Mughal Miniature Paintings: Delicate Paintings from the Courts of India

Mughal Miniature Paintings: Sultan Ali Adil II Shah of Bijapur Hunting Tiger, India, Deccan, Bijapur, c.1660. Sultan Ali Adil II Shah of Bijapur Hunting Tiger, India, Deccan, Bijapur, c.1660. Sold for £1,138,850 GBP via Sotheby's (April 2011).

The Mughal Empire endured from the 16th to 19th centuries, and its rulers from Akbar the Great (1542-1605) onward built a dynasty that prized political authority, intellectualism, and the arts. In addition to commissioning epic poems and musical scores, many Mughal leaders also ordered detailed paintings to accompany various texts in bound book forms. These paintings formed the foundation for Mughal miniature paintings that are revered for their intricacy and opulence.

Among the many subjects these Mughal miniature painters explored, most frequent were scenes that echoed aspects of court life. For example, scenes of the emperor with his courtly entourage on the hunt or in counsel illustrated the emperor in the most laudatory light. Beyond such narratives, Mughal miniatures often depicted scenes taken from religious tales like the Mahabharata or great historical moments like triumphant battles or valorous conquests.  

Mughal Miniature Painting Techniques and Styles

Mughal Miniature Paintings: A Lot of Four Miniature Paintings. Iran and Mughal India, 16th and 17th century.

A Lot of Four Miniature Paintings. Iran and Mughal India, 16th and 17th century. Sold for CHF 9,000 via Koller Auctions (October 2012)

Many Mughal artists garnered acclaim for their unique approach to these paintings. Nevertheless, the tradition shared several elements of their style and technique. These included:

Patronage and Royal Ateliers

The commission of miniature paintings by Mughal rulers fueled the development of ateliers, or workshops, in which the tradition’s techniques and styles could be shared between artists. At the same time, the exchange between these artists – each of whom had elements of their own unique style – ensured that Mughal miniature paintings would always stay at the leading edge of artistic innovation. 

Intricate Compositions and Symbolism

Mughal miniatures unite in their meticulous mode of creation that packs each composition with imagery and symbols. Typically these paintings were richly layered, conflating scenes together or overlapping areas with architectural backdrops and other divisions such that the viewer would need to navigate carefully through each scene. Enhancing this complexity were often representations of both flora and fauna that bore symbolic messages. 

Fine Brushes and Delicate Strokes

The intricacy of Mughal miniature painting was augmented with artful linework and almost imperceptible brushstrokes as a testament to the impressive skill of these painters. This acumen means that portraits exude an artful balance between the idealized and the real figure or location shown in a given painting. These techniques were often captured as well in lavish compositional borders and marginalia added as visual frames to each painting.

Natural Pigments in Mughal Miniature Paintings 

Further amplifying the visual impact of Mughal miniature painting were their striking colors that came from natural sources. Some of these hues came from more humble origins. Yellows, for instance, were often conjured from sources like turmeric, while reds could be created from cinnabar. Other colors, however, were derived from more luxurious materials. Blues, for example, were often cultivated from the gemstone lapis lazuli. Such elegant additions, combined with the shared penchant for gold leaf, elevated many of these Mughal miniature paintings as true signifiers of the patron’s status.

Influence of Persian and Indian Styles

While Mughal miniature painting bears deep roots in Indian artistic traditions, the influence of style from the nearby realm of Persia can also be sensed. Specifically, the emphasis on depth in each miniature frame alongside the rich colors and patterns that complemented studies of nature can be seen as sourced from Persian painting.

Mughal Miniature Paintings: Mir Sayyid Ali, the prophet Elias (Elijah) rescuing Prince Nur ad-Dahr from drowning in a river, from the Akbar Hamzanama. I

Mir Sayyid Ali, the prophet Elias (Elijah) rescuing Prince Nur ad-Dahr from drowning in a river, from the Akbar Hamzanama. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Important Mughal Miniature Paintings and Subjects

The richness of the Mughal miniature painting tradition is best expressed in several surviving examples that are widely recognized as some of the most impressive works to emerge from the tradition. Let’s take a closer look at these gems:

(Akbar) Hamzanama

The Hamzanama relays the epic tale of the heroic Hamza on a fateful journey as he sought to spread the teaching of his nephew, the edition of the Hamzanama commissioned during the reign of Emperor Akbar the Great (1542-1605) offers one of the most extensively illustrated, with scenes depicting everything from brave rescues to dramatic battles.

Mughal Miniature Paintings: Shah Jahan I on the Peacock Throne

Emperor Shah Jahan I on the Peacock Throne. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Padshahnama

The voluminous Padshanama serves as a historical chronicle of the rule and feats of Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666). Portraits of the emperor, like Shah Jahan I on the Peacock Throne, convey his regal grace, while scenes like Prince Aurangzeb Riding Against the Maddened War Elephant Sudhakar in the Year 1633 capture both the intensity of military conflict alongside an exceptional study of animals presented strikingly realistically.

Mughal Miniature Paintings: Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings (1615-1618)

A stand-alone miniature credited to noted artist Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaik to Kings is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated paintings from the emperor’s reign. At center, an elegant and poised figure of Jahangir engaged with the adjacent Sufi shaik, his mystic advisor, and in so doing seemed to disregard the Ottoman sultan and English king that stood next to him. This bold declaration of Jahangir’s favor for spiritual richness over political positioning created a powerful image of Jahangir that was both reverential and humble.

Radha and Krishna in the Boat of Love (1755)

Though poet Raja Savant Singh was not a Mughal emperor, his close companionship with Emperor Muhammed Shah in the 18th century contributed to his wealth and thus his capacity to be a major patron of Mughal miniatures. Radha and Krishna in the Boat of Love was one of his most splendid commissions as it showcased the mythological union of two deities compressed into the space of one sophisticated composition. Lush greens contrast white architectural profiles and hot coral sunsets to create a stunning scene that exudes some of the passion of the story it depicts.

Preserving the Mughal Miniature Painting Tradition

The delicacy of Mughal miniature painting is only furthered given the ethereal papers on which many of them were rendered. Such substrates, though, combined with the use of natural pigments, means that great care must be taken to safeguard such artwork when it enters your collection. If you are the lucky collector of one of these scintillating paintings, it is best to minimize: 

Light

Exposure of these paintings to extreme light can cause colors to fade, so it is best to moderate exposure. 

Handling

As tempting as it might be to touch the rich details of Mughal miniature painting, oils and other substances on hands can lead to deterioration of both pigments and papers. 

Moisture/Humidity

Excess exposure to moisture can lead to the development of mold, so keep your Mughal miniature painting in a temperature-controlled environment.

Beyond these considerations and the general importance of proper framing, consulting with a conservator at regular intervals can be beneficial. These consultations can often catch issues before they become detrimental so that your Mughal miniature painting will endure for centuries more.