AT the peak of their power in the mid-17th century, the great Mughals were the richest and most powerful Islamic dynasty. They ruled over 100 million subjects five times the number commanded by their only rivals, the Ottomans. From the ramparts of the Delhi Red Fort, the seat of power, Shah Jahan the emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal controlled almost all of India, the whole of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as much of Afghanistan. The Mughals held the latter, then known as Khorasan, more successfully than any other invader, before or since.
For their impoverished contemporaries in the distant west, floundering in their codpieces and doublets, the Mughals became symbols of power, sophistication, luxury and might in Paradise Lost, for example, the cities of Mughal India are revealed to Adam after the fall as future wonders of God’s creation. These are attributes with which the word “mogul” is still loaded 400 years later: when someone writes today of a Hollywood or real estate mogul, they are unwittingly recalling the impression the Mughals made on our befuddled Elizabethan ancestors.
Sooner or later, all empires fall, and by the beginning of the 18th century, just as the British were beginning to make their presence felt on the coasts and seaports of India, the political power of the Mughals had begun to fall apart in the most spectacular fashion. As the provinces broke off one by one, the imperial capital of Delhi descended into violent chaos. Three emperors were murdered, while one of them, Farrukhsiyar, was imprisoned and starved, then later blinded with a hot needle and strangled; the mother of another ruler was throttled while the father of a third was forced off a precipice on his elephant.
It has long been believed that the art and architecture of the Mughals followed a similar trajectory to their political fortunes: that from the triumphs of the period of Shah Jahan, notably the great Padshahnama (subject of a spectacular exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London, in 1997), Mughal art rapidly declined. Shah Jahan’s puritanical son, the emperor Aurangzeb, is often said to have disbanded the imperial painting atelier, and later emperors were assumed to have failed to muster either the resources, or the energy, to restore it. Successive sackings of Delhi by Persian and Afghan invaders, the coming of the colonial British, followed finally by the arrival of photography, have traditionally been seen to have dealt the final death blows to the Mughal miniature tradition.
Today few specialists would hold with such a bald version of events, but it certainly remains true that the art of the later Mughals remains under-studied and under-appreciated. This is one reason why, over the past five years, the art historian Yuthika Sharma and I have been sourcing and putting together the first ever exhibition of late Mughal art, aiming to showcase the neglected masterpieces of this fascinating transitional period and to provide a taste of the strength, colour, and vivacity of the work produced in the Mughal capital at this time. The result, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857, opened recently at the Asia Society in New York.
The show is part of a much wider reassessment of the later Mughal period that has been going on for some time. It is now recognised that despite its political decline, Delhi remained a major artistic and cultural centre for 150 years after its military and economic power had ebbed, and despite diminished resources, the later emperors continued to patronise remarkable artists and poets with Medici-like discrimination.
One of the first exhibits shows the longest surviving sovereign of the age, the Emperor Muhammad Shah II, 1719-48 (called Rangila, the Merrymaker), playing during Holi, the Bacchanalian Hindu spring festival of colours. The painting, by Bhupali Singh, dates from about 1737, less than three decades after the death of Aurangzeb, yet already we have moved as far as can be imagined from the joyless world of the puritan Mughal. A Muslim emperor joins in a Hindu festival, throwing colour bombs at his favourite courtesan, Gulab Bai, as female musicians play tablas and sarangis and the court dissolves into a riot of bright yellows, purples, oranges and inferno reds.
Muhammad Shah, depicted by Bhupali Singh as an eye-shadow-wearing dandy, was the longest surviving sovereign of the age. He seems to have survived by the simple ruse of giving up any pretence of ruling: in the morning he watched partridge and elephant fights; in the evenings he was entertained by jugglers, ventriloquists and mime artists; he was often dressed in a lady’s peshwaz and pearl-embroidered shoes. But while presiding over the decline of Mughal political power, Muhammad Shah also proved to be a discerning patron, employing such master artists as Nidha Mal (active 1735-75) and Chitarman (active 1715-1760), whose masterworks show bucolic scenes of court life, Diwali firework parties alive with sprinklers and rockets, hunting and hawking, etc.
Again and again the artists of the period return to the idyll of the Mughal pleasure garden, a hint of escapism, perhaps in reaction to violent reality. There is a direct parallel to the spirit of Restoration London: after the chill of Cromwell’s Commonwealth in England, with the theatres closed and festivities banned, society reacted to the enforced puritanism by heading in the opposite direction. In Delhi this was, for example, the age of the great poet-courtesans: Ad Begum would turn up at parties without dress, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice: “She decorates her legs with beautiful drawings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them.”
In addition to re-establishing the imperial painting atelier, Muhammad Shah presided over a cultural and intellectual renaissance, as Delhi’s scholars, mystics, musicians, poets and painters increased in fame as fast as its military fortunes diminished, and the city was enlivened by a culture of coffee houses and literary salons.
By arrangement with Guardian