In 1585, while Akbar was holding court in Lahore, his royal studio hummed with artists, engaged, like medieval Christian monks, in the task of copying and decorating manuscripts. By this time in Mughal history, court artists had mastered the European techniques of suggesting space and recession. They were creating landscapes, which, with their backgrounds opening up in layers, bring to mind the paintings of the European Renaissance.
Akbar commissioned the manuscript of Khamsa by Nizami, who was counted among the greatest of Persian poets. One of its pages seizes the moment when the star-crossed lovers, Laila and Majnun, faint on meeting again. The lovers in the foreground look quite dead as they fall backwards from each other in a tangent, foreshadowing their eventual separation. Beyond the lovers, the landscape ó with frothing rivers, stone bridges, vernal meadows and sundry houses ó stretch for miles before losing itself in the blue sky. While the animals surrounding the lovers look astounded at their plight (the cat at Majnunís feet sheds sympathetic tears), the background landscape seems unconcerned as it recedes further and further away from the living figures. Painted in the stiff mannerist style, the trees, fields and rivers seem to blithely ignore the human drama taking place in their midst.
Story-telling paintings such as this make up the book, MUGHAL INDIA: ART, CULTURE AND EMPIRE (The British Library, £30) by J.P. Losty and Malini Roy. Published to accompany an ongoing exhibition of the same name at the British Library, this book constitutes a selection of the British Libraryís extensive collection of illustrated manuscripts and paintings commissioned by Mughal emperors and other officials. The exquisitely decorated works span four centuries, from the foundation of the Mughal dynasty by Babur in the 16th century, through the apex of the empire in the 17th century, to its decline and ultimate collapse in the 19th century. One gets to note the style of painting subtly changing down the years as it takes into account an array of factors such as individual emperorís personal tastes, altering social realities, available materials and influences from foreign shores. A painting such as A Gilzai, showing an Afghan in a white summer dress seated on a crimson carpet, from the early 19th century, is almost naturalistic, in a clear departure from the mannerist mode of the earlier Mughal paintings. Even the lines on the manís forehead are visible, showing the artistís preference for realism.
Left is a painting from Baburnama done in April 1529. The drawing, ascribed to Khem, freezes the fervent activity taking place on Baburís boats as they arrive at the confluence of the rivers, Ganga and Gomti, on their expedition to fight Ibrahim Lodi. Seated on the second deck of his two-tiered boat, Babur notices a crocodile suddenly appearing in the waters, causing a frightened fish to jump right into one of the boats. The painting amazingly captures the stir created by the crocodile, which, with its moustache and beard, looks rather like a Chinese dragon. There is high drama again in the middle, but this time of a domestic kind, as a princess watches a maid killing a snake. In this painting (c. 1770) by Mir Kalan Khan, the faces of the three young ladies are mask-like, in contrast to the expression of almost comic alarm on the duennaís countenance.
Top right is Aurangzeb in his old age (c. 1770). The luxuriant carpets hung on the window ledge open to reveal the aged emperor in his simple white garment. With an air of abstraction, he gazes down on a manuscript, probably of the Quran. The puritanical austerity of the emperorís face in the painting lends credence to contemporary accounts of his character. Below him, on bottom right, is a courtesan painted by Mihr Chand in late 18th century. The curvaceous lady, with her coy lotus eyes, would not have looked out of place in a Kalighat pat. She could have been one of Titianís women with equal ease.