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Art From The Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting

Exploring the Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting 

In previous Rooftop blogs, we’ve explored each school of Rajasthani Miniature painting in detail, and made several studies of the different paintings in the Mughal School. We’ve only recently mentioned the Deccan School of Miniature Painting. Today, let’s take a look at one of the Deccan sub-schools and explore the paintings of the Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting.

This school began developing relatively early. The illustrated manuscript of Tarif-i-Hussain Shahi was created in 1565. This piece marked the beginning of the Ahmednagar School of Painting. The Ahmednagar School was active during the Nizam Shahi court, especially during the reign of the three Sultans: Hussain Nizam Shahi I, Murtaza I, and Burhan II.

The Tarif-i-Hussain of Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting

The Tarif-i-Hussain was a group of 12 illustrations accompanying some poems that glorified the reign and exploits of Hussain Nizam Shah I of Ahmednagar. They follow his journey and document his conquest of the Vijayanagara kingdom.

A majority of these paintings feature elaborate battle scenes, none of which are particularly artistic or noteworthy. Other paintings include court scenes, the dohada theme (more on that later), and the king and queen. These feature rich and sensual colours. They also contain features commonly associated with Persian miniatures: high, circular horizons and golden skies. Neutral colours are used for the ground, which is further decorated with repetitive paintings of small plants.

Distinguishing Features of the Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting

It is likely that the Sultan’s wife, Queen Khanzada Humayun, commissioned the Tarif-i-Hussain series after her husband’s death. She acted as regent after his passing, which caused a rift between her and her son, Murtaza Nizam Shah I. He would later rebel against her and have her imprisoned.

Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting
A scene from Tarif-i-Hussain-Shahi with the queen erased. Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Six of the twelve Tarif-Hussain illustrations feature the queen next to the king, which is unusual for almost all the schools of Indian painting. After she was imprisoned, most of her portraits were scratched out or overpainted, most likely at the insistence of Murtaza Shah. This is a rare instance of woman portraiture, especially as she was painted prominently in these miniatures: right next to the king, in a position of power.

The Shalabhanjika/Dohada Theme

The Dohada theme was an Indian theme that shows the beauty of a woman by portraying a tree that blossoms just by her touch. It was a form of flattery bestowed upon someone who was said to be exceptionally beautiful. The above painting features the queen as the centre of the dohada team, surrounded by her attendants in front of a rich gold sky and a deep blue foreground.

Later Stylistic Developments in the Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting

Certain Ragamala paintings that were produced in the northern Deccan region share some similarities with the Tarif-Hussain Shahi, such as the simplicity of human figures and the colour compositions.

In the decade following the creation of the Tarif-i-Hussain, Deccani art developed to a great extent. As evidenced by three royal portraits that were created sometime around 1575, artists began showing an interest in naturalistic portraiture. The paintings of this period show knowledge of artistic idioms prominent in the Mughal, Safavid, and European styles.

Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting
Portrait of an Ahmednagar Ruler by the Paris Painter, Ahmednagar, ca. 1565-95, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the notable works of this period is the above portrait of Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah. He is seen seated on a gold-inlaid throne and offering gold to the courtier to his right. A young servant offers the courtier a betel nut, a sign that the audience has come to an end.

Rather than the commonly seen peacock fly-whisk or a chauri, the servant fans the Sultan with a thin and long piece of muslin cloth. The reason for this is a political one: the Mughals used peacock fly whisks and were stronger and more powerful than their Deccani counterparts. Since they did not enjoy the same status, Deccan kings conformed to the hierarchy that came with the use of such everyday objects. Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah ruled over Ahmednagar from 1600 to 1610. The king was merely a puppet under the prime minister and regent of the empire, Malik Ambar.

Malik Ambar: Black Representation in the Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting

Murtaza Nizam Shah II and Malik Ambar, circa 1680. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Malik Ambar was born in the Adal Sultanate (Ethiopia) and sold as a habshi (Muslim slave) to Changiz Khan, the Prime Minister of Ahmednagar. After Changiz’s death, he was released from slavery and became a capable commander, heading a huge army of mercenaries. He ruled as Regent Minister, forging powerful alliances, teaching his armies to engage in bargigiri, a form of guerilla warfare, and popularising the use of British-manufactured arms.

Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting
Jahangir Shoots Malik Ambar, by Abuʾl Hasan, c. 1620. Image credit: Smarthistory

Malik Ambar is one of the earliest instances of black representation in Indian art. He was a capable commander and an excellent town planner. His formidable prowess meant that the Mughals could not establish control over South India during his lifetime. He angered the Mughal Emperor Jahangir to such an extent that the latter commissioned a painting of him shooting at Malik’s head, asserting victory over his nemesis. Jahangir never actually was victorious; this painting merely represents his delulu illusions of grandeur.

Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting
Portrait of Malik Ambar, 1605-1610. Image credit: Google Arts and Culture

This portrait shows Malik Ambar’s strong build and stature. He is wearing a white jama with a matching shawl. His orange-striped turban compliments his saffron slippers and red floral-patterned trousers. He is wearing a gold kamarband (waistband) with geometric patterns and floral borders. Below it hangs a green writing case that is attached to a red belt. He is armed with a knife, a sword, and a dagger.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Out of the few paintings of Malik Ambar that exist, most are from the Ahmednagar school. The above painting is the only exception. This painting belongs to the Mughal school and was painted by Hashim, a painter in Jahangir’s court.

Clothing in the Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting

Gauri Ragini, Folio from a Ragamala, 1575-1600. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The women in the Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting wear clothes seen in the paintings from Malwa and Ahmedabad. They represent the northern clothing tradition and are dressed in cholis. Their clothes and features are inspired primarily by Persian and North Indian customs. 

However, the women in these paintings also wear a scarf tied around their hips and wear their hair up in a bun, which are both features associated with south Indian clothing, specifically the Lepakshi murals. In some paintings, women wear long braided pigtails with tassels tied to the ends.

Men wore long translucent jamas with pointed tails and intricately adorned patkas, both ends visible and tied in the front. They also wore metal belts, sometimes with attached golden purses. Their pointed-tail jamas and small pagris resemble those found in early Mughal miniatures during Akbar’s reign. In fact, male clothing as a whole resembles the clothing styles of North India rather than South India.

The History of the Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting

Ahmednagar School of Miniature Painting
Battle of Talikota from the Tari-i-Hussain Shahi. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ahmednagar Miniatures feature rich colours and are said to have been inspired by 14th-century Italian paintings due to the use of plain gold backgrounds. They also show influences from the Turkman paintings dating back to the 15th century.

Early Deccan paintings show flora, fauna, and human figures rendered with simple and sophisticated linework. Decorative patterns, rich colours, and the use of gold detail show a preference for highly rendered ornamental work, which increased in popularity during the later stages of this school. From the last stage of Ahmednagar Miniature painting arose a group of elegant line drawings that reflect the skill of Persian miniature painting and calligraphy, along with Mughal stylisations. These include the ‘Young Prince Embraced by a Small Girl’ that was painted sometime between 1580 and 1595.

Not many paintings of this school exist, mainly due to how short-lived the independence of the state of Ahmednagar was. The state of Ahmednagar dissolved in 1600, after it was captured by the Mughals.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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