Mughal Series|Utopian Visions In Mughal Painting [B]

Mughal painting as a heterotopic space

In theory, Mughal emperors pursued a policy of religious tolerance and openness to non-shari’a religious ideas, however, an opposite tendency contesting the inclusive tradition was always present. Scholar Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi was one of the opponents against the imperial policy. He insisted the necessity of attack upon the heterodox and the non-Muslim. He criticized Akbar in his letters to the notables and students.[40] When Jahangir ascended the throne, the tension was accelerated by the emperor prisoning Sirhindi. A more critical viewpoint was from theologian Bada’uni. He was strongly opposed to Hindu and Shia sect. In his Muntakhab at-tawarikh, his charge against Akbar’s religious innovation was severe. Plus, in the court, far from harmony and stability, wars of succession happened in every transition of Mughal power, and the imperial power of the rulers were constantly challenged. For example, rivalry between prince Salim and his son Khusrau last from the time of Akbar to Salim’s accession as emperor Jahangir. In the hope of succeeding his grandfather’s throne, Khusrau initiated a rebellion in 1606. Overall, conflicts and oppositions were present throughout the history of Mughal Empire. The utopian visions were brought by the non-shari’a oriented Mughal rulers and partially realized, but cannot be fully achieved.

In such a context, the manuscript painting served as a heterotopic space where an apparent attempt at Mughal utopia was represented. Foucault presented the notion of heterotopia first in a lecture in 1967 pointing out that some places interrupt or subvert the ordinary everyday space, literally “other places”.[41] Heterotopic sites are the actual spaces of difference in which the utopia is effectively enacted. Heterotopic sites are present in every culture, Foucault writes, they can have multiple or changing functions; they can bring together several incompatible things as a microcosm; they can juxtapose time across time or enclose time in an immobile place.[42] In short, heterotopia are spaces of alternative spatial and social relations where difference is both encountered and ordered.[43]

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3. School Scene. Attributed to Mir Sayyid Ali, ca.1540

First, within the space of Mughal manuscript painting, a high degree of cultural interaction and diffusion took place. Stylistically speaking, the constantly evolved Mughal artistic style was a blending of charming aspects of Persian, indigenous Indian, European and Chinese traditions. The production of Mughal painting began in the period of Humayun. In 1540, the emperor was challenged by Afghani leaders and chased into exile in Safavid dynasty. During Humayun’s exile in the court of Safavid Shah Tahmasp of Iran, he enjoyed the paintings and Iranian artistic style.[44] When he regained the throne in India, he assembled his own manuscript workshop and invited two of Shah Tahmasp’s artists, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd as-Samad back to his court. The arrival of the Iranian painters brought the Persian artistic techniques. Also, the artists made the Persian style dominant in the Mughal court painting. In School Scene (fig. 3), for example, Mir Sayyid Ali employed the Iranian artistic techniques, and painted according to Iranian taste. The descriptive manner was not only for the narrative purpose, but also reflected the Iranian artist’s great attention to detail. Without a central episode, every narrative portion here gained an adequate visual interest. The use of generic faces and the emphasis on architectural elements are prominent. A similar tradition was found in Safavid Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama or book of kings. The enthronement scene The Shah’s Wise Men Approve Zal’s Marriage (fig. 4) shows the miniaturist technique in describing the tiled surfaces and painted walls. The small-scale figures with generic faces were not able to inform the audience their identities. The intensely controlled use of line in a two-dimensional space served for the abstraction of the image. Apart from the Persian taste, the local Indian style was represented in another early manuscript, Tutinama or tales of a parrot. A painting (fig. 5) from it seems show a very different style from that of School Scene. The great use of red and earthy tones, protruding eyes, stylized patterning, and the profiles are comparable to the artistic tradition of Krishna Defeats the Demon Whirwind (fig. 6).

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4. The Shah’s Wise Men Approve Zal’s Marriage, Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, attributed to Abd al-Aziz, ca. 1525-30
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5. A painting from Tutinama, Ziya al-Din Nakhshabi, ca. 1560
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6. Krishna Defeats the Demon Whirwind. From a Bhagavata Purana series, probably Delhi area, ca. 1540

