It was a revelation; a sojourn into the magnificent history of Mughal miniature paintings brought to the twin cities as illustrations through slide show. Dr. Ashok Kumar Das who steered the show with his insights into the painters, art and colour techniques, historical perspective of the rulers of the Mughal period was like an eye-opener to the artists and audience gathered at LV Prasad’s Patodia auditorium.

A bird’s view of the literary texts during the Mughal period like the autobiographies of the great emperors — the Baburnama, Humayun nama, Akbarnama (by Abul Fazl), Jehangirnama and so on. How many of us did ever know that as per historical texts Akbar was not just an illiterate as far as formal reading/writing skills go; he was a dyslexic! And that was one of the principle reasons for him wanting a pictorial backup to all great works penned during his reign.

How many of us know that the Razmnama was a Persian translation of the Mahabharatha — by three great scholars, one of whom was Badauni — was commissioned by Akbar in 1585? The picture painting illustrations across this voluminous epic (four volumes) were 168 quaint illustrations depicting Arjuna bending over a huge pot of oil, to view the mirror image of the fish target he had to aim at with his arrow. The paintings were done by high quality artistes who were summoned from far and wide. The fourth volume was Raghuvamsha where the 18 illustrations (miniature paintings) were done by a single hand. There is a picture of Lord Balarama in this collection which was shown to the audience; the colour scheme was superb. Sita’s agni pravesh scene in one miniature was so realistic with a depth and dimension that evoked an emotion in the viewers. The pictures were as life-like to the depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses; some were perhaps painted by Hindu painters of those times, hence the perfect detailing. This apart certain other miniature illustrations of Jehangir’s time were also there, as he was a Mughal ruler who was also artistic in temperament and so, a great patron of arts.

An artistic intellectual exchange of sorts took place during the time of Akbar. The Persian painters whom Humayun befriended in his exile, we were told, came to India but during the time of Akbar. But, instead of introducing their style, they were influenced by Akbar’s thought and ideas and hence, what emerged as the Mughal painting bore a distinctive identity, despite the Persian influence. The same is true of the European paintings that made their way to India via the Jesuit preachers who visited the Mughal court. By then, Akbar had recruited number of young trainee painters under the master Persian painters in his court and they were asked to reproduce the European pictures known for their technique and colour schemes. The reproductions were not copies in the sense that they again bore a distinctly Indian flavour under the Mughal influence. A few slides of portrait reproductions were shown to prove the point, which was indeed amazingly true. Certain facts which normally never cross our knowledge threshold were like home truths that by-passed our mechanical mind. For instance, even we as history students hardly knew that Akbar collected one of the earliest Islamic manuscripts from the city of Baghdad ‘Jami al-Tawarikh’ (History of the World) by Rasheed Al Din Hamadani, which were available as one copy each in Persian and Arabic and got a set of painters to give illustrations to it.

The paintings of Jehangir’s time depicting the royal court were done with crystal-like clarity that one could, even today, identify the characters from history. Kudos to Ashok Kumar Das, presently Tagore National Fellow and chairman of physical verification committee at Indian Museum, Kolkata, for an enlightening talk on the quality of pictures, the Mughal contribution to Indian art and the unknown greatness of third Mughal emperor. The general perception about Akbar’s greatness lies in the socio-politico-religious reforms; few can ever imagine that there lived and ruled a great visionary whose erudition and wisdom were far ahead of his times.