Akbar’s Golden Legacy

A courtier bring the prince news, illustration for a poem in Persian, mounted in an album leaf, anonymous, gold and colour on paper, folio 28.5 x 21.8 cm, painting 17.5 x 11.6 cm, later Akbar period, circa 1595, on permanent loan from Catharina Dohrn to Museum Rietberg. Photo: Francesca Galloway Ltd

MUSEUM RIETBERG, in Zurich, holds a large collection of Indian paintings and is one of the world’s leading institutions in the field. Thanks to a permanent loan of 22 works, the museum has recently acquired an extremely important addition to their holdings of paintings produced under the Muslim Mughal emperors. And it is Mughal paintings, which combine influences from Persia, Central Asia and India, that forms the core of their current exhibition on this ‘golden legacy’. The works are painted in exquisite detail using brilliantly coloured pigments to depict their subjects and are among the artistic highlights of the Mughal period providing the viewer with an impression of what must have been the great splendour of the Mughal court.

When Babur, the grandfather of Emperor Akbar, first set foot on the Indian subcontinent in 1519, it marked the beginning of the long period of Mughal rule over large parts of North India. The Mughals, who claimed to be descendants of the conquerors Timur and Genghis Khan, subsequently amassed incredible power, and the prosperity generated by the country’s many natural resources enabled them to be patrons of the arts. Not only did they produce magnificent buildings such as the Taj Mahal in Agra, but also commissioned artists working in the imperial workshops to produced paintings for manuscripts and albums. The collection in this exhibition brings together examples from the periods of the three great Mughal emperors (Akbar, Jahangir, and Shahjahan), as well as works from the late Mughal period, which have received more attention from researchers in recent years.

Babur (r 1526-1530), India’s first Mughal emperor, was regarded as extremely cultivated, but there is no evidence that he was a particular patron of painting. That changed under his son Humayun (r 1530-1556), who is himself reputed to have been a painter. Having been driven out of India by the Pashtuns following his enthronement, he visited the Regent Shah Tahmasp at the Safavid court in Isfahan, where he saw outstanding examples of Persian painting. He brought a number of painters back to India with him, but died within a year of his return.

However, the stylistic and organisational foundations for Mughal painting were laid under his successor, Akbar the Great (r 1556-1605). In this early phase, the émigré Persian artists led the way, recruiting and instructing local painters and supervising the execution of the first major illumination projects. Mughal painting was not simply a continuation of the Safavid tradition, however. India already had a centuries-old tradition of Buddhist and Jain illuminated manuscripts, patronised by the Sultan rulers who preceded the Mughals. These also played a role in the evolution of Mughal painting. Alongside traditional Persian literature and poetry, a large volume of new texts was translated into Persian during Akbar’s reign and richly illustrated. These texts, including collections of fables, Hindu texts, such as the Ramayana, and even stories of the life of Christ, testify to the open-mindedness of the foreign rulers. The Mughal dynasty also invested significant resources in copying and illustrating historic texts, Babur’s autobiography and the chronicle of Akbar’s rule being two of the most important examples.

Having originated in the 16th century, the art of portraiture reached its acme under Akbar’s successors. As well as rather pompous portraits of rulers, princes and courtiers that testify to the artists’ canny powers of observation, these paintings included likenesses of local rulers and religious figures. The size of the imperial workshops was reduced by Jahangir, Akbar’s son, and became smaller still under Emperor Shahjahan (r 1627-1658). Initially, at least, this did not have a detrimental effect on the quality of the paintings. In the medium term, however, the erosion of court patronage meant that many painters had to find new clients. Governors, high-ranking officials and Rajasthan princes became the new patrons of the arts. The consequence was a new, more broad-ranging repertoire of painting that blended local traditions with the subject matter in which the new clients were interested. Even before that paintings had often been acquired as gifts,
or the spoils of war, and subsequently served as a source of inspiration for local painters.

To illustrate this history of court painting, the exhibition is divided into six sections. The first being an exploration of the ‘Imperial Biographies’. It was considered extremely important to produce illustrated copies of the imperial biographies, such as Babur’s memoirs, the first autobiography in the Islamic world. These were followed by further biographies in journal form, such as those of Akbar and Shahjahan. The most important events from these historical works were illustrated by the painters. In the second section, ‘Foreign and Native Themes’, a collection of poetic, literary and religious material that had been handed down from Persia, India and Europe was recorded in written form and illustrated is on display. Works such as the Persian heroic epic Shahnama (The Book of Kings), or the famous and highly entertaining Tales of a Parrot thus achieved prominence, once again showing the open-minded attitude of Mughal rule under Akbar.

The third section looks at life at court, with the paintings depicting public audiences, hunting expeditions, picnics and harem scenes. Given the liberal attitude to religion, the depictions are not only of princes reading poetry, but also include Europeans who were regular visitors to the court. The fourth section deals with albums in book form. In the early Akbar period illustrations could, as a rule, be found in bound manuscripts, although these have since been taken apart and scattered. Later, however, albums became established as a popular format for presenting the paintings themselves. The so-called muraqqa’ (meaning ‘patched’) included paintings, calligraphies and drawings mounted on double-sided folios. The works (both historic and contemporary) were of different dimensions, so their decorated borders were a very important element.

Portraits are the subject of the fifth section that brings to life the actual personalities of the period. The portraits of dignitaries produced at the court were intended to ‘breathe new life’ into their deceased subjects, or promise them immortality if they were still living. For all the official character of the works shown here, the Mughal portraits are sensitive and convincingly realistic representations that capture the physiognomy of their subjects almost like photographs.

The last section looks at the artistic response to the period. The decline of court patronage of the arts made life more difficult for the artists concerned, yet this was an interesting period from an art historical point of view. Akbar’s legacy prompted an artistic response not only in Awadh, ruled by powerful Nawabs, but all over the country. Both the format of Indian paintings and the context in which they were produced and received were conducive to artistic exchange. Paintings, or albums, changed hands as part of dowries or as gifts or else found new homes in the wake of military campaigns.

In addition to the paintings, the exhibition also includes a section showing the painting techniques and materials used to produce such works. Also, running concurrently with the exhibition, as a separate show, Another World is on display at the Park-Villa Rieter that includes 60 additional Indian paintings that provide insights into popular painting and into the artistic traditions of Malwa, Rajasthan, and the Pahari regions.

Until 14 February at Museum Rietberg, Gablerstrasse 15, Zurich, www.rietberg.ch