Monday, April 16, 2012

A Brief History of Visual Contextualization in India: Mughal Art

Christ as Salvator Mundi, 17th century.

Continuing with my series on visual contextualization in Indian art, I'll now turn to a another chapter in India's art history: Mughal Art.  The Mughal Empire was an Islamic ruling power in India from 1526-1858, although its "classic period" lasted from 1556-1707.  At its height, it controlled most of India, and parts of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.  Besides trusty Wikipedia, I also will also be referring to Crossing Cultural Frontiers: Biblical Themes in Mughal Paintings by Som Prakash Verma (or more information about the book, see Amazon).

Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan
with their Ministers, 1630-31.
Although Akbar the Great officially remained a Muslim all of his life, his reign was characterized by a great tolerance towards the myriad of religions throughout his empire.  This moderate atmosphere was inspired by the policies of local rulers at the time, as well as by contemporary saints of various religions.  Along with the Persian poet Hafez, these men "advocated human sympathy and a liberal outlook" (Wikipedia).  In addition, Akbar's childhood tutors reinforced these progressive ideas to him during his upbringing.  Akbar eventually turned this liberal outlook into an official policy, called the Sulh-e-Kul (or Peace to All) concept of Sufism, which resulted in the integration of
many Hindus into high positions in the administration, and removed restrictions on non-Muslims, thereby bringing about a composite and diverse character to the nobility. As a mark of his respect for all religions, [Akbar] ordered the observance of all religious festivals of different communities in the imperial court (Wikipedia)

Akbar's interest in spirituality inspired his building of
a hall called the Ibadat Khana ("House of Worship") at Fatehpur Sikri, to which he invited theologians, mystics and selected courtiers renowned for their intellectual achievements and discussed matters of spirituality with them. These discussions, initially restricted to Muslims, were acrimonious and resulted in the participants shouting at and abusing each other. Upset by this, Akbar opened the Ibadat Khana to people of all religions as well as atheists, resulting in the scope of the discussions broadening and extending even into areas such as the validity of the Quran and the nature of God (Wikipedia).

 Akbar the Great holds a religious assembly
in the Ibadat Khana, c. 1605. The two men
dressed in black are Jesuit missionaries.
The participants in these discussions included Portugese Jesuit priests.  Akbar showed a deep interest in the secular and liturgical paintings of the Portugese, having already acquired several European Christian and Muslim paintings before their first visit to his court in 1580 (10).  These paintings embodied the artistic values of the Renaissance, an intellectual, religious and scientific movement in Europe that stressed a return to the values of ancient Greece and Rome through rigorous study of the humanities.  Renaissance painters (such as Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo and Raphael) responded artistically by combining these classical values with emerging scientific knowledge, resulting in the development and use of linear perspective, three-dimensional shading (chiaroscuro) and scientific realism.  The artists' motivation "was a renewed desire to depict the beauty of nature, and to unravel the axioms of aesthetics" (Wikipedia).

The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child
with Cross in the Couds. ca. 1595-1600.
Akbar greatly admired this form of art, and promoted its imitation to his court artists.  A possible motivation was his interest in exploring both the internal as well as the external characteristics of an animal or person, and in so doing portray its psychological characteristics as well as producing an accurate appearance.

This scientific realism adopted from Renaissance art was a bold departure from previous Indian and Persian forms of painting, both of which employed a flat style that showed little (if any) shading of figures, or depth of space.  And although some individual Mughal artists did achieve a comparable level of artistic realism with that of Renaissance artists, most were limited by a lack of exposure to Renaissance humanism's rigorous commitment to scientific observation and principles.  As a result, Mughal painting in general never achieved the same degree of realism found in European paintings.

Kerala Wall Mural.

But there was a religious reason for this difference as well.  For Indian artists (especially Hindus and Buddhists), painting was "entirely based on symbolism... for the Hindu ideal was to find what was universal, rather than particular, in a world of impermanence and illusion.  The Mughal concern for objective distinctness and human individuality was therefore a radical shift from within both Islamic and Indian traditions" (Havell and Beach, as quoted in Verma, p. 17-18).  So Indian artists were interested in depicting the spiritual realm beyond literal reality, and therefore didn't show as much interest in accurately reproducing the physical world.

