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Courtly Themes

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 12:39 AM


Jahangir Enthroned on an Hourglass
Mughal and Rajput patrons were extremely interested in paintings with courtly themes as these works reflected the world in which they lived. Portrayals of princely life first achieved prominence in Indian painting under Mughal patronage and subsequently became an important aspect of Raj put imagery as well. Such paintings in the Green collection include aristocratic male portraits and depictions of animals, for horses and elephants, as well as more exotic specimens, were often highly prized by their royal owners. 

Among the manuscripts that the Mughal emperor Akbar commissioned were a number of superbly illustrated histories of his illustrious forbears—who included Chingiz (Genghis) Khan and Timur (Tamerlane)—and of his own noteworthy reign as well as many individual portraits. Indeed, a large portion of the production of the early Mughal painting workshop was devoted to the depiction of courtly themes. An interest in such themes was, in part, influenced by long-established Iranian traditions of depicting royal persons and activities, such as princely figures engaged in hunts or refined pursuits such as reading. Also influential were Western art traditions, especially that of portraiture, introduced into the Mughal court in the late sixteenth century. It was, how-ever, the keen interest of Akbar and other Mughal rulers in images that reflected their particular sense of the world around them that is most directly responsible for the popularity of themes of courtly life and portraiture found in Mughal painting. 

Before the establishment of the Mughal dynasty there were no directly observed, individualized portrayals in India, although certainly an interest in such portraiture existed, as is demonstrated by written sources. Early Mughal portraiture seems to have been unusual enough that Akbar's chief historian, Abul Fazl, was compelled to record that not only did the emperor sit for his portrait, but he also ordered the likenesses of all the grandees in the realm be painted. An immense album of portraits was thus formed, and as Abul FazI notes, "Those that have passed away have received new life and those who are still alive have immortality promised them". Akbar and his descendants likely recognized the value of such images in their evaluation of the character of the many individuals involved in the administration of their immense realm as well as their use in glorifying their own dynasty. 

Mughal Court Scene
Individual paintings eventually superseded the popularity of illustrated historical and literary texts at the Mughal court as fewer and fewer such manuscripts were commissioned. Favored instead were albums in which single paintings of various subjects were combined with pages of beautifully calligraphed passages. Such albums first became popular in the early seventeenth century during the reign of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Portraits and scenes of princely activities were common subjects, as were floral and animal studies. Such paintings continued to be rendered throughout the subsequent history of Mughal art. Several works in the Green collection exemplify the type of portraits and animal studies frequently made for Mughal patrons.

For Rajput patrons too, images of themselves and the world in which they lived were extremely important. Even though the interest in paintings with religious or literary subjects never waned, a significant concern of many painters working for various Raj put patrons was portraying the glorious person as of these rulers. Portraits executed at the Raj put courts were at first largely inspired by Mughal practice. One particularly early work in the Green collection, which dates from the first part of the seventeenth century, is a clear demonstration of this influence. In the eighteenth century a shift occurred at many Rajput courts toward producing more portraits, and such works continued to be favored until the decline of Rajput patronage of painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. 

Court Scene Art
Although influential, Mughal models were freely adapted and transformed by Rajput artists. Indeed, even though many specific Mughal elements made their way into Raj put schools, Raj put portraits and depictions of princely pursuits also benefited from previously established Indian traditions. Often a greater interest of Raj put painters in the inner essence of their subjects rather than a faithful reproduction of their outward appearance resulted in images of selective reality. Paintings in the Green collection, such as an elegant rendering of royal worshippers and a powerful but highly stylized portrayal of the Kota ruler Chattur Sal, demonstrate some of the different ways in which Raj put painters departed from Mughal models. However, neither Mughal nor Rajput paintings generally depict women with the same specificity as male subjects. Females were largely defined by their roles and were not usually distinguished as specific personalities but were instead portrayed as ideal types.

In addition to portraits, other princely subjects, such as elaborate festivals, entertainments, and hunts, were frequently depicted by Raj put artists. Although these are subjects also encountered in Mughal works, paintings such as a Basohli elephant combat and a Kota hunt scene demonstrate the brilliant inventiveness to be found in the Raj put expressions of these already established princely themes. Individual depictions of courtiers, a popular Mughal theme, rarely seem to have been painted by Raj put artists. Also unlike the Mughal tradition, historical scenes were generally not as favored by Raj put patrons. A number of posthumously executed portraits, however, reveals a similar interest in one's forbears. Examples of this practice in the Green collection include posthumous portrayals of the renowned rulers Sidh Sen of Mandi and Ajit Singh of Jodhpur. Such works suggest that an awareness and promotion of the prestige of royal lineages was also a concern of the Rajput courts.


Maharaja Chhatrasal PaintingDespite great differences in particular details of style and presentation, the princely portraits and paintings of animals found in the Green collection reveal that visual specificity was but one of the artists' concerns. The works created for Rajput and Mughal patrons are carefully composed images, intended to convey particular kinds of information about the subject. Of greater concern than specific physiognomic details in a portrait might be the underscoring of the subject's status through a particular manner of presentation and the depiction of certain accoutrements. Such paintings were, in part, meant to fulfill functions not altogether different from the promotional material created by today's PR agents. Thus, as is true for princely imagery rendered at courts throughout the world, the motivations behind the particular character of many Rajput and Mughal paintings likely included a desire to project very calculated images of a ruler and his realm.
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