The synthesis of various styles emerged during the period of Akbar. The production of the painting was supervised by the workshop directors to make sure the uniformity in style. The artists employed from local and distant book-making workshops transformed their styles to conform to the direction of assimilation. Akbar Receiving Prisoners of War from Gujarat (fig. 7) though shows the scene is grounded on the earth with a lot of descriptive attention to the architectural structures, the faces are no longer generic, because every figure is very well represented. A realism derived from European artistic tradition is revealed through the lively hand gestures and accurate depiction of Fatehpur Sikri.[45] The painter has created an effect of perspective with palatial construction in the distant smaller than the hall where Akbar is seated. The perspective leads the attention of the audience undoubtedly toward Akbar. The artists used both the earthy tones and otherworldly colors here, and distributed the colors rationally. In a painting created for Emperor Shah Jahan Shah Jahan Hunting Antelope (fig. 8), Naturalism is apparently shown throughout the page. The depiction of landscape is incorporated into the narrative. The trees and bushes cover the hunting ground, and the sky, is distant and colorful. The hillock scheme is used by the artist to create a continuous wide vista, and a depth from foreground to the distant.[46] Emperors’ interest together with the arrival of European prints inspired the Mughal painters to adopt the naturalistic method. Therefore, the artistic style of Mughal painting evolved from experiments of various styles to a unified and distinctive synthesized style.[47]

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7. Akbar Receiving Prisoners of War from Gujarat (right half), Husayn Naqqash and Kesu, ca, 1596
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8. Shah Jahan Hunting Antelope, Padashanama, ca. 1645

The cultural acceptance was also manifested in the imperial book production and collection. Here not only the individual manuscript page, but the books altogether served as a heterotopic space to practice the idealistic vision on perfect kingship. The books attributable to Mughal patrons were numerous in quantity and diverse in subjects. In Akbar’s library, paintings on the story of Darab, the grandfather of Alexander the Great were produced; Persian moral tales, the Gulistan were carefully depicted; the artists were ordered to paint for the great Indian epics Mahabharata[48] and Ramayana; historical manuscripts such as Baburnama and the Chingiznama were illustrated. Mughal emperors did not simply make their own copies of books; they acquired illustrated manuscripts as many as they can, and passed on to the successors. The most famous book Mughals collected is the Shahnama prepared for Prince Muhammad Juki around 1440. It was among the Mughals’ most prized treasures.[49] The flyleaf (fig. 9) contains seals and autograph inscriptions of Babur, Humayun, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb. Though Akbar’s seal is not on the page, it is no doubt that he valued the book an exceptional.[50]

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9. The flyleaf of Shahnama, ca. 1440-45

Second, the production of the painting to a great extent reflected the cooperation and discipline among the artists in kitabkhana, which served as a heterotopic site where Mughals enacted alternative social orders and practices. The kitabkhana was a multi-functional place in Mughal court. It served as both a library for preserving imperial collection of books, and a book-making workshop. In early period, the painters worked in teams by using an assembly-line approach to produce book illustrations quickly.[51] The chief artist was responsible for the design, and the apprentices worked on coloring. One example of the communal method in producing an illustrated manuscript was the Hamzanama (fig. 10) began in 1562 for emperor Akbar. As the first major artistic project commissioned by the newly enthroned ruler, a great deal of workmanship was thrown into the production. Fifty painters recruited from Iran and India worked together on visualizing the adventure story of Amir Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad.[52] About one hundred craftsmen were employed on the project. The materials not immediately available in India were brought abroad. The artists obtained zinc white pigments from Kashgar, and from Samarkand they bought the finest papers.[53]

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10. A king Beheaded a Demoness, Hamzanama, ca.1562-1577
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11. Akbar Hunts Near Lahore and Hamid Bakari is Punished, Akbarnama, Miskina and Sarwan, ca. 1590-1595

Third, the imagined topology of Mughal utopia was represented in the painted space. The painted realm was functioned as a microcosm bringing various aspects of the utopian vision together. It can be seen as “a parcel of the world and then the totality of the world”.[54] In Akbar Hunts Near Lahore (fig. 11), the emperor is shown at the prominent center fiercely chasing his game. It is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the horse riding and hunting skills of an individual in a war-like qamargha or ring hunt. As the one who is able to hunt in the most dangerous hunting style, Akbar’s strength and bravery are clearly depicted. Meanwhile, the ability of removing the threats and disciplining nature is visible. By possessing these qualities, emperor Akbar becomes the exemplary model for his subjects to admire and follow. Moreover, hunting was employed by the emperor to assess the qualities of his men, to evoke their awareness of ancestry, duty, and obligation. At top right of the image, Hamid Bakkari is shown being punished for firing an arrow at one of the courtiers. He rides backwards on an ass while the upper portion of the body is naked and the head is shaved. Thus, Akbar is the protector for eliminating danger and violence, a persuader for encouraging his subjects, a dispenser of justice for penalizing the sinful, and the central focus for being the role model. Apart from the importance of the emperor, the closeness and cooperation among the people is emphasized in Mughal painting as well. The Akbar Hunting in a Qamargha at Palam near Delhi in 1568 (fig. 12) shows Akbar’s entourage have varied skin colors, which indicates they are from different ethnical groups. No disputes or offence are present in the image. They form a semicircle hand in hand to make the ring hunt successful, which is the only goal for them. The courtiers are merged with the landscape, and devoting their vigor and energy in the activity. In short, the relationship between the servants is represented in an ideal way.

