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Indian Paintings often depict a complete world, a world constructed rather than depicted realistically and sometimes a completely imaginary one. Divided thematically into religious, romantic, musical, and courtly subjects, the paintings provide glimpses into some of the many worlds painted by Rajput and Mughal artists in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Many delighted in verdant nature, in a courtyard garden, or in a lush forest after the monsoon. The sixth-one paintings reveal various scenes as they appeared before the mind’s eye of the artist: a shy Radha approaching Krishna; a lover tearing through the woods to a tryst in the night; a ragini dancing in the forest amid musical accompanies; a price on a tiger hunt.
The Indian paintings (often wrongly characterized as miniatures) discussed were created mostly by unknown artists between about 1550 and about 185o. The patrons of these works of art also are by and large unknown as individuals. In general, however, they were members of ruling families and courtiers, of both sexes, Hindus as well as Muslims. In fact, the role of women patrons in Indian painting is yet to be properly assessed. Over three decades ago William Archer, noting the power of Indian painting to charm both sexes, guardedly stated that while Indian women also viewed it, it owed “its origins to masculine stimulus”. Although the evidence is not abundant, there is little doubt that women too patronized the various arts, including painting. A well-known instance is Princess Jahanara, the eldest daughter of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.
The paintings in the Green collection consist mostly of book illustrations and folios from albums. Small in scale, like European watercolors or Japanese prints, they are easily portable. Therefore, a series or picture found in one court may have been made somewhere else. They were never hung up on walls, but held in hand and viewed intimately. In fact, the patron usually held a painting at the same oblique angle when viewing as the artist did when painting it. When not being looked at, the pictures were bundled up and stored in libraries or special storerooms in the palace or mansion. They were, therefore, well shielded from light, which is one reason why some of the pictures, although three or more centuries old, are remarkably well preserved. (In some cases where the storage conditions were less than ideal, the pictures were adversely affected.)
The small scale of the pictures does not mean that they are not technically complex. The support of all the pictures is paper, and the pigments are water based, though they are more opaque than English watercolors. Indian artists also enriched their palette with gold,and urn ii the middle of the nineteenth century, when European commercial paints were introduced, most pigments were derived from plants and minerals with the exception of a pungent yellow called peon, which was extracted from the urine of cows fed mangos. In their rich detailing Indian pictures more often approximate the art of the European miniature rather than that of the watercolor.
Many of the pictures have inscriptions, which may or may not be relevant. There is no rule governing the placement of textual material: inscriptions can occur on the front and/or the back of a painting. In some cases the text is simply a label identifying the subject, added either on the front or the back; in others, it may be a verse or verses, often from a work of literature, briefly describing the theme or recounting the story of the picture. Whereas some pictures relate to their text closely, others seem to deviate significantly. Occasionally an inscription provides us with relevant art-historical information, such as the identity of the sitter or the name of an artist or a date. In albums specially prepared for Muslim patrons, panels of poetry are often pasted around a picture, but rarely are they related.
It is customary to divide these paintings into two broad categories: Mughal and Raj put. The expression Mughal (or Mogul) is the designation of the Muslim dynasty founded by Babur, a Central Asian Turkic invader, in 1526. His grandson Akbar expanded his inheritance to build an enormous pan-Indian empire that included parts of Afghanistan in the northwest and extended south into the Deccan plateau. All the important Decanis Muslim kingdoms, however, were not absorbed into the Mughal Empire until the 168os, during die rule of Aurangzeb (1658-1707). the last great Mughal emperor. After Aurangzeb, Mughal authority declined steadily until the British united much of the subcontinent under their crown in 1858. Pictures and books prepared for the emperors, their Muslim courtiers, and later for independent Muslim rulers in north India are generally categorized as Mughal. Mughal paintings have been further subdivided by art historians into imperial, sub imperial, provincial, popular, and later Mughal. A parallel tradition of painting flourished in the Islamic courts of the Deccan and is usually categorized as Deccan.
During the Mughal period, much of present-day Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Rajasthan was peppered with semi-independent Hindu states of different sizes and power. The rulers of these states, who belonged to various clans, are known collectively as Rajput, derived from the word rajaputra, meaning "prince". In the early decades of this century the noted art historian Amanda K. Coomaraswamy used the term Rajput to describe paintings that were done for the Raj put patrons. Pictures were also painted for the Hindu courts in that section of the western Himalayas that stretches across several states today (Pakistani and Indian Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh). These pictures from the hills are generally referred to as Pahari, the Adjectival form of the word pahad, meaning "hill".
