History of Indian Painting in Australian Collections

LOTUS-CLAD RADHA AND KRISHNA, circa 1700-1710, opaque watercolour on paper

THE LAVISH PALETTE in the history of Indian painting reflects the mingling of many forces on the subcontinent throughout history. As wave upon wave of conquerors swept across India, the encounters between victor and vanquished profoundly influenced the landscape of art. New and different styles of painting were woven into a native fabric rooted in tradition, caste, religion and culture. Intimate Encounters: Indian Paintings from Australian Collections at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, traces the path of the history of Indian painting through the last 500 years, a legacy of distinct styles.

Major Schools of Indian Art

Documenting the major schools of Indian art are 77 paintings drawn from the gallery’s own Asian holding and from public and private collections throughout Australia to explore the history of Indian painting. Beginning with pre-Mughal painting of the late Sultanate period, the display explores the advent of the Mughal miniature. A narrative of its manifold styles gives expression to the miniature, from inception to ascendancy and finally to its demise, which changed Indian art forever.

When Muslim incursions threatened 11th-century India, they found an ancient civilisation based on indigenous faiths. Hindu and Jain manuscript painting from the palm leaf tradition, greeted the first Islamic dynasties of the Sultanate period (1192/1206-1526). An archetypal Indian style was flat horizontal composition patterned with religious icons and motifs in primary colours.

The Use of Paper in Indian Painting

Paper, introduced to Persia from the Silk Road, had arrived in India by the mid-14th century. The use of paper and pigments from opaque water-based mineral and organic dyes encouraged manuscript illustration and is an important element in the development of the history of Indian painting. The Kalpasutra, ‘Book of Precepts’, circa 1400s, is an illustrated Jain scripture, containing biographies of 24 jinas, saviour-saints. An early horizontal folio, The 14 Auspicious Dreams of Queen Trishala, enacts the tale of one jina, Mahavira, arranged in three registers complete with the auspicious goddess Lakshmi, elephant, bull, chariot and banner.

Indigo blue, red and brown from insect and plant resins are the dominant colours. As pigments became more abundant, a decorative style ensued. One of the earliest surviving illustrations of a 10th-century, Hindu text, the Bhagavata Purana, circa 1520-1530, is a folio painting. Vivid colour schemes of red, yellow, blue and green frame a scene celebrating the Hindu god Vishnu in one of his manifold forms as the blue-skinned Krishna. It depicts an attempt on the latter’s life, where animated figures in profile, characterised by black outlined eyes, a chariot and charioteer, are stark elements of pre-Mughal Hindu painting.

Mughal Rule in India

These principles of Indian art were subsequently transformed and changed the history of Indian painting. Following his victory at the Battle of Panipat in 1526, Babur (r.1526-30), a descendant of Timur, initiated Mughal rule in India. The synthesis of indigenous Indian and Persian court traditions brought about an unparalleled evolution of Islamic art and culture. Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha were translated into Persian, the language of the Mughal court.

Babur, who had a great love of poetry and literature, initiated the tradition of recording memoirs. His successors were bibliophiles and continued to import Muslim manuscripts from Persia, while encouraging manuscript production in India itself. Delhi emerged a centre of learning housing scholars and bookmakers of Persian provenance.

The Mughals then formalised the patronage of art. To embellish their courts with decorative objects, karkhanas, imperial workshops, were staffed with master craftsmen from Safavid Persia (1502-1736) whose ateliers were heavily dependent on the Timurid artistic tradition. Humayun (r.1530-40, r.1555-56) who succeeded Babur, retreated to Persia and returned to India with the talented Persian artisans, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd as-Samad.

Emperor Akbar

The empire was consolidated by Humayun’s son, the emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605), a great patron of the arts who built a royal capital, Fatehpur Sikri near Agra, and established an imperial atelier. The art of manuscript illustration, in the history of Indian painting,  developed as folios were decorated with miniature paintings. As opposed to pre-Mughal tradition, they were projected in the vertical format, reaching new levels of artistry. Artists produced illustrated manuscripts of the Persian classics, experimenting with Hindu, Jain and Sultanate prototypes to create a distinct Mughal style.

