Mughal Series|The Historiography of the Study of Akbari Painting

Akbar presiding over a religious debate in the Ibadat-khana with Jesuit Fathers Rudolph Aquaviva and Francis Henriquez in the city of Fatehpur Sikri in 1578, Nar Singh, ca. 1603-05 (The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin)


The study of Mughal painting first became an interest for scholars during the colonial period in the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the interest was further enhanced by the rich collections of Mughal painting in Europe and America. The naturalism in the Mughal style gained admirations from the collectors in the West, as Pramod Chandra explained: “its relative naturalism proving fairly acceptable to early collectors and students whose preferences reflected, for the most part, the pervasiveness of Western taste at the time.”[1] Besides the pictorial quality, the foreign origin of Mughal art also made it acceptable for the colonizers to prove their cultural superiority over the Indians. Later in the twentieth century, shaped by the Western art historical approaches, interpretative frameworks for studying Mughal painting were established. Basic methodologies had been applied and became concentrations of the art historical practice in 1920s and 1930s such as connoisseurship and formal analysis. Since then, art historians had changed their interest from the European influence to the “interaction of Mughal and European art”.[2] Not only was the impact of the European style on Mughal paintings the focus, the exchange between cultures was also investigated. After the independence (1947), a nationalist art historical perspective had been widely adopted by scholars in India due to the Nehruvian modern nationalism.[3] In the 60s and 70s, scholars began to adapt the frameworks to the Mughal context. They still primarily concentrated on the style and the connoisseurship, but placed the paintings in the Mughal context in which art works were produced and appreciated. In recent decades, the contextual approach has been used by Mughal art historians. The viewpoint of studying Mughal art on its own terms is prevalent. Building context for Mughal painting is the focus of the Mughal academic society.

Focusing on the conceptual framework from the colonial era to the present, this article aims to explore the changing perspectives on the paintings produced for the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) and highlights some scholarship done by key Mughal art historians.

Collections of Akbar’s painting in the West

Mughal miniature paintings had been collected by a few European tastemakers for a long time before a huge European enthusiasm on Mughal art arose in the colonial period. Artists such as Rembrandt and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) valued Mughal art and appreciated the aesthetic qualities of the Mughal miniatures. Rembrandt is believed to have collected Mughal albums and made copies after Mughal paintings.[4] After the British took over the power in Delhi, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more Europeans found the naturalism of Mughal style matched their artistic taste, so collections by institutions and individual collectors were dramatically increased. However, the Mughal works were not studied well by the scholars in the West in the first place despite influential artists such as William Morris showed an interest in the Mughal treatment of details. They were seen as craft works rather than art works in Western aesthetics.[5]

Many manuscripts produced for Akbar had been collected by the British collectors and taken to libraries and museums in England. A notable example is the Hamzanama. Caspar Purdon Clarke, the first Keeper of the South Kensington Museum’s Indian Department, left for India in 1881 to purchase “contemporary industrial arts”.[6] In one of the wooden huts in Kashmir, Clarke bought some “large paintings” and brought them to London. Each page of the volume had two sides. Painting was on the side backed with thin paper and on the reverse of the folio text was written on the thick paper. Later, the manuscript was identified as Hamzanama, the adventure stories of Amir Hamza, the paternal uncle of the Prophet, which was produced in the early period of Mughal history. Another important acquisition collected in the nineteenth century was the Akbarnama, the illustrated chronicle of Akbar’s reign. In 1895, 273 folios held between lacquered covers were brought into the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They were purchased from Mrs. Clarke, widow of Major-General John Clarke who bought the manuscript in Oudh. After it was brought into the Museum, the miniatures were seen merely foreign illustrations. They were separated so that they could be framed and displayed in the large Indian galleries. The manuscript was not studied until 1905 the retired Indian Civil Servant, Henry Beveridge, had a chance to see the exhibition, and immediately realized that these pages depicted historical events of the third Mughal emperor, Akbar. From the artists mentioned in the text and the inscription on the first folio, he confirmed that the manuscript must be Akbarnama, the memoirs of Akbar, which belonged to Akbar’s son, emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-27). Also he pointed out that Mughal manuscripts were read from right to left, and the Museum’s numbering of the paintings was not accurate and caused confusion in understanding the narrative.[7]

