Indian Paintings: From Kabul to Kolkata

The royal elephant Madhukar, by Hashim, Mughal, probably Agra, circa 1630-1640 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

This year, as part of the UK-India Year of Culture celebrating the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence, a dazzling range of Mughal and Indian paintings is being exhibited at the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of Cambridge University.

Fitzwilliam Museum’s Collection of Indian Art

As Marcus Fraser remarks in his preface to the absorbing catalogue accompanying the exhibition, 1947 ‘was significant in several ways’. It was, of course, the year of Indian Independence from Britain, but it was also ‘a significant year for the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection of Indian art’. Percival Chater Manuk, a collector of Indian miniatures, died in 1946, leaving behind a noteworthy collection of art which would go in 1948 to the Fitzwilliam Museum, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

As Fraser explains, ‘the momentous year of Indian Independence was coincidentally bracketed by two of the most significant years for the Fitzwilliam’s collection of Indian painting’. The collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum is longstanding; its earliest acquisition in the field of Indian paintings came in 1843, with an album of watercolours of Mughal architecture, donated by William Wright.

The Mughal Empire and a Cultural Shift

The Mughal empire was founded by Zahir Uddin Muhammad Babur in 1526, with the defeat of Ibrahim Lodi, the last ruler of the Lodi Dynasty. Babur – descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur (or Tamerlane) – set out to conquer India in 1525, reviving the agenda Timur had first pursued in invading India in the 1390s. His victory triggered a cultural shift in the Indian subcontinent and beyond, setting about ‘a profound change’, according to Marcus Fraser, Honorary Keeper of Islamic Manuscripts and Miniatures at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. ‘Babur was brought up to appreciate the style of literature and painting associated with the city of Herat in the late Timurid period, and related styles in Central Asia’, Fraser explains; his interest in the arts fed into the value placed on creative output throughout the Mughal dynasty.

The Baburnama

Babur is also known for bequeathing to posterity a lengthy and acutely personal memoir, the Baburnama. It is a remarkable document, begun at the tender of age of ten and maintained until only a year before his death in 1530.  ‘In its pages,’ writes William Dalrymple, ‘he opens his soul with a frankness and lack of inhibition similar to Samuel Pepys a century later’. Written in the Chagatai language, the memoir is an extraordinarily comprehensive insight into the tastes and inclinations of its author, and is worth a perusal by the modern reader.

As Dilip Hiro, the editor of the 2006 Penguin Classics edition, attests: ‘It contains descriptions of his domains and the administrative set-up, the battles and the territories he won and lost, the outbreak of rebellions and their suppression, the rise and fall of his adversaries and allies, his marriages and children, his banishment to a hill tract and near death, and the biographies of his parents and near relatives. It includes also his penetrating judgement of the men of various ranks and talents he encountered as a fugitive, a ruler and a general – and as a poet and a connoisseur of the arts.’

Babur’s Son Humayun

This connoisseurship would later be taken up by Babur’s descendants. His eldest son Humayun, who became emperor in 1530, was exiled in Iran in the 1540s. It was as the guest of Shah Tahmasp at Tabriz that he was exposed to a court culture that keenly valued art and literature – and it was here that Mughal painting first came into being.

Annemarie Schimmel, the eminent commentator on Mughal arts and Indian paintings, describes the ‘accident of history’ that allowed for the genre of Mughal painting to flourish: ‘Shah Tahmasp loved painting, and was quite an accomplished practitioner. The magnificent Shahnama manuscript was created for him. However, he was then undergoing ‘sincere repentance’, was abstaining from worldly pleasures, and no longer taking an interest in the fine arts. So Humayun… was able to take at least two of the Tabriz artists away with him.’

The Tabriz artists followed Humayun back to Delhi, becoming part of the atelier the emperor would go on to establish there, alongside a number of Hindu artists. ‘The Mughal style developed from the interaction between the refined Persian style and the strong, lively vision of the Hindu artists’, according to Schimmel.

When, in Fraser’s words, ‘in a deeply ironic twist of fate, [Humayun] died falling down the stairs of his library in Delhi in 1556’, his son Akbar took his place at the age of 13, and maintained his father’s interest in the arts throughout his life. ‘It appears to me, as if a painter had quite peculiar means of recognising God,’ Akbar wrote.

Akbar’s Multi-Cultural Court

Akbar fostered a truly multi-cultural court, the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the second half of the 16th century ushering in a new type of iconography. Akbar’s son Jahangir (Persian for ‘conqueror of the world’) revolted against his father in 1599, eventually succeeding him as Mughal emperor in 1605. Jahangir, another great diarist, and his son Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, oversaw a defining epoch for Mughal Indian paintings.

During their reigns, Fraser notes, ‘the Mughal style was refined and honed and the iconography became more complex, allegorical and overtly imperial. These two emperors were great patrons of the arts and this period is sometimes considered the golden era of Mughal culture.’

