6 Intriguing Schools of Pre-Modern Indian Art

Jun 9, 2014 6:17PM

Before 20th century Modernism radically changed Indian art, the so-called “classical” art that preceded it was anything but singular. Indian artistic traditions were richly varied — a true melting pot of cultural, historical, and religious influences that took root, expanded, and metamorphosed along with India’s ever-changing faces. Below, Romain Pingannaud, Head of Christie’s Islamic and Indian Art department, examines six paintings from an upcoming online-only auction of Indian works on paper, each of which exemplifies the distinct school of pre-Modern Indian art that generated it.


The Mughal School is probably the best known pre-Modern Indian school of painting. It’s linked to the Mughal Empire, which reigned from the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century — ultimately expanding across most of North and central India. In the beginning, the Mughal School was very much influenced by Persian painting because the dynasty retained strong ties with its origins in central Asia and Iran. Mughal rulers brought artists from Iran who came to work in North India in places like Agra and Shahjahanabad, what today we call Delhi, in the late 16th century and throughout the 17th century. They created a style which derived from Persian painting but became specifically Indian very quickly. By the last quarter of the 16th century, the art already has this strong Indian identity.

You can tell in this mid-17th century painting, for instance, because the elephant actually looks like an elephant. These artists have seen elephants; it’s unlike Chinese or Persian paintings where the elephants are based on what the artists have seen in other paintings . The Mughal dynasty is a Muslim dynasty but Hindu elements emerge in Mughal paintings. At the beginning the compositions are Persian, the techniques are Persian, the scenes and the iconography are Persian, the stories even are Persian. But then you find details like banana trees, monkeys, and elephants seeping into the paintings, and those are typically Indian motifs.

We can’t identify the elephant in this painting specifically, but elephants were a common subject in Mughal painting, whether in hunting scenes or even in portraits of royal elephants, as the subjects themselves.


There are different types of Provincial Mughal Schools, and the first ones happened at the same time as the Mughal School: They’re simply paintings produced in provincial courts, as the name indicates, through the 17th century. But what we refer to as the Provincial Mughal School begins in the second quarter of the 18th century, after Delhi was sacked by an Iranian conqueror named Nadir Shah. All the artists based in the Delhi court were scattered around India in the aftermath. They found other patrons and other courts to sponsor their art in cities like Murshibad, Faizabad, Lucknow, and this is what we now call the Provincial Mughal School.

The artists develop their own style based on the art that was elaborated in Delhi and in Mughal India, but with regional specificities. In this painting, we see a depiction of the popular story of Baz Bahadur and Rupmati. Baz Bahadur was the Muslim sultan of Mandu, in Malwa (north India) in the mid-16th century. He fell in love with a Hindu shepherdess called Rupmati when he heard her singing while he was out hunting — she was known for her beautiful voice and musical skills. Their romance lasted until Baz Bahadur’s army was defeated by the Mughals a few years later. He was so in love with her that he neglected his affairs and his army, prompting his defeat against Emperor Akbar’s Mughal army. Before being captured, Rupmati consumed poison and died to avoid losing her honor if captured by the Mughal general. Their love story is celebrated in many paintings depicting them hunting and riding.

Read about the rest of the schools here.


1) A fine drawing of an elephant with Mahout and trainers

Mughal India, Late 17th Century

2) Baz Badhur and Rupmati out hunting

In the style of  Mir Kalan Kahn, probably Lucknow, North India, Circa 1750