Colonial Ideas

The rich collections in the West did not bring scholarly study immediately, but as Partha Mitter noted, the miniatures were seen as “objects of curiosity”.[8] Gradually, some pioneer scholars such as Vincent Smith (1848-1920) and Ernst Kühnel (1882-1964) wrote about history of Indian art which included an analysis of the Mughal style. In these first accounts of the Mughal painting, the “European influence” was the major issue, and the emphasis on Jesuit missionaries as the artistic source dominated the earliest scholarship. Resulted from the colonial distortions, the Western cultural superiority and oppositions between Hindu and Islamic culture profoundly impacted the study of Mughal painting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The overall reception of Indian art during this period was conforming to the colonial ideas. The colonial concern in the cultural and intellectual field was focusing on legitimizing the superiority of the European cultural heritage and maintaining the value of the missionaries. Mitter claims that Henry Cole and James Fergusson accepted the supremacy of classical art and considered “the highest form of Indian art was inferior to the classical”.[9] When speaking of Mughal art, the trend remained. The primary sources used by the scholars were mainly confined to documents written by Europeans such as journals, memoirs, and other historical accounts of the period. The documentations from the Mughal court, Ain-i-Akbari, Akbarnama, and Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri were not deemed as important as they should be. In his History of Fine Art in India and Ceylon (1908), Vincent Smith used the term Indo-Persian to assert that paintings created during the Mughal period were derivative, and the Mughal artists made improvements “on the foreign models in certain respects”[10] Not surprisingly, Smith considered the European art provided models for Mughals to imitate and the artists “render the modified product more easily intelligible and consonant with European taste.”[11]

Another aspect of the colonial art historical practice was the opposition between Hindu and Muslim culture. This separation was devised by the British colonizers. Historian James Mill described the “Hindu golden age” and the Muslim period as two independent historic stages in his book The History of British India (1818).[12] In most of the comprehensive accounts of Indian art history, the stereotype was employed, and the Mughal period was often excluded. This concept relied on a Hegelian idea, as Mitter explained, “art expressed the innermost spirit of a people of nation.”[13] That is to say, different ethnic groups bear different talents and produce a particular type of art containing characteristics specific to its own kind. The history of Indian art was not a cohesive one, but divided into three sections: Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic period. An example of such exclusion is Ananda Coomaraswamy’s The History of Indian and Indonesia Art (1927). He considered Mughal art was secular and naturalistic, which far different from the religious and spiritual “Indian art”.[14]

Though the scholars mentioned above did not necessarily hold a colonial biased or racist perspective when they conducted research on the Mughal paintings, some of their ideas were assimilated with the widespread Euro-American cultural superiority, and their accounts of Indian art history underlined the oppositional qualities between Hindu and Mughal art.

Western Framework

Beyond the aesthetic judgments on Mughal painting, Western art historical methodologies came to be used for establishing interpretative frameworks by some scholars such as Percy Brown (1872-1955), Hermann Goetz (1898-1976) and Ivan Stchoukine (1885-1975). A systematic study of Mughal style and artists became their concentration.

These art historians first broadened the sources they referenced in their accounts of Mughal painting. An example is that passages from Ain-i Akbari and Akbarnama, the textual documentations written by Akbar’s chronicler Abul Fazl were much quoted, so the imperial significance and the political agenda of the Mughal miniatures were justified. In his explanation of a painting created by Abd as-Samad, one of the two Iranian artists Humayun invited from Safavid Shah Tahmasp’s court, Percy Brown quoted from Akbarnama to supplement the visual analysis. Thus, the textual and visual evidence together formed his narrative of Mughal art history.

Furthermore, in his Indian Painting under the Mughals (1924), Brown evolved a methodological basis for his stylistic study of Mughal painting. He explored the Persian school by paying much attention to the visual details. He presented the sources of the Mughal style and the evolution of the style. On one painting produced during Akbar’s time, he explained:

It is an excellent illustration of the transition from the Persian to the Mughal style, and exemplifies in the most marked manner the beginnings of the fusion of the former with the indigenous art of the Hindus. In its general scheme, in its architecture, and in its decorative detail, it is essentially Persian; while in its figures, in some of the foliage, and in its atmosphere, there is much that can only be styled Rajput.[15]

Brown recognized the work of the Hindu artists in Akbar’s atelier, and he deemed it belonging to Akbar’s achievements. Though Brown discussed the impact of Persian artistic styles on Akbar’s paintings, he still emphasized “the intensely artistic nature of the Mughal emperors themselves.”[16] On the processes of artistic creation, Brown stated, “only judicious encouragement and intelligent patronage were necessary to stimulate the painters into action.”[17] According to Brown, unlike his predecessors Babur and Humayun, Akbar was able to see the capabilities of the Indian people, and set harmony in the people of India.

