Mughal Miniature: Painting with precision

History Contributor
Shah Jahan

This intricate painting, titled Emperor Jahangir At the Jharoka Window of The Agra Fort, is not an isolated creation of an exalted painter. Drawn by Abu’l Hasan around 1620, it is part of a huge gamut of paintings, known collectively as Mughal Miniature Paintings, which reached dizzying heights during the 300 years of the Mughal rule, and remains unmatched to this day.

In one of my previous columns, on Baburnama, I had briefly touched upon the great beauty of the Mughal miniature paintings. This, however, needs to be discussed in little more details, which I intend to do in this column, and devote a couple of other pieces on few of the great miniature painters of Mughal India.

Mughal Miniature Artists

The beginning of this astounding school of painting can be traced to the period of the second Mughal emperor Nasir ud-Din Muhammad Humayun. You may remember that dethroned by Sher Shah, Humayun fled from India and was given shelter in the court of the Safavid emperor Shah Tahmasp, where he stayed for more than a decade. It is here that Humayun was first introduced to the great Persian painter Kamal ud-Din Behzat. Astonished at the work of Behzad and his pupils, Humayun brought two important miniature artists from Persia to Agra, when he regained power in India in 1555.

The Mughal school of painting is largely confined to book illustrations and individual miniatures. One of the earliest examples of book-illustrations of this school is the richly illustrated Tuti-Nameh (The Tales of the Parrot), produced C. 1560. And it was indeed during the reign of emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar that Mughal miniatures truly started to flourish, and continued to excel during the reigns of his son Jehangir and grandson Shah Jahan.

Precision and attention to details

What makes Mughal miniatures stand out from other schools of paintings? The devil, goes the proverb, is in the details. About Mughal miniatures we can say, the beauty is in the details. Generally, very small, only a few square inches, in size every single Mughal miniature painting is an exquisite example of the artist’s painstaking attention to details.

The incredible precision, one of the main hallmarks of the brightly coloured Mughal miniatures, was often achieved by the painters by using brushes with a single strand of hair. Colour and extreme details were given far more importance in these paintings than realistic perspectives or shading. These paintings also mark the exalted technical skills of the painters. Even before the artist started the actual painting, his first task was to cut the paper to the right size and polish it to such a point that note even minute particles of paint would be absorbed in the paper.

Multiple painters and one painting

Each painting demanded so much labour that the task was often divided into a number of artists, often pupils of a famous artist, who worked on the main painting. Artists also went to absurd labels to obtain the perfect shade of paints they required. For example, a certain shade of yellow paint was said to have been prepared from cow urine fed for days only on mango leaves. Besides paintings of emperors and their families and courtiers, Mughal miniature painting is also a rich celebration of plants, flowers and animals found in India.

The art took a beating during the reign of the last great Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, since he had little interest in painting. It revived during the period of Muhammad Shah (1719-1748), but gradually lost its lustre by the end of the 18th century, marking the end of one of India’s finest art traditions.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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