The Crucifixion, c. 1590.
Verma writes that Akbar had a deep respect for the Christian Bible, including the Gospels.  He quotes Father Pierre du Jarric who chronicled that the Jesuits
presented to [Akbar] all the volumes of the Royal Bible... The king received these holy books with great reverence, taking each into his hand one after the other and kissing it, after which he placed it on his head, which, amongst these people, signifies honour and respect... Afterwards he inquired which of these books contained the Gospels; and when it was pointed out to him, he looked at it very intently, kissed it at a second time, and placed it as before on his head... The Fathers also presented him with two beautiful portraits, one representing [Christ], the other [Mary]... The King took the portrait of our Saviour in his hands with great reverence, and before putting it down kissed it, and made his children, and several of his courtiers who were present, do the same (25).

Akbar gave the Jesuits a stipend, as well as the freedom to establish churches and win converts from among the populace.  But unfortunately for the Jesuits, Akbar's reverence for the Bible and respect for them did not mean that he was interested in becoming a Christian.  He maintained that the Qur'an was the pure word of God, and also rejected the concept of the Trinity (25).  Akbar did, like the Jesuits, hold Jesus and the Virgin Mary in high regard, as does the Qur'an.  In the end, the Jesuits sent three different "missions" to the Mughal court during Akbar's reign, but each left disappointed in achieving his conversion.

Mughal court scene, 18th century.  Note the images of
Jesus and Mary behind the ruler, probably Jahangir.

Akbar's son and grandson, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, kept in place Akbar's policy of Sulh-i kul, as well an interest in European art.  Jahangir continued Akbar's habit of decorating royal buildings with European and Mughal paintings of Biblical people and scenes, including at his royal palaces at Agra, Lahore and Ajmer, as well as on the curtain walls of his royal camp (34, 35).  In spite of these private displays of sacred art, Jahangir, like his father, maintained his devotion to Islam, feeling uncomfortable with the divinity of Christ as well as Christianity's insistence on a man having only one wife.  His interest in religion was apparently more light-hearted than his father's, as
it amused him to listen to the disputes between his Mullas and the Fathers, just as it amused him to watch a fencing match or a cock-fight... If Jahangir sided with [the Jesuits] in their disputes, it was mainly for the pleasure of shocking his Mullas, and showing his own knowledge and skill in debate; while he prized the sacred pictures which the Fathers gave him, not, as they fondly imagined, out of veneration for the subjects represented, but because he had a passion for the works of art and curios of all kinds, and especially for pictures... (33).

Jahangir holding a picture
of the Madonna,  1620.

Jahangir's son, Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal), continued producing miniature paintings in the tradition of his father and grandfather, but placed a greater emphasis on the idealization of portraits, along with "striking ornamentation, brilliant colour effect and plentiful details.  As a result of it, the humanistic elements, viz., naturalism and psychological insight evidenced in Jahangiri paintings, became inconspicuous... Pratapaditya Pal sums up Shah Jahan's phase of painting thus: 'Style rather than substance, outward appearance rather than inner character, decorative exuberance rather than restraint, technial virtuosity rather than spontaneous expressiveness are some of the salient features of Shah Jahani painting'" (15).

Shah Jahan with Asaf Khan,  c. 1650.
Mughal painting during Jahangir's and Shah Jahan's reigns incorporated European Christian symbols of divinity into their royal portraits.  These symbols included halos, cherubs, putties, angels, orbs and terrestrial globes, lions and lambs (or pairs of similar animals), and (during Shah Jahan's reign) even God the Father.  These symbols were used in part to suggest that the rule of the Mughal kings emanated from God himself.  In one portrait of Shah Jahan and his father-in-law Asaf Khan, God the Father hovers among the clouds, shining the light of heaven down onto Shah Jahan's head.  Above Shah Jahan is a dove representing the Holy Spirit.  In effect, the artist has portrayed Shah Jahan in the place of Christ, as part of the Trinity (69)!

One visual motif from India's pre-Mughal past that was incorporated into Mughal painting was the use of size differentiation, in which the Mughal kings were portrayed as larger than others in the painting in order to emphasize their status.  This was also used in the Ajanta cave paintings in portrayals of Buddha and Bodhisattvas (to show their divine grandeur), as well as with human rulers to show their status.

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