This book is the revised and expanded edition of the 1981 edition of The Imperial Image by Milo Beach which focused on Freer Gallery collections produced for the Mughal Emperors ruling between 1560 and 1640. Since 1981 much new information has been discovered and published on Mughal painting. Beach, a connoisseur and highly acclaimed critic of Mughal art, presents in the revised edition several new acquisitions in the Freer Gallery of Art and adds many extraordinary and magnificent works that entered the collection with the opening of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 1987. For more than a century, since 1907, when Charles Lang Freer purchased his first set of Mughal paintings and manuscripts, the Freer Gallery of Art and subsequently the Sackler Gallery have expanded the Asian art collections in Washington. Sackler Gallery, before its inauguration, had acquired invaluable Islamic paintings assembled by the French jeweller Henri Vever.
The Freer and Sackler Galleries represent unrivalled resources for the study and exhibition of Mughal paintings and are perhaps among the world’s leading institutions for Mughal art. The imperial origin of these paintings has especially fostered research on the relationships between the artists and their patrons. This new revised publication is the first to integrate and bring together the collections of the two Galleries.
The Introduction is an exhaustive and an in-depth evaluation of the Mughal art of the book and an analytical understanding of the contributions of the different Mughal emperors in this sphere. Talking about the invaluable importance of the books that represented wealth, power and intelligence in Mughal India, Beach suggests that they were considered precious objects for the material and time that went into their preparation apart from being coveted spoils of war and ceremonial presentations. They also formed a valuable part of the escheat viz., when the noble died all his possessions passed to the emperor; the latter at his discretion chose to retain what he wished to, the rest was returned to the family. Badaoni in his Munthakabu-t-Tawarikh tells us about Shaikh Faizi’s library that had 4,600 volumes and on his death they were transferred to the King’s library after being catalogued and numbered. Badaoni’s information is an important observation on a major library of a noble as compared to that of Akbar, which comprised 24,000 books at his death in 1605. Such details speak of the literary and artistic tastes of the Mughal aristocracy.
Beach provides valuable information on the library of the Mughal emperors and the artists and the artisans who worked there and copied, bound and embellished the texts. Akbar, for instance, supervised the works personally. The works of the painters were displayed before the Emperor every week by the darogahs and the clerks and Akbar rewarded the artists according to their workmanship and even increased their monthly salaries. Analysing the nature of workmanship, Beach observes that certain artists specialized in an art form, such as battle or court scenes, portraits or animal studies. Although the names of many artists were known, it was a small group of artists who created designs and illustrations in any one volume. Also, generally the painters worked for specific patrons. Commenting on the reasons for maintaining a library and how it evolved, Beach suggests that by late 1590s when the Mughal Empire had consolidated, the Emperor no longer needed a library as a symbol of political and dynastic power, instead he concentrated on its refinement. Moreover, the author says, the imperial tastes had increasingly become epicurean; the output of the manuscripts had reduced and the illustrations became fewer but finer. The increased wealth and stability, observes Beach, facilitated the import of finest materials like papers, pigments or brushes from wherever they were available. These not only equipped the artists but also gave them greater control over their work and enhanced the subtlety of the visual effects. For instance, the refinements of the later Akbarnama could not have been achieved in the 1560s when Hamzanama was painted. Pointing towards the stylistic developments of the Mughal tradition, Beach observes that they were the result of several factors, not the least interesting of which were the personalities and tastes of the royal patrons.
Giving an exhaustive account of the contributions of the Mughal emperors and their brief biography, Beach talks of the interests of Babur and Humayun in natural history although, he says, it is difficult to establish the style of painting of these works since none of these early works are extant. However, he says, Babur must have patronized painters though there are no corroborating evidences from either Kabul, where he had a lively court or India. Humayun too must have established a workshop in the earlier part of his reign before his visit to Persia. Beach, however, suggests the availability of several illustrations in a ‘transplanted’ Safavid style which can be dated to roughly after 1550, when Humayun may have cultivated interest in painting as a symbol of power subsequent to his visit to the Safavid court of Shah Tahmasp. It was after Humayun’s return from exile in Persia in 1555 that the Safavid style was firmly established as the basic element of Mughal painting.
By early 1560s Akbar had introduced such traditions and attitudes in the Mughal court that became a part of the evolving Mughal court style. He demonstrated deep inclination and support for a variety of Indian forms, colours and techniques that he found different and exciting. He also, as is well known, challenged the traditional Islamic artistic, religious, political attitudes and introduced new concepts from other cultural traditions including the hiring of artists from local artistic workshops from India. This distinct attitude of Akbar, argues Beach, not only facilitates the understanding of Akbar’s early years but also explains their influence on the development of the Mughal style in painting and architecture. For instance, the ‘vital intermingling of styles and spaces’ in the city at Fatehpur Sikri constructed between 1569 and 1585 and an architectural equivalent of the mammoth Hamzanama project was initiated by Akbar during this period to copy and illustrate (with fourteen hundred paintings) one of Akbar’s favourite adventure stories. Akbar’s encounter with the Europeans in 1572 during the campaign in Gujarat and also subsequently had a tremendous impact on the artistic traditions of the time. Akbar was so intrigued and impressed by European prints and paintings that he ordered his artists to undertake their indepth study and copy them. Akbar’s liberal, eclectic mind had led him to establish the Translation Bureau at Fatehpuri Sikri, the significant outcome of it were the Persian translations of Mahabharat (called Razmnamah) and Ramayana.