Indian Paintings and Mughal Art in the 17th Century

The 17th century saw the impact of Mughal art and culture spread across the world. So impressive was the Mughal dynasty for distant Europeans, Schimmel comments, that it even made its way into John Milton’s Paradise Lost as an example of the future wonders of God’s creation.

‘I am sent,’ Michael tells Adam, ‘To show thee what shall come in future days… City of old or modern fame, the seat/ Of mightiest empire, from the destined walls/ Of Cambalu, seat of Cathaian khan/ And Samarchand by Oxus, Temir’s throne, To Paquin of Sinaean kings, and thence/ To Agra and Lahor of great mogul’.  ‘When someone writes today of a Hollywood or real estate mogul,’ William Dalrymple observes, ‘they are unwittingly recalling the impression the Mughals made on our befuddled Elizabethan ancestors.’

Emperor Aurangzeb

With the next Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the era of court-sponsored art and culture began to wane. Interested less in patronising the arts than in compounding his position of power by imprisoning his father and murdering his brothers, Aurangzeb allowed the thriving atelier cultivated by his antecedents to decline.

Dalrymple makes clear that ‘the image of the sixth great Mughal as a narrow-minded bigot who banned wine drinking, hashish smoking, dancing girls, and the playing of music’ has partially been redressed by recent scholarship; but – despite disputes regarding the tyrannical nature of his reign – it is clear that he did not share his forerunners’ concern for the arts.

The Invasion of Nadir Shah and Violence of the Next Century

The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 marked the beginning of the end of the Mughal empire. The invasion of the Persian warlord Nadir Shah in 1739 and the Battle of Karnal led to widespread bloodshed, as well as the removal of much Mughal treasure from the royal treasury and library in Delhi. Violence and carnage informed the next century: 1756 was the year of the horrifying ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’, and the 1800s brought about a series of Anglo-Sikh wars, leading to the annexation of the Punjab. In 1858, the last Mughal emperor was deposed; India had ceded to the British.

East Meets West: The Commissioning of Indian Paintings

What became of the art form birthed by the Mughal dynasty during this period? Fraser notes that in the 18th century the increasingly wealthy Muslim courts of North-Eastern India attracted artists from Delhi. ‘The result was a relative flowering of the arts in the aristocratic courts between Delhi and Kolkata… and the increasing number of Europeans responded to the richness of Indian culture by commissioning and collecting paintings, manuscripts and music,’ he writes.

Exhibition in Thematic Sections

Given the centuries-long scope of the exhibition, and its geographical range (it is entitled From Kabul to Kolkata: Highlights of Indian Painting in The Fitzwilliam Museum), its many paintings have been broken up into thematic categories: History, Religion and Myth; Animals and Birds; Portraiture; Music and Dance; and Architecture. These themes underpin the tastes of ‘the emperors, princes and rajas who cultivated the arts’, and ‘the Europeans who began collecting in the late 18th and 19th centuries’, Fraser observes.

Fitzwilliam Museum’s Paintings of the Mahabarata and Ramayana

The Indian paintings themselves are fascinating, presenting viewers with a detailed world of characters and narratives. They are largely miniatures, and many depict scenes from the Mahabarata and the Ramayana, the two great Sanskrit epics. The Mughal dynasty’s keen interest in nature – as an artistic subject, but also as an area of scientific interest – is represented in finely-detailed paintings of birds and other animals.

William Wright’s album of architectural studies marks a shift in taste and technique. Acquired by Wright in 1821, the album, painted by an Indian artist, depicts the exteriors of several Mughal buildings in North India, and shows a European fascination with Indian culture, in Marcus’ view, and ‘an urge to record the wonders they witnessed’.

From Kabul to Kolkata is a remarkable testament to an evolving art form and a thriving, intellectual court culture. Through this series of delicate paintings, thoughtfully curated by Marcus Fraser, we witness the breadth of the sprawling Mughal empire, its shifting fashions and diverse cultural influences.

Other Events During the 70th Anniversary Year

Other events in Cambridge to mark the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain include Freedom and Fragmentation, which recognises and commemorates the many meanings of freedom in South Asia in 1947. The Centre of South Asian Studies is holding the first ever public exhibition of its collections at this time, which runs until 27 October.

A concurrent exhibition  at the Fitzwilliam is Elephants, Deities and Ashoka’s Pillar: Coins of India from Antiquity to the Present that is on show until 1 October. Finally, Another India, at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), which opened earlier in 2017 to mark the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain, explores the tangled histories of artefacts from minority populations in India and how they came to be in the collections in Cambridge. Over one hundred artefacts, paintings and photographs from the collections of MAA, many of which have never been exhibited to the public before, are complemented by artworks by contemporary artists from the varius communities represented, and commissioned with support from the Art Fund.


Until 3 September, From Kabul to Kolkata, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK, The exhibition was part of Cambridge University’s season – India Unboxed