Mughal flower motifs are a tribute to nature’s beauty. Early Mughal court painters used floral patterns to design the borders of miniature paintings and illustrate court epics. The major shift from the earlier tradition of flower painting is seen during the reign of Jahangir when artists like Mansur and Abu’l Hasan painted flowering plants to capture their likeness in nature. During the royal visit to Kashmir, Mansur painted more than a hundred paintings of flowers. This unprecedented scale of paintings transformed the floral motifs of Mughal Art.
Naturalist Themes in Mughal Art
The Mughal Emperors were the leading patrons of the arts of their times. The popularity of flower motifs, animals and birds, and hunting scenes in the Mughal paintings says a lot about the interest of the Mughals in the natural environment around them. Babur, in his memoir Baburnama, provided detailed descriptions of animals, birds, plants, and trees he found in Hindustan. His keen observations of the nature he encountered helped him in adapting to a new country.
Humayun invited the best painters of Kabul to his capital Delhi who helped to develop a long-lasting tradition of Mughal painting. During Akbar’s reign, artists illustrated several epics. The illustrations included trees, flowering plants, birds, rivers, oceans, etc. These illustrations tell us how artists focused on making their compositions as lively and real as possible. Akbar commissioned a painting of a ‘white elephant’ and a painted study of a cow and calf. Akbarnama elaborated on hunting scenes, which initiated a new genre of animal and bird paintings.
Jahangir’s approach to the depiction of nature was more scientific. He commissioned paintings that captured the breeding of Sarus cranes and the breeding of Hill pheasants. He received a rare Mauritius Dodo, which within the next decades became extinct. The painting of this Dodo by Mansur is one of the most important specimens in the history of art. Artists began to draw inspiration directly from nature instead of copying elements of nature from preceding works.
Flower paintings of Mughal Artist Mansur
Many historians have called Jahangir a naturalist. In 1606, on his way to Kabul, he commanded his soldiers to wear brunches of oleander flowers on their heads. He described it in his memoir as “a wonderful moving flower bed.” In 1620, Mansur accompanied the Emperor to Kashmir Valley. The abundance of blooming flowers during the spring season impressed Jahangir immensely, and he instantly ordered Mansur to make as many paintings of flowers as possible. Within a few days, Mansur painted around a hundred paintings. However, most of these paintings are lost now. At present, only five paintings of these flower motifs have Mansur’s signature.
Did the extreme popularity of flowering plants as a motif have any connection with Jahangir’s momentous visit to Kashmir and Mansur’s paintings of flowers? This question is extremely relevant if we see how over the years after this trip to Kashmir, we see the exuberance of flowering plants in many forms and varieties in textiles, carpets, metalware, ornaments, stone, and wood carvings, and also present architectural embellishments in the time of Shah Jahan. Yet, this Royal trip to Kashmir had only fastened what had begun long ago. Mughal flower motif was a decorative motif long before Jahangir visited Kashmir in 1620.
Ten Varieties of Flowers
There are other channels from which we can trace the increasing popularity of the Mughal flower motif and the changes it had undergone in various phases of Mughal History. The Jesuits brought religious prints to the Mughal court. These religious images were bordered with a variety of flower motifs, for example, flowers and buds on long stems, single flower patterns, and small plants with tiny flowers, along with insects and dragonflies. Jahangir actively welcomed Jesuits in his court and collected such religious fabric. Mughal artists imitated these flower motifs and rendered them on the margins of royal albums.
This painting of ten flowers shows the eagerness of Mansur to experiment with material and new techniques. Because of his versatile nature and the effort he was willing to put to capture the likeness of the flowering plants, Jahangir chose him and his disciple to paint the profusion of flowers in Kashmir.
Painting Red Tulips
Though often associated with the Netherlands, Tulips are an eastern flower found in mountainous regions of central Asia. Red Tulip does not grow on plains and bloom in Kashmir only during the springtime. The frame of this painting has two calligraphic vertical panels and a border decorated with flower patterns. The flower has four stems with their flowers at different stages of budding. Details like stamens, pollen grains, and leaves painted with accurate colours tell us how Mansur has paid attention to his subject. This painting also shows us his familiarity with horticulture from books on the European Herbal System and his ability to transform European techniques to meet his artistic needs. In the following years, the image of red tulips became the most widespread decorative motif in artistic and architectural ornamentation.
Iris Plant with Bird and Dragonfly
The painting of Iris, another flower prominently found in Kashmir, is similar to the red Tulip painting. The Iris plant has three flowers and two buds, poised at different angles. The leaves positioned in a swaying position look more realistic. Along with the flowering plant, there is a bird and an insect. The border of the painting is painted with various flowers with stems and leaves to give them a naturalist look.
Branch of Narcissus
This painting is one of three paintings originally painted in Kashmir by Mansur. Yet some art historians raise questions about its originality. To them, the flowers seem more stylised and a little different from Mansur’s signature style. While the borders and his signature on the painting belong to Mansur, there is a possibility that in the 18th century, a Europeanised depiction of the Narcissus stem replaced the one Mansur painted.
The Cultural Role of Flowers in the Mughal Era
It is not only the technology and knowledge that have evolved with time but also the meanings and narratives around perfection and desired norms of masculinity and femininity have changed. Mirzanama was a treatise compiled in the mid-seventeenth century on aristocratic norms of masculinity. Interestingly, it narrates how a gentleman should be well-versed with a variety of flowers and know how the use and appreciation of flowers are signs of a sophisticated character. It advised men to have a garden since a house without flowering plants and vases filled with bouquets is a house without joy.
Depiction of Gardens is common to Indian art of the period to understand why the Mughals considered gardens so highly that it is important to take a glimpse at Timurid history. While Hindu kings saw gardens and flower beds as something to be gazed upon, Timurids and later Mughals, who originally lived in mountainous regions, often traveled and set up camps from place to place, and saw the garden as a socializing place.
Flower Motifs in Mughal Architecture
Before arriving at Delhi, the Mughal capital, Nur Jahan lived in Kashmir and had good knowledge about its flowers and trees. But unlike Jahangir, who was more interested in small things like flowers, raindrops, moonlight, and birds, Nur Jahan was more ambitious. She constructed the Mausoleum of Itimad-ud-Daulah, the first work of architecture in the history of Mughal, made out of marble. The famous flowers of Mughal paintings, originally from Kashmir, like poppies, lilies, narcissus, iris, and tulips became part of engraved inlays on the walls of Nur Jahan’s tomb. This art of inlay of semi-precious stone is called pietra dura.
Let’s look at another work of inlay, a Cypress tree with a climbing rose. Jahangir characterized himself as a Cypress tree which symbolised righteousness and truth in Islam. A Cypress was specially imported from the Ottoman Empire and planted in Jahangir’s garden. Nur Jahan symbolised herself as a climbing rose, a symbol of innocence and purity. While her contemporaries portrayed her as an evil woman who trapped a drunk emperor in her love trap, she chose a rose to counter this narrative. She could not write a memoir like Jahangir to justify herself, instead, she used a flowering plant to claim her innocence. The rose plant does not hide or overpower the cypress tree but enhances the tree’s beauty.
Though flower motifs are common to several art forms in India, it was the Mughals who inculcated flowering plants with leaves, stems, buds, and insects in their court paintings. A panel with a vase of flowers engraved on Mughal architecture shows us flowers were not merely decorative elements meant to enhance the overall impact of the artwork. With developing knowledge about plants and flowers, they became the main objects in Mughal art.
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