Portrait of a Young Scholar

Artistic Stylistic Transmission in the Royal Mughal Atelier

by • November 6, 2011 • Art, PoliticsComments Off957

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The artistic school of Mughal India was formed through the transmission of techniques both directly and indirectly by master artists ofthe royal Mughal atelier. The methods of agency that perpetuated and aggregated such techniques in Mughal art were family ties, court sanctioned apprenticeships, and a joint work system of manuscript production. Family relationships within the atelier were the most primitive, however the most highly effective forms of artistic stylistic diffusion. These artists tended to be influenced early on in their careers by their relatives, but with exposure to other artists and styles in turn formed their own stylistic personas. The master apprentice relationship was also paramount to artistic transmission within the atelier. This relationship was an official relationship of court appointed instruction, meant to cultivate the talents of emerging artist. A third relationship that engendered artistic diffusion was the joint work system, where multiple artists would work on various aspects of one common manuscript illustration. Through this system, specialized artists performed specific tasks and lesser artists learned by studying from example rather then through instruction. Such methods of artistic transmission in the Mughal a telier helped to firmly establish a characteristic Mughal school.

Mughal painting finds its roots in the years preceding the founding of the Mughal Empire. The influence of the Safavid and Timurid styles to the Mughal School can be traced predominantly through the master apprentice relationship. The Mughals, descendents of the Timurid dynasty of Central Asia originally shaped their style, from masters trained in the historic traditions of their ancestors. There are many artistic links from the Central Asian and Persian dynasties to the Mughals, however one is fundamental to Mughal artistic development. The most direct and influential link starts with the Timurid master and director of the Timurid imperial library, the artist Aqa Mirak. Aqa Mirak, a key figure in the Timurid art world, exerted his influence on future Mughal artists through his pupil and adopted son, prolific Timurid painter Bihzad (History.com). Aqa Mirak’s training Bihzad left an indelible mark on Bihzad’s artistic style. Bihzad though left Central Asia to work in the Safavid court where he flourished. While in Iran, he proved to be particularly talented, helping to establish and standardize the stylistic conventions of Safavid manuscript painting.
While working at the Safavid court, Bihzad trained two artists, who both directly and arrantly influenced the future Mughal school. Both of these artists rose to the prestigious position of supervisor of the Mughal atelier. Khwaja Abdu s-Samad later became head of the imperial mint and so did Mir Sayyid Ali, son of the famous Safavid artist Mir Musavvir (Pal, 174). These master painters brought years of experience to the Mughal court, trained in techniques steeped in Persian and Timurid traditions. Master artists of the imperial Mughal atelier had direct and profound influence over the artistic stylistic development of their contemporaries’ and over the developing talents and directions of lesser artist’s styles.
Mir Sayyid Ali was brought to India by the emperor Humayun when he reconquered the Mughal Empire in 1555 (Pal, 174). After Humayun’s death, Mir Sayyid Ali was appointed head of the royal workshop at Fatehpur-Sikri by Akbar. The royal Mughal atelier, after the reconsolidation of the empire, was a collection of artists working in diverse artistic traditions of India, Persia, and Central Asia and later Europe. His most important contribution to the Mughal style was his direction and supervision of the first four volumes of the Hamzanama manuscript, a prolific manuscript, containing an astounding fourteen hundred images. Ali’s departure from the court to undertake a Hajj prevented him from finishing the Hamzanama manuscript. Ali died in Mecca, never returning to India (Pal, 175). His replacement as head of the Mughal workshop was Khwaja Abdu s-Samad, a contemporary Safavid artist and fellow pupil of Bihzad while in Tabriz. Susan Stronge, while discussing specific Persian techniques regarding figural form, absorbed by the two master artists from Bihzad, exclaims that, “Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdu’s Samad [Khwaja Abdu s-Samad]…under Bihzad’s strong influence or direct tutelage, must have carried this idiosyncratic feature to Mughal India” (Stronge, 26). Bihzad’s influence on Mughal art, however indirect, was dominant; he trained two supervisors of the royal Mughal workshop and contributed largely to the foremost influential style of the Safavid School.
The preferences of the Mughal emperor were the driving force in stylistic changes that occurred in the Mughal School. The Safavid manuscript illustration, Mihr Kills a Ferocious Lion, was produced in the traditional Persian style that was in use around the time Khwaja Abdu s-Samad trained in Tabriz. (Beach EMP, 38) In this scene the horizon line is very high, the ground area between ridges is flat, creating the effect of limited spatial recession. Throughout the painting there is a restricted employment of modeling, the clothing on figures is flat and there is almost no shading. Even as matured developed master artists, both of these painters absorbed many stylistic differentiations and innovations when they arrived in India. Both of the Persian masters would have been working in styles similar to this when they first started working at Humayun’s and Akbar’s courts respectively.
Upon arriving at the Mughal court both masters had to incorporate some techniques from local artists already in the employment of the Mughals into their personal styles. The combination of local artist techniques and the Safavid style of the Persian masters started to form the prototype for courtly expectations. The illustration A Prince Hunting with Falcons was painted by Khwaja Abdu s-Samad, only approximately six years after he had left Iran (Beach EMP, 59). The differences in styles are subtle but apparent. The Mughal painting contains a higher level of natural details, with more attention given to the animals and plant depictions. While still a high horizon line persists and space is not articulated with precise dimensionality, the rocks, shrubs and grass detailed throughout the painting enhance the amount of space perceived between ridges on the ground. The use of shading is more prevalent in the figural depictions, while the clothing is mostly flat. Some shading and volume can be seen developing with vague folds in the clothing, contrasting the Safavid, Mihr Kills a Ferocious Lion. The painting, A Prince Hunting with Falcons, is distinctly Mughal for the fore mentioned reasons, but heavy Persian influence can be seen in the rest of the stylistic aesthetics. These influences include but are not limited to: some flattening of spatial orientation, a relatively high horizon line, and low levels of shading and modeling. In addition the horses legs curve unnaturally while the body seems flat and ridges that separate figures and action going on in the scene.

