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Tracing the Evolution of Indo-Persian Art

Babur meeting with Sultan Ali Mirza at the Kohik River, from a Babur-nama (Memoirs of Babur) c. 1590. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

An Introduction to Indo-Persian Art

Persia and India have a unique cultural link that is centuries old. Persia had a huge influence on Indian languages, culture, food and even art! In this fast-paced world, we sometimes forget what a unique melting pot of cultural antiquity our country is. Just as today’s quaint Irani cafes sell fragrant Irani ‘chai’, the Miniature paintings of the Mughal era represent a unique style of Indo-Persian art that was a synthesis of two artistic and cultural traditions.

Persian Miniature Painting and the Beginning of Indo-Persian Art

Yusuf(Joseph) chased by Zulaikha (Potiphar’s wife), by Behzād, 1488. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Persian Miniature painting began through illustrated manuscripts in the 3rd century CE and reached its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its primary focus on illustration meant that paintings accompanied literary text and helped bring clarity to the reader.

Persian art had three ‘schools’ or distinctive styles of painting, which were Tabriz, Shiraz and Herat. Each school featured distinctive styles of colouring and composition. Popular themes included wars, flora and fauna, royal hunts, Persian poetry, mythology, and literature. The Persian stylistic idiom was regal, with vibrant colours, detailed depictions of architecture and scenery, and balanced, two-dimensional compositions.

Baysunghur’s Shahname, 1430. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Persian painting is characterised by a highly ornamented flat style, with no converging perspectives, shadows, or colour blending. Single plane compositions with a flat style of rendering were the norm. The artists distinguished male and female figures by drawing them with different headdresses, as they wear similar styles of clothing. Overall, Persian art derives inspiration from European, Chinese and even Egyptian influences, such as drawing the feet of human figures in profile view. 

The Beginning of Indo-Persian Art

Ḥamzah Sulṭān, Mahdī Sulṭan and Mamāq Sulṭān pay homage to Babur. From the Baburnama. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Well, it all started with the Mughal Emperor Babur. He was a descendant of both Emperor Timur, the founder of the Timurid Empire, and Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire. His upbringing brought him into contact with both Persian and Central Asian cultures.

He was a great patron of the arts and literature. His autobiographical work, the Baburnama, contains illustrations with inscriptions in the ‘Turki’ Chagatai language. Akbar would later have his grandfather’s memoirs translated into Persian during his reign.

An Ambassador before Humayun. Attributed to Miskin. Image credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art

Humayun was not a warrior or a strategist. He was defeated by Sher Shah Suri only ten years after his ascent to the throne. Betrayed by his brothers and continuously spurred by his family, Humayun reached what he would describe as ‘the lowest point of his life’. Travelling with only 40 men through hills, valleys, and deserts, and living off of horse meat boiled in soldier’s helmets, the party soon reached Safavid, and the court of Shah Tahmasp of Persia.

Persia: A Refuge to Humayun

The Court of Kayumars, Folio from the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, between 1522 and 1525. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shah Tahmasp, whose court was home to an excellent atelier of artists, was an artist himself. He greeted Humayun with an armed escort, and the defeated emperor was finally treated with respect and honour. The Shah gave Humayun an illustrated version of Saadi’s Gulistan, which dated back to his great-grandfather’s reign. 

Humayun was able to let his guard down for the first time in a while. His army was given luxurious accommodations. While sightseeing, he was particularly amazed by Persian art and architecture, some of which had been the work of his own ancestors.

Humayun sought help from Shah Tahmasp, who agreed in exchange for certain conditions, such as a quid pro quo for the city of Kandahar. Later, when Humayun managed to reclaim the throne, he brought back with him the master artists Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd us-Samad of the Shah’s atelier. They established the first ever Mughal atelier and began introducing Persian styles to Indian artists.

Indo-Persian Art: A Unique Stylistic Synthesis

Women bathing before an architectural panorama. c. 1765, Fayzullah. The artist has signed his name in Persian below the Emperor’s seat in the centre. Image credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art

Post-Humayun’s death, Akbar ascended the throne. He was also a huge patron of the arts, and his reign began what was known as the golden age of Mughal painting.

Akbar’s policy of religious tolerance meant that his atelier comprised Hindu as well as Muslim artists. The Hindu and Jain painting styles were characterised by vibrant colour palettes, whereas the Persian Safavid style was very intricately detailed with compact compositions. As these artists worked together, they developed a unique visual synthesis of Hindu, Jain, Persian, and even European painting traditions. During this period, many artists began signing their work, usually in Persian.

Portraiture was also a popular theme in Indo-Persian art. This theme had never been a part of the Safavid tradition, so we can safely assume that this was unique to Persian-inspired Indian art. Portraiture was highly popular in the early Mughal era, as well as in many contemporary Rajasthani schools of painting.

Tracing the Impact of the Persian language on Indo-Persian Art

Ghatotkacha and three demons in his company chase Bhagadatta, from Bhishma-parva (volume six) of a Razm-nama Image credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art

Did you know that Persian was once one of India’s main languages of administration? A common scholarly argument states that about 7 times as many readers of the Persian language lived in India as in Iran.

Persian was standardised, unlike the diverse Sanskrit-based dialects popular in the Indian subcontinent at the time. This meant that there were no regional dialects or differences in speaking. The Indian people also found the Indo-European Persian language easier to learn than an Altaic language like Turkish.

