Navina Najat Haidar, a curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
’s department of
, told Artsy
that the “Mughal aesthetic is very unified, extending from architecture to painting—so painting and gardens are related. Plus, the Mughal love of nature and observation of plants is closely linked to the representation of flora and gardens in painting.” Many Mughal gardens are preserved as UNESCO World Heritage sites; UNESCO describes
Lahore’s Shalimar Gardens as the “apogee of Mughal artistic expression.” These gardens figure prominently in the miniature paintings, and both speak to the empire’s search for refinement and aesthetic pleasure.
This refinement was far from immediate, however; the first few decades of the empire were unstable and chaotic. A 1540 uprising in Afghanistan forced Humāyūn, Babur’s son, to flee his court in order to seek military help. He took shelter at the Persian Safavid court in Qazvin, where he experienced Persian painting firsthand. He was so enamored with the work that when he finally recaptured his home state in 1555, he brought two Persian painters, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad, back to India with him. As the story goes, Mir Sayyid Ali had proven his skill by painting a polo match on a grain of rice, complete with goal posts and four horsemen. Hiring the painters was no casual decision. As art historian J.M. Rogers points out in his book on Mughal painting, “Considering Humāyūn’s beleaguered state and the unlikelihood of his ever regaining a stable position in India, the employment of two… expensive painters while he was still in exile represented a considerable investment.”
These two artists stayed at the court for the rest of their lives, and helped Humāyūn found and run an atelier of over 100 painters. The artists spent their days illustrating manuscripts for Persian love stories and Indian epics like the Mahābhārata, along with scenes of courtly life. Jahangir Weighing Prince Khurram Against Gold and Silver
(1615), for example, is an opulent scene showing the emperor’s son on his 15th birthday, seated on a scale made of gold and rubies, surrounded by jewels, daggers, and attendants.
The empire peaked with Humāyūn’s son, known as Akbar the Great, who ruled from 1556 to 1605 and devoted an extraordinary amount of time to the arts. Although allegedly illiterate, he filled his court with poets and painters, encouraged intellectual debate, and sponsored ambitious works of architecture. He advocated extraordinary religious tolerance, which brought an unprecedented peace to the empire. Rarely has an empire been so dedicated to the arts: When Akbar died in 1605, his library of poetry, philosophy, and painting was valued at over three times the amount he spent building the city of Fatehpur Sikri.
Akbar’s son and successor, Emperor Jahangir, had an even more single-minded obsession with painting. Rogers describes him as a “visual glutton,” recalling an incident when, rather than help a dying man who asked for aid, Jahangir had his painters “take a portrait…[of his] emaciated face.” Stories like this underscore the way painting was intimately tied to the court, and, by extension, to the desires of the emperor. It was only through the emphasis and funding provided by Humāyūn and his descendents that court painting in the form of Mughal miniatures came to be seen as the highest form of sophistication and elegance.