Yet another development came in 1589 when Akbar commissioned Abu’l Fazl to write an official chronicle, the Akbarnama, based on the sources and texts in the Record Office (established in 1574). These later manuscript projects, states Beach, are a remarkable evidence of Akbar’s greater maturity and his new interest in the rational and historically verifiable and indicate the evolution beyond the Tutinama or Hamzanama that demonstrate the Emperor’s inclination towards the legendary and the fantastic. In the latter phase of his reign, Akbar’s obsession with the recording of historical events was accompanied by his preoccupation with the development of portraiture, different from the earlier Hindu and Islamic portraits i.e., they drifted away from the generalized and metaphorical references and instead focused on capturing the specific appearance and personality of the subjects—completely contrary to the traditional Islamic practice. In other words, Beach tells us that Akbar’s artistic style was ‘untraditional’ during this period; also, the Mughal library and workshops were active, productive and innovative; there was more technical control, brilliance of surface and miniatures, which reemphasized the Iranian roots of the Mughal paintings.
Through the 1590s, Beach informs us, the mature manuscripts of Akbar’s reign were created by a constant community of artists. However, the change set in with the end of Basawan’s (master artist of Akbar’s period) career after 1600. These young artists, nonetheless, could respond to Jahangir’s specific demands and aesthetic sense.
Moreover, the presence of Aqa Riza, an Iranian émigré and his disciples gave a particular Iranian orientation to Jahangir’s workshops that were quite distinct from the imperial studios. Beach describes an important album of Jahangir’s period, five pages of which are available in the Freer Gallery of Art. The album, he says, is an evidence of the Emperor’s eclecticism and aesthetic tastes and shows the influence of Deccani, Mughal, Persian and Turkish paintings and drawings and European prints. While Jahangir closely supervised the painters like Akbar, he was also known for his connoisseurship and recognition of artists’ personal styles. Unlike Akbar, Jahangir commissioned many portraits of himself. By 1615 a new element entered portraiture viz., the portraits now contained allegorical and symbolic references, such as the globe upon which Jahangir places his feet in a portrait painted by Abu’l Hasan. Mughal allegorical portraits, observes Beach, also based their concepts on general English prototypes. The portraits that Jahangir commissioned reveal his deep interest in people and scientific inclination in the appearance and character of the natural world. The major manuscript of the period, worked upon from 1612 to 1627 i.e. the end of Jahangir’s reign, was the Jahangirnama, the illustrated version of the emperor’s memoirs. Beach suggests that only dispersed pages of it are available and it may even be that ultimately they were never placed in a bound copy. Apart from this, he says, there is a considerable uncertainty around the dating and authenticity of several possible pages.
The paintings of Shahjahan’s period reveal an innovative trend, although Beach suggests that it was a continuation of Jahangiri naturalism, particularly portraiture and represented more traditional aspects. The albums of Shahjahan are an evidence of it especially since the production of manuscripts had declined during his period. He had commissioned immaculate portraits of himself that showed him to be a stiff, formal individual. Commenting on the nature and character of Shahjahani albums, Beach observes that as compared to Akbar and Jahangir, Shahjahan had neither eclectic tastes nor intellectual voraciousness though he was obsessed with imperial splendour. He fostered a style that was technically faultless, highly perceptive and painted with alarming self-confidence. The Portrait of Abd al-Rahim Khan Khanan by Hashim (one of his great artists) is a unique example of this style. The momentum of established practice of art continued under Aurangzeb but with a difference. With declining patronage to the artists, the style became simpler, it lacked visual richness, complexity and surface opulence that was basic to the paintings of his predecessors. Says Beach, there was now less distinction between the works of his artists and those made for the patrons elsewhere in India.
Evaluating the Mughal manuscripts and albums in a broad context, Beach talks about other related traditions like the Deccani and Rajput art and also ‘subimperial’ culture (of the smaller courts). Each of these maintained their own cultural identities and interrelationships. And even as the influence of the Mughal court weakened, they continued the artistic traditions that were initially pioneered and consolidated by the Mughals and also undertook the copying of earlier imperial images.
However, some historical details that Beach provides as a part of the Emperors’ biography, particularly Akbar’s, are difficult to absorb, for instance, that ‘Akbar had never wholly accepted Islam’ or that ‘Akbar issued the Decree of Infallibility giving himself extraordinary powers in the interpretation of Islamic doctrine’ or his reference to Din-i-Ilahi as a ‘synthetic religious system’. These suggestions are controversial and debatable and the research by scholars has proved them otherwise.
The volume, nonetheless, is an invaluable contribution to the study of Mughal imperial painting. The value of the book is further enhanced by the brief biographies of the artists and an extensive bibliography. The Catalogue Section is magnificent and enchanting with full-colour illustrations. The colourful and intricate details of these folios are absolutely splendid and enlivening. A wonderful and a pleasing exercise in Mughal history!
Meena Bhargava is Associate Professor in the Department of History, Indraprastha College, University of Delhi, Delhi.