Books: All the marvels of Mughal painting

The latest volume in the catalogues of the Khalili Collection describes the art of the Muslim courts of India


This latest volume in the catalogues of the Nasser Khalili Collection of Islamic art is a welcome addition to this sumptuous publishing venture. This is the eighth in a projected series of at least twenty-seven volumes. The series chronicles the formation of one of the most important collections of Islamic art assembled since the creation of such great post-war collections as the Keir Collection and those of the Islamic States of the Arabian peninsula.

This volume provides a detailed descriptive catalogue of manuscript paintings from the ateliers of the Muslim courts of India. The collection is dominated by works from the imperial and sub-imperial courts of Mughal India, but also includes examples from the courts of the sultanates of the Deccan. The collection reflects the dominant interests of the Muslim imperial patrons, notably to chronicle the life and achievements of the patrons, and those of their predecessors, in a form of history painting. These works of art were as much concerned with political legitimisation as with the celebration of personal achievements through art. Just as the “Akbarnamah”, painted in the last decade of the sixteenth century, illustrated the official biography of the Mughal emperor Akbar (reigned 1556-1605), so the “Baburnamah” chronicled the official history of Akbar’s descent from the House of Timur. Although primarily produced for the private predilection of the patron, the “official illustrated chronicles” read as public statements about the political achievements of the ruling households. A tension exists in such works between the contents, which speak of the public arena and the need for political legitimacy, and the small scale and codex format which is personal and intimate.

The catalogue opens with a page from arguably the most stupendous “manuscript” ever produced in the history of Muslim paintings of India, the “Hamza-namah” (about 1556-71). This was an extraordinary work, believed to have consisted of some 1,400 paintings on cloth, with text written on paper and pasted on the reverse. These were large scale works (approximately 50 x 70cm), believed to have been intended for display during storytelling. They presumably reflect a lost painting tradition associated with Mughal tent culture in Central Asia, and, as such, stand apart from the illustrated books that the mature Akbar and his successors commissioned. Fewer than 10% of the paintings survive today, with the premier holdings being in the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, the Victorian and Albert Museum and the Brooklyn Museum. The example in the Khalili Collection is of a wondrous subject, depicting the heavenly forces of Peris destroying an enemy camp. Aspects of these paintings reveal the presence of Hindu, as well as Muslim, artists and while this first union of these traditions creates some uncomfortable passages, the results have an unprecedented energy and sheer excitement not seen before.

The roll call of manuscripts represented in the collection is impressive. From the reign of Akbar are folio paintings from the “Hamzanamah”, the “Anvar-I-Suhayli” of about 1570, the “Baburnanmah” of 1589, the “Ramayana” of about 1594 and the “Akbarnamah” (1595-96) itself. Successive reigns are represented by works associated with Prince Salem, the future Jahangir (reigned 1605-27). Shah Jahan’s reign (1627-58) is best represented by a folio from a 1640 edition of the “Padshahnamah”, the chronicle of his reign, and by a series of twenty-four illustrations commissioned by the young prince Aurangzeb to be mounted in an Iranian edition of the “Khamsah” of Nizami.

Another strength of this collection is the number of Mughal works in the European style, most being copies of imported European engravings and other works circulated at court by diplomats and Jesuits. More subtle influences from these sources penetrated the very fibre of seventeenth-century Mughal painting in the form of aerial perspective and shading techniques (especially grisaille), as well as stimulating an interest in portraiture and a fidelity of rendering.

The collection has a range of paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, providing examples of the less frequently illustrated late Mughal tradition, including a number of nineteenth-century copies of earlier Mughal works, providing an interesting commentary on nineteenth-century perspectives on the Mughal tradition.

This collection was formed over a twenty-year period, commencing in the 1970s, and contains examples of most of the standard works expected in such a collection. While many examples are the finest of their kind, others are less so, reflecting the difficulties of assembling a major collection of international standard over a relatively short period. Each work is meticulously described by Linda Leach, and sited in both the literary and stylistic context to which it belongs. Dr Leach has attempted to provide a coherent narrative to the period of Islamic painting covered in this book, and the structure of the chapter appears somewhat strained as she attempts to fit her text around an uneven collection. Nonetheless, Dr Leach has provided with this catalogue another body of material for study and enjoyment, adding to her already substantial contributions to the field of Indian painting. The book is produced to high production standards and illustrated in colour throughout.

o Linda Leach, Paintings from India (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999), 264 pp, 177 col. ills, £135 (hb)

ISBN 0197276296