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12. Akbar Hunting in a Qamargha at Palam near Delhi in 1568 (left half), Akbarnama, Mukund and Manohar, ca. 1590-1595

By the time of Shah Jahan, the empire was stable, and the Mughals had established themselves firmly as the legitimate rulers, so a different emphasis on the utopian vision occurred in the hunting scene of Shah Jahan. The display of the emperor as a capable individual and the association between people of varied origins were replaced with a state of harmony. In Shah Jahan Hunting Antelope, the vast vista is the most prominent element rather than a backdrop in the image. Killing and violence are absent; the hunting was only considered as a metaphor of good government. The harmonious mood is devised through the recession into the space without interruptions. The dark green trees, light green bushes, and the bright sun altogether give a poetic atmosphere. An empire of peace and stability with infinite space is delineated in Shah Jahan’s painting.

The dynamism of utopian vision represented in the painted space echoes the discussion of the Mughal utopia, which starts with the emperor, then extends outwards to the household or the subjects, eventually onto the whole political landscape.


When the great Mughals tried to establish a powerful Muslim empire in a foreign land, they faced a heterogeneous body of nobles and common people. Unlike their contemporaries in Central Asia and Iran, Mughals stood on the side of religious tolerance and cultural acceptance. This tradition was initiated during the time of Babur, the founder of the empire, and popularized by Akbar. I traced the source of the inclusive policy back in medieval Persian philosophy. Nasir al-Din Tusi provided the Mughals with a political alternative that contradicted orthodox Islam. Despite the opposition and criticism, the Mughal emperors inherited Tusi’s philosophical ideal and carried it out.

By building an interpretative framework based on utopian thinking, I examined the utopian visions of the Mughals. Under the framework of Mughal utopia, I looked at the imperial painting in a spatial manner, because the most significant aspect of the utopian ideal is that it can be translated into spatial practice.[55] Taking the painting as a heterotopic space, I uncovered the topology of the Mughal utopia.

Unlike the heterotopia found everywhere in our contemporary world, Mughal illustrated manuscripts were just circulated among the rulers, princes, and important nobilities. Only on ceremonial occasions, they were presented or exchanged in public sphere. However, the manuscripts still held an essential position in forming and broadcasting the Mughal utopian vision. First of all, kitabkhana, the institution in which the paintings were produced and placed was central to the Mughal utopia. The centrality was represented through the fact that kitabkhana was a laboratory for experimenting with the new social order. Making and collecting books contained a dimension of cultural diffusion that was explained in the previous section. Secondly, the illustrated manuscript played an important role in Mughal court. Mughal rulers used it to proclaim their legitimate rule. A newly enthroned Mughal emperor visited the kitabkhana to affirm his reign by adding his signature or seal on the manuscripts.[56] The action symbolized that the new emperor had inherited the royal treasure as well as the supreme rights of his predecessor. Though the audience was limited to a small group of people, the messages that manuscript paintings delivered could be passed from top down through the efficient governmental system.

[40]A. Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 134.

[41]Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 24.

[42]Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 24-27. Six principles of heterotopia.

[43]Kevin Hetherington, The Badland of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering (London: Routledge, 1997), 67.

[44]Milo Cleveland Beach, Mughal and Rajput Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 16.

[45]Milo Cleveland Beach et al., King of the World: The Padshahnama : An Imperial Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle (London: Azimuth Editions, 1997), 118.

[46]Ibid., 193.

[47]Beach, Mughal and Rajput Painting, 22-23.

[48]In 1582, Bada’uni translated Mahabharata to Persian as the Razmnama (Book of Wars).

[49]Michael Brand and Glenn D. Lowry, Akbar’s India: Art from the Mughal City of Victory (New York: Asia Society Galleries, 1985), 17.

[50]Brand, Akbar’s India: Art from the Mughal City of Victory, 88. He ordered to repaint one of the miniatures, and later he made his own copy of Shahnama.

[51]Ibid., 61.

[52]Beach, Mughal and Rajput Painting, 27.

[53]Ibid., 28.

[54]Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 26.

[55]Hetherington, The Badland of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering, 11.

[56]Bonnie C Wade, Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art, and Culture in Mughal India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 15.


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