Persian thus became a major language of communication, record-keeping, and art. As a result, Persian poetry and prose would show up frequently in Indo-Persian art; artists would frequently sign their names in Persian as well. Remember Shah Tahmasp from earlier? Later in his life, he developed a strong distaste for poetry and exiled all poets to the Mughal Empire.

Indo-Persian Art: Spatial Storytelling and Compositions

Most Persian artists in Mughal employment were often teachers and atelier heads. Thus, it was easier for them to introduce Indian artists to Persian styles and compositions. 

The work of artists who had trained at the Safavid court in Tabriz contributed greatly to the Mughal style. Persian compositions were typically divided into several levels, creating several compact, single plane cells of space. A popular type of composition involved a palace with several pavilions, with several groups of people occupying different spaces.

Abd al-Samad was an artist familiar with the style of painting practised in Safavid Tabriz. This we can see plainly in the above Miniature which shows Akbar seated next to his father Humayun on a tree platform. This composition is reminiscent of Persian paintings like Barbad Playing Music to Khusraw and The Nightmare of Zahhak. Both of these paintings were made at the Safavid court.

The poses, human figures, flat rendering, and intricately detailed architecture further give it the Tabriz flair. This painting feels like a Persian painting, except it tells the story of an Indian incident. How did this come to be?

Well, copying compositions was an important part of the learning process for a Persian artist. During Akbar’s reign, Abd al-Samad would have probably been more active as a teacher than an artist at the royal atelier and thus encouraged his students to learn by copying Persian paintings. This may explain the presence of Tabriz compositions in many of the manuscripts made in Akbar’s court.

Indo-Persian Artistic Techniques 

The ‘tarh’ technique involved creating detailed preparatory sketches before starting the actual painting. A single tarh would work as a point of reference for several other artists. This helped many Persian compositions and styles spread from one artist to another. Sometimes, the most skilled artist would draw the tarh, finalise the line drawings, and then leave the colouring to their assistants.

The Persian artists at Herat and Mashhad had mastered the techniques of creating ornamented paper after they learned them from the Chinese in the 15th century. Over the course of time, these methods spread to India as well. Artists used gold-coloured paper to decorate the margins of Miniature paintings. We notice this in the manuscript paintings copied for Akbar as well as the use of decorative paper in album page borders.

Persian Artists in the Mughal Court

Indo-Persian art
The borders of Jahangir’s muraqqa paintings are intricately decorated. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘Muraqqas’ were small individual paintings that were bound in a book format. They usually had calligraphy on the back side so that the muraqqa would alternate between paintings and calligraphy.

The Muraqqa format became popular during Jahangir’s period and worked well for the naturalistic miniatures he commissioned. The Persian artist Mir al-Haravi did most of the calligraphy in Jahangur’s muraqqas. He had perfected the nasta’liq style of calligraphy favoured in Timurid Herat. He also created calligraphy for one of Shah Jahan’s muraqqas and would sometimes copy complete manuscripts as well. This was common practice in Mughal courts, where old manuscripts were copied to be translated or preserved in someone else’s collection.

Another artist named Aqa Raza was also active in Jahangir’s court. He was particularly skilled at the art of ‘illumination’, or border decoration. All his works were signed and dated between 1600 to 1608. They show a gradual evolution of his style as he grew accustomed to India. In two paintings from the Anvar-i-Suhaili, Aqa Raza uses Persian architectural depictions and skillful use of colour to create contrast. 

The Political Importance of Indo-Persian Art

Persian folklore and mythology also inspired Indo-Persian art. The above painting is based on the Aja-i-bal Makhluqat (The Wonders of Creation), a book of unknown origin that Zakariya-i-din-Muhammad-al-Qazvini translated into Persian. This book describes several mythical creatures that also became subjects of Indo-Persian painting.

Were the Mughals fond of Persian painting, or was Indo-Persian art merely a consequence of artists interacting with one another? It may actually be a little bit of both. The Mughal Emperor Babur was highly appreciative of Timurid artistic culture: through Indo-Persian art, he was able to highlight his ancestral link to Timurid culture and further solidify the Mughal lineage’s political authority.

He thus held Persian painting and calligraphy in high regard, a sentiment that was also passed down to his descendants. The painting of Bihzad and the calligraphy of Sultan Ali Mashhadi became the golden standard. Furthermore, the Mughals also claimed that they had the divine right to rule. This was linked to the Sasanian Persian model of imperial authority, according to which the Emperor was a semi-divine figure supported by courtiers and ministers who all held positions of power. Persian art and literature became physical symbols of imperial power.


Akbar’s Adventures with the Elephant Hawa’i in 1561. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thus, it is likely that the Mughal Emperors were eager to maintain their cultural ties to Persia. They may have encouraged artists to study techniques used by early Persian artists. The Timurnama manuscript, which contains events and exploits from Emperor Timur’s life, may have served as a template for later illustrated works like the Akbarnama and the Jahangirnama.

Persian artists such as Mir Ali al-Haravi, Abd al Samad Shirazi, Aqa Riza al-Haravi played an important role in the development of Indo-Persian art. Later, however, Mughal Miniature painting evolved into a realistic and naturalistic style, with greater emphasis on perspective, spacing, and shading techniques like chiaroscuro.

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By Melissa D’Mello, Content Writer at Rooftop

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