluorescent. It is curious that such a pungent and repulsive material can help to evoke such serenity”

Stylistic Innovation

Simultaneous to this show is another show called Contemporary Crossings by the twin Singh Sisters of Liverpool. Born and raised in Liverpool the twins were outside the general pattern of lifestyle in Britain and were raised in a Sikh household with its rituals. After pursuing academia, they turned to art, where their Western teachers berated them for following the miniature tradition of India. Subverting determinedly, they stuck on to become great stars in the field of contemporary art, sticking to being inspired by the miniature. The sisters work separately and together but stylistically are almost seamless. Amrit and Rabindra Singh fill small details within the narrative of their work, some personal, some political and then the process itself of creating a work is fascinating. Using symbols, metaphors and computer aided design they format their work.

In “All that I am” they depict their father's story from a childhood flying kites in Amirstar to his coming to UK and then working through hardship and his eventual doctorate. Amongst these are a series of related images and details that are drawn from the Indian tradition.

Exhibitions like this show us that art of different genres and times reinvents and rejuvenates itself and it is this multicultural celebration that must allow us a moment of transnational cultural triumph as more participants enter this stream of art that is timeless.

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