By studying visual form, style, textual interpretations, and patronage, art historians in the early twentieth century presented a comprehensive history of Mughal painting. The formal analysis and connoisseurship helped to establish reasoned frameworks for studying the paintings, however, they were limited when discussing Akbari painting. Different from the idea of the individual’s genius in the West, paintings created under Akbar’s reign were often products of the collaboration between chief masters and apprentices. The connoisseurship could not provide the scholars with a viewpoint to discuss the collaboration and Persian apprenticeship in Akbar’s artistic studio.

Nationalist Perspective

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, to overturn the colonial consciousness, writing Indian art history with a nationalist view took place in Bengal. To articulate the distinctiveness of Indian art was art historians’ first priority. Besides the colonial influence, the exclusion of Mughal legacy in the Indian art accounts I discussed earlier also represents a Hindu-centric nationalist view. Coomaraswamy was strongly against the invasions by Muslims and Christians. He saw Rajput painting represent the talent and taste of the original Hindu communities, and solidify the Hindu self-rule. In his Rajput Painting, he said “India was not yet governed by movable officials, ignorant if not contemptuous of all that most engages the hears and minds of the people.”[18] Additionally, in the early exhibitions in Europe, Mughal miniature paintings were defined as Persian art and exhibited along with other Persian art works. To give an example, in 1931, an international exhibition of Persian art was held at the Royal Academy in London. Many Mughal miniature paintings were included in this show.[19]

Such a sectarian view was replaced by a more inclusive conception of Indian art. Since 1930s, the idea of an Indian nation state was well defined as “a community of communities”.[20] Similarly, Art historian Ivan Stchoukine promoted the Indianness of Mughal painting. He first presented the indigenous nature of the Mughal style, and then rejected the opposition between Hindu and Muslim culture made by the previous and contemporary scholars. He said: “I can affirm its unity and its profane essence by rejecting its division into two opposite groups, the (profane) Mughal school and the (religious) Rajput school, a division which has dominated until now the history of art.”[21] Followed the formalist approach, he saw the Iranian and European influence were successfully assimilated with the Indian components and became the secondary. Therefore, in his Indian art narrative, Mughal art is essentially Indian in form, and Indian painting has a cohesive history which indicates its unity in style.

After the independence, Nehru’s nationalism was to make India modern and unique. For him, art should be appreciated for the sake of life. In the inauguration of the National Art Exhibition at Lucknow in 1945, he said: “art if it does not spring up from the strength of our nation is a lifeless art.”[22] Under the influence of Nehruvian nationalism, the unity of Indian art persisted in the writing of Indian art history. From November 1947 to Februray 1948, the “Exhibition of art chiefly from the dominions of India and Pakistan, 2400 BC to 1947 AD” was held at the Royal Academy in London and from November to the end of December 1948, it was moved to Government House in Delhi. In this grand exhibition, two versions of Akbarnama were on display and gained positive reception from the audience. The Indianness of Mughal painting was widely accepted by the scholars attended the exhibition. J. V. S. Wilkinson remarked that the differences between Mughal and Rajput painting “are not fundamental … both exhibit the same technical traits.”[23]

In recent decades, the nationalist perspective is still maintained in the field of Mughal study. John Richards asserted in his The Mughal Empire that “The Dynasty and the empire became indisputably Indian … the interests and future of all concerned were in India, not in ancestral homelands in the Middle East or Central Asia … the Mughal Empire emerged from the Indian historical experience.”[24] With such a singular perspective, many components in Mughal art would be not sufficiently explored, so new trends need to be brought in.

Contextual Approach

Apart from the visual forms and stylistic tradition, the context in which Mughal miniatures were produced and appreciated has become art historians’ biggest interest since 1960s. Being aware of the limits of the connoisseurship, scholars built interpretative framework adapted to the Mughal context. Ebba Koch is an important scholar who used the contextual approach to interpret Mughal art. In order to bring new insights into the imperial Mughal art, Koch combined “purely art-historical methods, such as the analysis of forms, with the information generated from literary sources.”[25]

On Akbar’s painting, general surveys such as The Art of Mughal India (1963) by Stuart Cary Welch were published, however, more academic research was devoted to major imperial manuscripts and artists during Akbar’s reign. Pramod Chandra’s study of Tutinama or tales of a parrot in 1976 focused on a single manuscript created in Akbar’s early period. A monograph on V&A’s Akbarnama by Geeti Sen was published in 1984, which provided with substantial sources and high quality of images.

