As “Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi” hits the stalls, William Dalrymple tells Ziya Us Salam about the second renaissance the Mughal Empire experienced after the reign of Aurangzeb

Sitting in the city of djinns, William Dalrymple is like an island. Whether he is playing with his pets or just soaking in the warmth of the setting sun under an age-old tree at his residence in South Delhi, he presents a radiant picture. Always estimably close to a good cheer, he, however, never shies away from demolishing stereotypes in his typical no-nonsense manner. For instance, in the introduction to Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857, which he has co-edited with Yuthika Sharma, he points out that the much-criticised Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb is being studied anew. Aurangzeb was “a pragmatic ruler who frequently patronised Hindu institutions,” he points out.

Nudge him a little bit on the subject and Dalrymple skilfully changes the track of the conversation. “He is not the subject of this book. The book begins where his reign ends,” he says with a finality that comes only to those who are in control of things around them.

Pray, what is this book all about? “The focus here is on the period after the Great Mughals, and the authors have tried to remove some misconceptions like all cultural activity came to a halt once there was a political decline of the Mughals. In fact, there was a flowering of arts and letters, a cultural renaissance. The architectural side did suffer because the Mughals no longer had the funds to patronise building of forts, palaces, etc. But they made up for it by concentrating on the arts, in particular, miniatures and literature. The Great Age of Urdu Literature came at the time of political decline. People tend to remember Ghalib, but there were Mir, Dard and the rest. What this period showed was that literature was the most public of art forms as encapsulated in the mushaira tradition. In fact, it was a continuation of the past. If you go down in time you will find literature was performed publically in the Sangam Age too. In the mushairas the poets competed with each other, and some of the best known rivalries, including that of Zauq-Ghalib, had the best exchanges in the courts of the Mughals. Such exchanges were the precursor of literary festivals today.”

The book, brought out by Penguin, is replete with drawings, paintings, etc. from the Mughal period. After drawing a parallel between modern literary fests and age-old mushairas, Dalrymple draws another similarity. “Artist Ghulam Ali Khan was to painting what Ghalib was to literature.” He is not off the mark either as indeed there was a great revival of the miniature tradition that was established by Jahangir. “Artists like Ghulam Ali Khan, Murtaza Ali Khan, Nidhal Mal and others gave a new dimension to arts. Many of the big names worked not just for the Mughals but also at many provincial courts, Anglo-Indian estates and the like. They were influenced by the outside world, used watercolours, practised modern methods but they remained deeply rooted to their soil. Many modern artists cut themselves off their roots but not so the artists during the latter Mughals. They took the European methods but were able to weave them into their artistic tradition and, also at the same time, catered to the tastes of their patrons. They were far more in control, they were very dexterous, they chose their material according to their patron. For instance, in one work Zafar comes across as a mysterious figure, in another the same artist concentrates on peasants going to pay their due. Their subjects varied vastly.”

Dalrymple points out that Mohammed Shah Rangeela’s fame was well founded. “Our historians often sweep away the latter Mughals for their political inadequacies. But few talk of renaissance. The miniature tradition got a second wind at the court of Rangeela and Bahadur Shah Zafar. There was notable decline in ateliers during Aurangzeb’s time and, to put it politely, he had shown less interest. And there was a widespread movement of artists from Delhi to Lucknow, to Pahari courts, Sikh courts, etc. However, with the arrival of Rangeela, Delhi again became a centre of the highest order. It was during this age that we come across some of the great miniatures of Ghulam Ali Khan. He was a remarkable artist; his family produced extraordinary works and remained a dominant force in Mughal ateliers for 50 years.”

Flowering of letters, renaissance of arts… all is fine. But William Dalrymple is not resting on laurels after this book which stems from the first exhibition in the West to explore Delhi and its artists. He has just come back from Varanasi, where he had gone on a family trail; probably attaining his peace of mind by the Ganga. More is to come shortly. Stay tuned.