The painting Portrait of a Young Scholar, done by Mir Sayyid Ali under Humayun while in Kabul, exemplifies the master painter’s ongoing adaptation of new techniques to his more traditional Persian style engendering the naissance of the Mughal School (Pal, 191-3). Negotiating the differences, there is no patterned applied to the plants and they are spaced out more naturally on the ground throughout the scene and a relatively higher level of shading and modeling is applied to the figure then in contemporary Safavid works. The solitary figure and objects on the ground appear to be floating rather then kneeling or being placed on the ground. While some aspects of the painting such as the blanket and plants placed vertically in the foreground create orthogonals portraying the recession of space, other objects in the painting such as the papers on the ground retard this effect. Real reconciliation and cohesion with the more Indian and European Mughal tendencies being utilized by local artist in the atelier can be seen in some of Mir Sayyid Ali’s other work such as Humayun’s Garden Party. This illustration shows that Mir Sayyid Ali had attained a comfortable equilibrium of techniques, standardized as the Mughal style. Here no person or object appears to be floating and even the horizon line has descended from the more standard Persian height and rocks are painted in a more horizontal fashion then the jagged vertical nature of the preceding composition.

When young artistic talent was recognized at the Mughal court, the young artists were assigned to train and work under the auspices of a more experienced master artist. Khwaja Abdu s-Samad, while over seeing the completion of the Hamzanama, Razmnama, Akbarnama, and other Mughal manuscripts, also saw to the cultivation of the talents of two future prolific Mughal painters, Basawan and Daswanth. Daswanth, pupil of Khwaja Abdu s-Samad, was a contemporary and courtly artistic rival of Basawan who also matured into a master at the Mughal court. According to Abu’l Fazl, Akbar’s most trusted confidant, “Daswant [Daswanth]…was placed under the guidance of Khwaja Abdu s-Samad and within a short time surpasses all painters and became the foremost master painter of his age” (Verma, 37). Daswanth’s historical artistic inheritance however was not extensively passed on through the master apprentice relationship that he had benefited from. He committed suicide in 1584 at the height of his career (Beach, 68).

