The Naturalistic Influence on Mughal Miniature Painting
Emperor Jahangir, the fourth ruler of the Mughal Empire, left an indelible mark not only on the political and cultural landscape of his time but also on the realm of art. Jahangir’s deep fascination for the natural world, coupled with his scientific curiosity, led to an unmistakable naturalistic influence on Mughal Miniature painting.
In this blog, we will explore how Jahangir’s atelier of artists blended realism, accuracy, and aesthetic appeal to create naturalistic records of the animal kingdom.
The Reason Behind Changing Themes and Styles
The Miniature paintings of India feature a wide range of styles, themes, and subject matter. Although all Indian Miniature painting traces back to the court of the Mughal Emperor Babur, the varied interpretations of individual artists and the artistic tendencies of the ruling dynasty gave rise to several styles and substyles.
Since most artists relied heavily on royal patronage, it is easy to identify which themes were popular with the royals and aristocrats. This is part of the reason that we are able to detect that the Mughal Emperor Jahangir was responsible for the naturalistic influence on Mughal Miniature painting.
Each ruler had some favourite themes and art styles. We can deduce when the rulers of a dynasty change due to the vast change in themes of subject matter.
For example, Maharao Ram Singh II of Kota was well known for the many paintings he commissioned of the royal court proceedings and eccentric celebrations. Similarly, Jahangir was known for the naturalistic paintings of flora and fauna that were produced during his reign.
Jahangir’s Interest in the Natural World
Jahangir’s keen interest in the fauna of his kingdom is evident in his meticulous records. His personal menagerie and aviary were managed by a dedicated team and became centres of observation and study.
The emperor’s naturalistic pursuits went beyond mere appreciation; they reflected a scientific curiosity that contributed significantly to the understanding of the animal kingdom.
Jahangir would closely study the animals under his care and write down his observations. He refused to eat fish without scales, as, according to his observations, fish without scales ate carrion.
Over the years, he developed a keen eye, able to discern the species and gender of a creature much faster and with far more accuracy than those who worked for him. He also frequently used the traits of animals as metaphors in his writings.
A Collection Distinguished By Scientific Curiosity
As with all emperors, Jahangir collected things that interested him. Some items in his collection were gifts; others were objects that he himself acquired on his journeys. He kept many rare animals in his menagerie and commissioned artists to paint portraits of them.
He also collected other oddities, such as narwhal teeth and bezoar stones. In fact, he stationed an official named Muqarrab Khan at Goa to purchase any rare animals or items, no matter how expensive.
He kept records of all the specimens in his collection, along with personal observations and questions he hoped to answer through further study. According to the historian Henry Beveridge, Jahangir would have been happier being the head of a museum of natural history than the Emperor of the Mughal Empire.
A Change in Trends Due to the Naturalistic Influence on Mughal Miniature Painting
Great Hornbill by Ustad Mansur. Calligraphy by Mir ‘Ali Haravi. Ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
During Jahangir’s reign, a certain style of Miniature paintings was quite popular. These were known as ‘Muraqqas’ and were individual paintings that were mounted in albums or folios.
These Muraqqas had embellished gold margins with flora and fauna designs. The margins and backs of these paintings were adorned with decorative calligraphy.
Mughal naturalistic paintings under Jahangir’s patronage were characterised by meticulous attention to detail. The artists in his atelier created many realistic depictions of various animals and birds.
The emphasis on accurate representation extended to physical features such as hairs, ears, eyes, tails, fur, or plumage. These paintings were not mere copies of external appearances; they were objective illustrations capturing the mood and essence of the subjects.
The Styles of the Naturalistic Paintings of Jahangir’s Atelier
Floral motifs, though common in Indian art, gained prominence as subjects of paintings during the Mughal era, particularly in the 17th century.
The emphasis shifted from decorative embellishments to detailed studies of flowers, showcasing the artist’s mastery in rendering twigs, leaves, buds, and blossoms with meticulous precision.
The Mughal style also borrowed heavily from certain European artistic sensibilities. These assimilated with the prevalent Indo-Iranian style to create a new tradition of Mughal Miniature painting.
Jahangir often received paintings and decorative objects from Europeans, which prompted his fascination for English art. Subsequently, Jahangir’s atelier practised indigenous, Persian, and European painting techniques.
The Esteemed Artists of Jahangir’s Court
Jahangir employed several extremely skilled artists. Ustad Mansur, a celebrated Mughal painter, played a pivotal role in the naturalistic rendering of flora and fauna.
Mansur had previously been employed in Akbar’s court and had made several naturalistic paintings of flowers, birds, and animals. All of Mansur’s masterpieces earned him the title Nadir-al-Asr (Unequalled of the Age).
Jahangir also employed Aqa Riza, a well-known Iranian artist, and his son, Abul Hasan. Jahangir, ever the rebel, had curated an atelier of artists alongside his father Akbar’s well-established one due to his immense interest in art and the animal kingdom.