Under the inspired patronage of the emperor Akbar the Mughal painting work-shop achieved a brilliant synthesis of Persian, Indian, and European traditions. The early Mughal workshop, which became an active center for book production, employed a large number of native artists who worked under the direction of masters brought from Iran. In addition to the fact that the Mughals' taste was Persian, most of the books copied and illustrated were also Persian. The Mughals preferred books of fables and cosmological subjects, epics and romances, historical sagas and chronicles, and, of course, poetry. Like most cultured Muslims, the Mughals also admired calligraphy, and examples of fine penmanship were collected and assembled in albums. Moreover, the albums included portraits of both humans and animals as well as flower studies At first heavily influenced by Persian aesthetics, by the 158os Mughal artists were exposed to European paintings and prints. The presence of European miniature portraits and Akbar's own requirements to become familiar with his courtiers contributed to the development of realistic portraiture in Mughal painting.
The type of pictures that the Mughals encountered in India is best exemplified in the Green collection by two illustrations from a Bhagavatapurana, a Hindu religious text. This style, characterized by a limited palette, simple compositions, and stylized figures, continued to be favored by Hindu patrons well into the first quarter of the seventeenth century, after which, at some of the Raj put centers, the artists became more aware of the "dramatic, objective, and eclectic" as well as more painterly Mughal style. The degree to which they absorbed Mughal stylistic elements differed at different centers, depending upon the taste of the patron as well as the artists' own aesthetic preferences and training. In some schools, such as at Malwa, the influence was not strongly felt until the end of the seventeenth century, while in the Hill States it was manifested later still. Notwithstanding the interaction with Mughal painting, it is easy to recognize in Raj put pictures, as Coomaraswamy pointed out long ago, "a great variety of motifs, compositions, and formulae that occur commonly in much older Indian works or correspond to the phraseology of classical rhetoric.
Mughal influence was not simply one of style but also of subject. Until the seventeenth century both Hindu and Jain patrons showed a marked preference for religious books, although some secular works from the period have also survived. Inspired by Mughal tastes, Raj put paintings began to depict court scenes, festivals, and other subjects of worldly nature. Secular themes portrayed in Raj put pictures, however, are more symbolic and idealized and are not as graphic and realistic as they are in Mughal pictures. Moreover, Rajput depictions of romantic, rhetorical, or musical themes were often given a strongly religious color. The archetypal heroes and heroines (nayakas and nayikas), even if described in mortal contexts, were frequently identified with the divine figures of Krishna and Radha. In the pictures from some states, such as Kota and Kishangarh , the rulers themselves were identified with Krishna.
The development of painting in the many Rajput courts is a complex issue and still subject to debate. Although attempts have been made recently to distinguish styles of Pahari painting by families of artists,' by and large Raj put paintings are still classified simply by the semi-independent princely states that were merged into either India or Pakistan when the British left the subcontinent in 1947. Thus, in the catalogue entries names such as Basohli, Bikaner, Jodhpur, or Kangra denote the states where the picture may have originated. Names of artists occur more commonly on Mughal than Raj put works. Although families of artists may have been attached to a court, there is strong evidence of the migration of artists from one state to another in the hills. Moreover, as at least one artist in Rajasthan is known to have moved from one court to another, it is very likely that others did too. Painters also accompanied their patrons on duties away from their home courts, such as military campaigns. It should further be noted that art moved about freely from one state to another, especially in the form of presents or as part of bridal trousseaus.
Since a large number of Rajput paintings has emerged from royal collections, it would not be unjustified to assume that rulers and their families were the major patrons. However, other courtiers as well as educated and affluent merchants must have been interested in the arts, and some works may have been made available in the bazaars for general consumption. Although some artists enjoyed special relationships with their patrons and may even have held elevated positions at court, generally the professional artist did not have a higher status than a cook, a carpenter, or a gardener. As a matter of fact, in a Hindu household the cook had a much higher social position if he was a Brahman. Artists generally belonged to lower castes. At the Mughal court Iranian and Muslim artists enjoyed a greater status, partly because of their religious and cultural kinship with the rulers and partly because Islamic society has never been as socially stratified as that of the Hindus. However, there are instances of some Hindu artists attaining exalted positions at court and enjoying a more familiar relationship with their patrons.
Whether Mughal or Rajput, Indian pictures are fascinating for the variety and zest of life they express. Whether they depict the material world or the mythic realm, they attest to the limitless universe of the human imagination, and through brilliant colors and forms they capture the spirit of the themes with admirable candor. Displaying great delicacy, finesse, and lyrical charm, these small but elegant pictures remain vivid evocations of a romantic past.