From the viewpoint of Akbar, investigations on his administrative reforms and the artistic environment at his court gave new models of interpretations on Akbari painting. In 1985, a multidisciplinary symposium on Akbar’s capital of Fatehpur Sikri was held at Harvard University’s Sackler Museum. By interpreting the city of Fatehpur-Sikri as an intellectual and artistic center, Michael Brand and Glenn Lowry explored “the effect of Akbar’s patronage on both arts of the book and the decorative arts,”[26] and investigated “Akbar’s personality and the Mughal culture into which he was born by focusing on the critical years he spent at Fatehpur-Sikri.”[27] Through examining Akbar’s social and cultural experiments at Fatehpur-Sikri, the context that shaped the paintings at that time was revealed. The political and cultural goals that motivated Akbar’s patronage of paintings were then discussed. They explored “Emperor’s great interest in his family’s past … Akbar’s adherence to traditional Islamic concepts of kingship … emperor’s character and grandiose ambitions”[28] to demonstrate Akbar’s political and spiritual authority within his paintings.

From the colonial period to the present, the art historical concerns on Mughal paintings have been changed a lot. In recent years, an integrative approach has been adopted by most Mughal art historians. They blended cultural context, textual interpretations, imperial ideology, art styles and symbolism together to disclose the inner meaning of Mughal art. This inclusive method will bring a more extended scope for the discipline, and lead to a deeper understanding of the meanings in Akbar’s painting.

[1]Pramod Chandra, On the Study of Indian Art (Cambridge, Mass: Published for the Asia Society, by Harvard University Press, 1983), 86.

[2]Parul Pandya Dhar, Indian Art History: Changing Perspectives (New Delhi: D.K. Printworld and National Museum Institute, 2011), 174.

[3] Devika Singh, “Indian Nationalist Art History and the Writing and Exhibiting of Mughal Art,” Art History 36 no. 5 (2013): 1044.

[4] John Michael Montias, Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2002), 184.

[5] William Morris “extolled the treatment of the trees, foliage, and flowering plants, recommending them as excellent studies for tapestry and wall-paper design. See Susan Stronge, Painting for the Mughal Emperor: The Art of the Book, 1560-1660 (London: V&A Publications, 2002), 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stronge, Painting for the Mughal Emperor: The Art of the Book, 1560-1660, 38.

[8] Partha Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters: History of European Reactions to Indian Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), vii.

[9] Ibid., 256.

[10] Vincent Arthur Smith, A History of Fine Art in India and Ceylon: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), 450,

[11] Ibid., 468.

[12] Javed Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill’s the History of British India and Orientalism (Oxford [England]: Clarendon Press, 2001), 20-25.

[13] Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters, 260.

[14] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Rajput Painting (London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1916), 31,

[15] Percy Brown, Indian Painting Under the Mughals A.D. 1550 to A.D. 1750 (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1975), 57.

[16] Ibid., 49.

[17] Ibid., 58.

[18] Coomaraswamy, Rajput Painting, 82.

[19] Arnold Talbot Wilson, Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Persian Art; Patrons: His Majesty the King, His Majesty Rizā Shāh Pahlavi (London: Office of the Exhibition [Printed by Gee & Co, 1931), 288-346,

[20] Vrajendra Raj Mehta and Thomas Pantham, Political Ideas in Modern India: Thematic Explorations (Thousands Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, 2006), 167.

[21] Singh, “Indian Nationalist Art History and the Writing and Exhibiting of Mughal Art,” 1050.

[22] Jawaharlal Nehru and Jagat S. Bright, Important Speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru: A Collection of Most Significant Speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru (Delhi: Library Book Centre, 1988), 23.

[23] Richard Winstedt and H. G. Rawlinson, Indian Art (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), 141.

[24] John Richards, The Mughal Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 2.

[25] Ebba Koch, Mughal Art and Imperial Ideology: Collected Essays (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), xxiii.

[26] Michael Brand and Glenn D Lowry, Fatehpur-Sikri: Selected Papers from the International Symposium on Fatehpur-Sikri (Bombay: Published by J.J. Bhabha for Marg Publications, 1987), 94.

[27] Michael Brand and Glenn D. Lowry, Akbar’s India: Art from the Mughal City of Victory (New York: Asia Society Galleries, 1985), 11.

[28] Ibid.

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