Jahangir’s atelier, in contrast to Akbar’s, prioritised a smaller number of high-quality artworks produced by master artists. Unlike his father Akbar, who commissioned politically and religiously significant artworks, Jahangir encouraged delicate observations, fine details, and a focus on naturalism.
The Mughal artists of Jahangir’s atelier were influenced by an Indian sympathy for the animal world and adopted a scientific approach. They emphasised objectivity and earthly charm over spiritual and emotional aspects, but painted not merely for representational study but also for viewing pleasure.
This was unlike the traditional Persian and Indian methods of stylisation over realism. Jahangir’s artists also practised academic styles of shading and rendering, perhaps influenced by European botanical illustrations. The resulting artworks achieved a balance between scientific accuracy and aesthetic pleasure.
Jahangir’s Naturalistic Influence on Mughal Miniature Painting: Animals
Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, the memoirs of Jahangir, tells us about his great interest in the arts and his efforts to achieve scientific accuracy in the rendering of flora and fauna.
He wrote detailed notes on the gifts and specimens he received in the Jahangirnama. Some of the animal and bird portraits completed during his reign were added to the muraqqas of later periods. Many of them are included in albums curated by his son, Shah Jahan.
1. The Zebra
The zebra (Equus grevyi) is quite a strange animal. If we were to describe it to someone who had never seen one before, they would accuse us of making it up or trying to deceive them. Something similar happened when the zebra was first introduced to India in 1621 through Jahangir’s royal court.
Many who laid eyes on the creature remarked that perhaps its black stripes were painted on instead of natural. Jahangir ordered an inquiry into the same, and his astute observation of the zebra’s stripes, likening them to a tiger’s pattern, confirmed that the markings were indeed authentic.
The zebra in this painting was a gift from Mir Ja’far on the occasion of Nowruz, or New Year celebration, in March 1621. He later gifted it to one of his friends, Shah Abbas of Iran.
2. The Mouflon
Though the name of the above study states that it is a Markhor, it is actually a male mouflon. The Mouflon is an endangered species of wild sheep with horns and a dark brown body with a white underside. Its majestic horns are realistically drawn, and we can view both their size and tremendous power.
The outer side of its sharply curving horns has a curving pattern, which is, surprisingly, not a realistic representation. It is most likely to be a stylisation of the horizontal ridges that wrap around the mouflon’s horns. The script in the bottom right corner of the painting is yet to be deciphered.
Jahangir’s Naturalistic Influence on Mughal Miniature Painting: Birds
“What can I write of the beauty of this bird’s colour? It had black markings, and every feather on its wings, back, and sides was beautiful. Since it was rather unusual, I ordered Mansur, the painter, who has been entitled Nadirul’asr [Rarity of the Age], to draw its likeness to be kept.”
The gyrfalcon frequently accompanied Jahangir’s hunting expeditions. It is one of the fastest animals alive. The emperor had a great fascination for falcons, and such hunting birds were carefully trained. A handler or trainer was responsible for their upkeep and accompanied them at all times.
2. The Dodo
A significant contribution of Emperor Jahangir’s naturalistic influence on Mughal Miniature painting was a portrait of the flightless extinct bird, the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus). The Dodo had gone extinct by the end of the 17th century. Scholars interested in the curious Mauritian bird had to rely on inaccurate drawings and verbal accounts for a long time until a Mughal painting by Mansur came to the surface.
After its discovery in 1958, scientists were able to see an accurate visual representation of the dodo. This painting of the dodo was created in Jahangir’s court and was based on a live specimen of the bird. According to Professor Erwin Stresemann, this painting was most probably created at the end of Jahangir’s reign, as during this time the emperor stopped writing verbal records alongside the paintings due to poor health.
3. Turkey Cock
Another notable naturalistic painting in Jahangir’s collection features a turkey cock that he received from noble Muqarrab Khan. ‘Like a chameleon, it constantly changes colour’, Jahangir wrote of the bird. He observed that the North American fowl was smaller than a peacock and bigger than a peahen, and when in heat, displayed itself in a manner similar to peacocks.
A Naturalist Through And Through
Throughout his life, Jahangir displayed immense curiosity towards the animal kingdom. When he came across a lion and a goat that it had bonded with, he conducted various experiments to ascertain the source of their affection.
He made records of his study on Sarus cranes, bred Markhor goats with another sub-species, and once even ordered his servants to obtain milk from a lioness’s breast!
Towards the end of his life, he became fixated on the diets of animals, and soon this fixation turned to obsession. He would not partake of any bird or animal that had eaten anything he deemed reproachable or ‘disgusting’.
Emperor Jahangir’s naturalistic influence on Mughal miniature painting was transformative and provided a solid foundation for the Indian study of natural history.
The sheer volume of the works that he commissioned is a testament to his fastidious nature and scientific curiosity. His memoir, the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, documents interesting anecdotes and tales from his numerous encounters with the natural world.
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By Melissa D’Mello