Narrative miniatures of Persian ancestry chronicled the emperors’ lives and exploits in and outside of court. The Baburnama, ‘History of Babur’, after Akbar’s grandfather, and his own Akbarnama, ‘History of Akbar’, circa 1595 -1598, were exquisite folios or album leaves stored for posterity. Portraiture was a genre that developed directly from memoirs and biographies illustrated in this manner. Before the Mughal conquest, Indian portraiture was not intended to capture the formal likenesses of its subjects. However even in miniature, the Mughal portrait was infused with life, taking on the character of the person painted and is an important contribution to the history of Indian painting.

In time, the miniature incorporated techniques of fore-shortening and shading for greater depth and realism. Sophisticated colour techniques, kept secret, were employed by artists who often had their signatures hidden within the work itself. The formula for paints, it later transpired, was not only in the original Persian but also in verse.

One of the Earliest Miniatures on Show

One of the earliest miniatures displayed, Jahangir as Prince Salim returning from a Hunt, circa 1600-1604, is rendered in subtle hues with a sensitivity to detail. Akbar’s son, Salim, the future emperor Jahangir, ‘Seizer of the World’ (r.1605-1627), is seated on an elephant with two retainers, and presented with a pair of game, surrounded by a retinue of attendants. The treatment of this brutal sport strewn with animal carcasses, is set against a soft undulating landscape, suggesting early use of perspective.

Mughal India however continued to be dominated by the Hindu faith. The cult of Krishna, the eighth reincarnation of Vishnu was of great spiritual significance. The miniature grew to integrate episodes from his life. The Lotus-clad Radha and Krishna, circa 1700-1710, dwells ostensibly on the romance between Krishna and Radha, the fairest of the gopis, herdswomen. Both are clothed in white lotus petals from head to foot, and carry lotus flowers, a symbol of purity. They are but reincarnations, and the actual allusion is to a union with the divine.

Music in Indian Painting

Music was, and remains an intrinsic part of Indian life and has a place in the history of Indian painting. An idealised image of a bejewelled pair in the Ragaputra Velavala or Bhairava, circa 1710, shows the man playing a stringed instrument while being offered a digestive by his lady. Both have large eyes and rounded chins, and the drawing of stylised trees embody the Basohli style of the Punjab Hills. Krishna appears again with three female musicians in a musical mode, the Vasant Ragini, circa 1770, referring to spring, whose fecundity is implied by a luxuriant grove of flowering trees in glowing colour.

The miniature painting tradition was not confined to the Mughals. Even their fiercest opponents eventually succumbed to prevailing Mughal taste. Originating in Rajasthan in the northwest, the Rajputs had an established reputation as fearsome warriors. Dominion of their independent Hindu kingdoms – with the exception of Mewar (Udaipur) – was achieved by Akbar only in 1569.

Fusion of Mughal and Rajput Art

The fusion of Mughal and Rajput art, in the history of Indian painting, created a new visual and figurative language shaped by the diversions of the court. Indigenous Rajput figures outlined in black and filled with opaque colour, coexisted with delicately painted specimens where detail was given to costume and ornament of Mughal fashion. Flourishing from the 1650s to the 1850s, the focus of this genre was poetical and mythological allegory, expressed in narratives of classical Hindu devotional cults.

The Rajput courts of Bikaner, Jaipur, Kotah and Marwar (Jodhpur) were partial to Mughal type portraiture. Its members, the Maharana, the highest hereditary ruler as well as the Rajput nobility were consummate horsemen, to whom the equestrian portrait had particular appeal. Show of weaponry such as the kartar, two-handled dagger, the talwar, sword and the shield, were personal and social indicators of military prowess.

