Music and painting in Mughal Era

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


June 11, 2022

Mughal Era Paintings

Zoya Ansari traces the Mughal impact on fine arts

Mughals were known for their keen aesthetic temperament. And their rule was a long period of the presentation and evolution of iconic fine arts. Hailing from a cultured family widely known for its liberal outlook, the quest for learning, and love for finer things in life. The Mughal rulers were great connoisseurs of music end engaged in this lofty very pleasing activity along with promoting it. Emperor Shahjahan was known to be a very pleasant singer and his private renditions were considered something out of extraordinary.

He deeply understood the ethos of music and had a special affinity for singers and artists. Emperor Aurangzeb, though left image of an austere and prohibitive bigot, was actually very fond of music. And was known to have acquired uncommon proficiency in playing the veena. That is widely held to be an intricate musical instrument to masterfully play. It was a pity to observe him giving up music. But his descendants kept the tradition alive and many musical innovations are credited to them.

As was with everything in Mughal’s life-stream. Emperor Akbar led the way here as well by patronizing some forty prominent musicians and instrumentalists. Who flourished at his court hailing from Gwalior, Malwa, Tabriz, and Kashmir. His most celebrated music artist was Mian Tansen. Who was specifically brought to Akbar’s court from Gwalior and was described as a singer without parallel. Though many consider him to be rather unconventional in his approach to traditional classical music. But keeping in view the respect he still commands proves. That he was an attempt to innovate may have been disliked by some of his contemporaries. Tansen, however, greatly adhered to the traditional singing style of dhrupad. and this tradition was continued by his son Bilas Khan.

As was expected music in Mughal rule reached its heyday during the reign of Shahjahan who employed thirty musicians who were regularly feted and rewarded by the emperor. Though stately dhrupad continued its sway but there was a marked tendency towards beautification and ornamentation. As is borne out by the beginning of the assertion of the ornate genre of the Khiyal School of music. That was soon to dominate the classical singing style. While during Aurangzeb’s reign music ceased to enjoy royal patronage. But its popularity with the upper classes was firmly established with the result. That a number of books on the history and theory of Indo-Muslim music were written during this period. Including Rag-darpan or the Mirror of Music written by Fakirullah Saif Khan.

As often happens, a reaction set in against Aurangzeb’s puritanism under his grandson Jahandar Shah. And his great-grandson Muhammad Shah Rangila during their reigns witnessed the music reaching very high scales of acceptance and popularity. Their reigns saw the development and subsequent domination of Khiyal and it gained tremendous popularity. As it was quite akin to the central Asian and Arabic sources. That Muslim Mughals were comfortable with and could easily identify with. The Khiyal concepts gained an ascent by the mid-18th century. Court patronage was provided by successive emperors and their prominent courtiers. The Mughal court’s patronage also catered for enticing variations enriching the musical encore of the musical traditions in the subcontinent.

Following the lead provided by the Mughal rulers, music was also encouraged in provincial capitals with many prominent musical artists making their mark. As court music became popular with the urban classes. The rest of the population started to develop a taste for it. It was quite appropriate for the artists to cater to popular tastes. And they began carrying out innovations to make it more appealing. There came into existence a lovely combination of Persian and vernacular language. That was infused into musical lore and became the identity of the music of the subcontinent.

Moreover, the quality and the variety of music underwent a subtle change in two forms of popular music. Dominant among them was thumri, love music that makes a sensuous appeal through repetition of words and musical phrases. This genre caters to the fact that the music mostly caters to human interaction and is not exclusively devoted to divine longing. The other very popular form that emerged in the process was dubbed tappa. Which was inspired by the very vast repertoire of folk music. Interestingly, the Mughal Court was gradually coming to recognize the pull of folk music, and the royal encouragement it received made music extensively popular in the subcontinent.

Mughals also excelled in their exquisite taste in painting with the result that this field of activity became the byword of their greatness. Though their ancestors dabbled in this art having employed some artists from Herat. It actually was emperor Humayun to whom the credit for the founding of the Mughal School of painting rightfully goes. During his exile years in Persia, he met painters following the famous painter Behzad and Humayun. Persuaded his disciples Khwaja Abdul Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali to accompany him to Delhi when he finally won back the Mughal throne. It was primarily due to their artistic exertions that the Mughal School of painting came into existence.

Interestingly as had happened in many other activities. The Mughal School of painting mushroomed under Emperor Akbar. He developed it with the zeal and earnestness associated with his personality. He gathered in his court over one hundred painters and included them in his bureaucracy. Assigning them official mansabs or ranks. They were given large premises in Fatehpur Sikri to work in and Akbar viewed their efforts weekly by rewarding many for outstanding contributions and also increasing their monthly remuneration. This establishment was led by Khwaja Abdul Samad who was granted the title of Shirin qalam or sweet pen recognizing his skill in calligraphy. Later he became master of the mint and subsequently was appointed diwan at Multan.

Akbar’s artists specialized in portraiture and book illustration. Many examples of the book of illustrations of the period such as Ramzi Nama, Babur Nama, and Akbar Nama are housed in many international museums. Occasionally many artists collaborated on the painting of a single picture, the leading artists sketching the composition and other painters putting in the parts at which they were experts. Akbar’s traditions were maintained by Jahangir, who was proud both of his artists and his own critical judgment and often boasted that he possessed an uncanny ability to recognize any work of art and its origin.

One specialty of the artists working in the court of Jahangir was the production of the wonderful likenesses of many paintings provided to them and this ability was widely commented upon by many foreign visitors to the subcontinent. Many painters were required to remain present in the court and close to the emperor who frequently asked them to paint any incident or scene that struck the emperor’s fancy.

Emperor Shahjahan though reduced the number of artists employed by his court but never compromised on the quality of artistic output. His son Dara Shikoh was a patron of painting and encouraged the art as much as possible. The Mughals did not discriminate between Muslims and Hindus and this is borne out by the fact that only one Persian artist was employed by Shah Jahan. The outstanding and enduring quality of the Mughal painting is recognized the world over and these works of art are assigned a very high place as icons of this very pleasant artistic faculty. TW


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