The Mughal paintings during the Mughal period of Akbar holds special importance. Akbar loved painting. Early Muslim painters confined themselves to the painting of inanimate objects, like trees, mountains, rivers and so forth. The next step was to take to the drawing of birds and animals and then finally to human portraiture.
The art of Central Asia was brought into India by Akbar’s orders and introduced into his court. It mingled with the style of Indian painting which had come down from ancient times despite neglect and want of patronage. The tradition of Hindu painting went far back into antiquity and came down to the 16th century through its noble representatives in the caves of Ajanta.
The two styles, Persian and Indian, at Akbar’s court began gradually to fuse and in course of time became one. The foreign characteristics of the art gradually dropped out and, eventually, it became purely Indian. The process of this evolution can be seen in the unique copy of the Tarikh-i-Khandan-i-Timuri and a copy of the Badshahnama, both of which are preserved in the Oriental Khuda Bakhsh Public Library at Patna.
Akbar’s patronage attracted the best painters to his court. The ablest and the most numerous among them were Hindu painters. They were employed to paint the walls of Akbar’s capital at Fatehpur Sikri and also to produce albums. The important Hindu painters in the court of Akbar were :
- Kesu Lal,
- Khem Karan,
Daswanth was the son of a Kahar and was a palki bearer. He was fond of painting pictures on the walls and one day Akbar chanced to see him and his art and he at once employed him as a painter and patronized his work. But when Daswanth reached the height of his fame he became insane and committed suicide. Basawan was considered by some critics as a greater painter than even Daswanth. He excelled in the painting of background and the drawing of features, distribution of colors and portraiture painting. Most of the Hindu painters, mentioned in the Ain-i-Akhari, belonged to the Kayasth, Chitera, Silawat and Khati castes. Some of them were commissioned to illustrate the Razm-nama, the Persian translation of the Mahabharata.
Akbar had department of painting. Khwaja Abdus Samad was the head of the painting department. The emperor personally supervised the department and gave it every possible encouragement. The pieces executed by the court painters were placed before him every week and he rewarded those whose paintings were found excellent. Not only were special grants made to the masters whose paintings were approved by the emperor but increments in their salaries were also sanctioned forthwith. The artists were enrolled as royal servants and granted mansabs in the imperial service. They drew their salaries according to their ranks. Abdus Samad, the head of the department, was a mansabdar of four hundred, but enjoyed much greater influence at the imperial court than his rank entitled him to.
Akbar’s interest and patronage led to the establishment of a school of painting which may be called the National Indian School of Painting. Its members were drawn from all parts of India and even from outside. They belonged to various castes and religions. But they were inspired by one common ideal, namely, the production of works of a high quality, which would meet with the approval of the emperor who was a great connoisseur of the art.
Mughal Emperor Jahangir was also interested in painting. The paintings inside Itimad-ud-Daulah’s tomb near Agra is praiseworthy. Mughal Empress Nur Jahan, wife of Jahangir, was also a great patron of art of painting.
Associated with the art of painting was the art of calligraphy which was highly prized in India, Persia and China. It was looked upon as a fine art and loved and encouraged by most of the Mughal emperors. Akbar had a taste for calligraphy and employed many men skilled in penmanship. Calligraphic writing was collected and preserved in albums like pictorial art.
Closely connected with calligraphy were the arts of artistic binding of books and illuminating them with lovely pictorial designs. Men employed for binding and illuminating the margins and covers of books or illustrating their themes with pictorial drawings were classed as artists. They were as highly valued as painters properly so-called. Many dozens of the books produced in that age, enriched by valuable bindings and adorned by costly illustrations, have come down to us and are preserved in various manuscript libraries in the country. They reveal the high standard to which these twin arts had reached under Akbar and his successors.