The Portrait of Raja Kesari Singhji of Jodhpur on Horseback, circa 1830, features the turbaned ruler in profile, smoking a water pipe on an elaborately bedecked horse. A lively composition of much movement, he is the dominant figure, towering over three retainers on foot.

Rajput court art went on to form panoramic compositions of much pomp and pageantry. The procession, a show of clan identity, was venerated. Another genre was the ragamala, ‘garland of musical modes’ style, where colourful pictorial arrangements evoked music and rhythm. A poem, the Baramasa, ‘Twelve Months’, of sentiments associated with the passing months was also depicted in the miniature.

Only Mewar of the Rajput principalities resisted Mughal influences. The sheer vigour of its dizzying style is evident in the Parashurama, circa 1800s, an action-filled episode from one of Vishnu’s incarnations. The killing of a magical cow, able to grant all favours, results in dismembered limbs, weapons and embattled figures in a picture of much symbolism, drama and colour.

Last Vestiges of Mughal Power

The last vestiges of Mughal power saw the advent in India of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Coloniser and colonised met in a new encounter. Midway through Akbar’s reign, Jesuits from the Portuguese colony of Goa had brought him illustrated bibles. This rare insight into European painting had its elements imperceptibly fused into the miniature, despite protests from orthodox believers and is all part of the history of Indian painting.

Akbar’s son, Jahangir, also a connoisseur of art, dealt with the English East India Company which opened its first trading post at Surat, Gujarat in 1612. Anxious to secure its place on the subcontinent, the Company presented the first British oil paintings, including royal portraits, to Jahangir in 1616. Offering further clues to western conventions, they were passed on to court artists. Gradually a ‘realistic’ miniature style surfaced employing subtle European references.

Todi Ragini, circa 1720-1857, is an immaculate late Mughal portrait of the ragini, a solitary mistress of the musical mode. She stands in profile on a grassy mound with a vina, classical stringed instrument, whose musical sounds have attracted two deer. The detail of her orange ghaghra, gathered skirt, may be Indian but the horizon is of European persuasion.

The crumbling empire run by Jahangir’s grandson, Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707), effectively the last Mughal emperor, resurrected Islamic orthodoxy. He put a halt to imperial patronage of the arts, forcing local artisans to find new clients. Among them were the growing British residents, Madras, Bombay and Calcutta having joined the Company’s trading posts by 1700.

After Mughal power collapsed in 1757, the English East India Company emerged the de facto government of India. The naturalistic Mughal painting tradition appealed directly to Anglo-Saxon instincts. Local ‘Company artists’ were employed to make detailed drawings of local flora and fauna specimens. European engravings and prints found in India introduced linear perspective whose principles were drafted into new works. In the process they gave birth to the hybrid Indo-European school of  Company Painting.

Indian Exotica

Indian ‘exotica’ portrayed included native occupations such as Snake Charmer, circa 1780, from Tamil Nadu. While its flat background and primary colours hark back to pre-Mughal times, the play of light and shade suggest western ideals. Eventually portraits of Company sahibs and their families appeared in indoor settings complete with domestic servants, or outdoors in a landscape imbued with occasional European touch. These Company School works are also considered as part of the history of Indian painting.

The genre had enormous appeal and the Indian aristocracy, no less, followed suit. Increasingly the works commissioned grew in size to house immense background detail, and expanded in scope to include views of major Indian cities. Meanwhile landmarks of the Raj were captured in hand-coloured aquatints by travelling British artists attracted to its architectural sites and landscapes.

The renowned Oriental Sceneries, a six-volume work of 144 aquatints by Thomas Daniells (1749-1840) and his nephew, William Daniells (1769-1837), was published around 1808. These developments gradually eclipsed the Indian miniature. It had no place in a new age. The introduction of photography in 1840s India finally sealed its fate, since its subjects, both portraiture and landscape, had found a new master.


Intimate Encounters: Indian Paintings from Australian Collections, explores the history of Indian painting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 22 February to 4 May, 2008.