There were many artists’ families in he Mughal atelier, however few reached the notoriety of the family of the artist Basawan. Basawan, a Hindu from a low cast was recognized at a young age for his talent and placed under the supervision of both Persian masters under Akbar. Basawan was eventually placed fourth on Abu’l Fazl’s list of the most talented artist of the age (Beach, 24). Originally working in a distinctly Indian style, according to Okada “he had to consequently modify and adapt his style to Persian tastes” (Okada, 4). An example of his attempt to reconcile these styles can be seen in the miniature work attributed to him in the Anvar-i-Suhaili, where the landscape is distinctly Persian while the depiction of the treatment of animals and thatched huts is in a more Indian tradition (Okada, 4). Basawan modified and adapted his style throughout his career, to include the Persian standardizations required of him by the court and the European techniques he was being continuously exposed to through the court’s diplomatic relations. Basawan, however, retained his distinct Indian mannerisms in his art, which is something he bequeathed onto his son, the highly praised and exulted Mughal artist Manohar. Basawan contributed work to all of the major Akbari manuscripts. His work can be found in the Hamzanama, Razmnama, Tuti-nama, Akbarnama and many other lesser known manuscripts as well as individual miniatures. Because of his extensive manuscript work many lesser artist were able to work with Basawan through the joint work system, enabling them to gain valuable incite from the master artist.
Manohar, like his father, was one of the most accomplished artists of his time. Born to a consummate artist of the Mughal atelier Manohar was know as khanazadan, or born at the court, privy to the esoteric inner circle of court life (McInerney, 54). Manohar was guided and taught by his father and his father’s influence is easily distinguishable in Manohar’s style. The artistic foundations of his style were strongly inclined to perpetuate his father’s Indian stylistic tendencies, with some infusion of European and Persian techniques as required by the court. Though born at court at the height of the hybridization of the various schools practiced in the royal workshop, he matured as an artist and only reconciled his Indian tendencies with the hybrid Mughal style, towards the second half of Akbar’s reign (McInerney, 54). It was only when he broke away from his genealogical influence that he became a renowned master artist. His work under Jahangir as a portrait artist is particularly exquisite and some of the finest examples that can be found of Mughal portraiture. “Manohar became the portrait painter of choice during the early years of Jahangir’s reign” according to McInerney (McInernery, 55). Portraiture and a documentarian style of animal depictions were some of the most extolled forms of artistic representation and an increasingly important subject matters and favorite subjects of the emperor Jahangir. Jahangir Enthroned, is a great example of the powerful portraiture done by Manohar, this documentarian style of illustrations had become almost a fanatical obsession of the emperor. Working in conjunction with fellow master Mansur, each artist contributed their individual specialty; with Manohar completing the exquisite depiction of the emperor and Mansur sumptuously and expertly decorating the throne on with the emperor is seated. Manohar’s portraiture while highly celebrated is drastically distinct from his father’s style of figural representation. However his portrayal of other subjects even late into his career, to his detriment, even losing favor in court, carried on his father’s distinct Indian training.
The master Khwaja Abdu s-Samad had two sons who worked at the Mughal court as artists, Bihzad and Muhammud Sharif. The latter like his father became the supervisor of the imperial atelier when Khwaja Abdu s-Samad was appointed head of the mint in Fatehpur-Sikri. Khwaja Abdu s-Samad was responsible for the supervision and completion of the royal manuscripts, and also personally contributed some of the manuscript pages. His responsibilities as a father and instructor though, continued throughout his tenure at the atelier. Khwaja Abdu s-Samad’s only non-administrative contribution to the Darab-nama manuscript was corrections made on his son Bihzad’s solitary folio page (Beach, 215). Muhammud Sharif later moved to Allahabad to join the workshop of Prince Salim, who as Emperor Jahangir vehemently extolled the work of the artists of his workshop.
Aqa Riza was another Safavid artist who worked for Jahangir while he was still Prince Salim. He and his son Abu’l Hasan both worked in Prince Salim’s personal workshop in Allahabad. Later after Prince Salim became Emperor Jahangir both artists worked for him at the royal court, later joined by Aqa Riza’s other son and artist Abid around 1615 (History.com). It was Abu’l Hasan that became the more celebrated of the two brothers being dubbed by Jahangir “Wonder of the Age”(Verma, 7). Abu’l Hasan’s style was different then the styles of other contemporary Mughal artists. His father coming later from Persia, than the pervious Persian masters in the workshop, instilled a newer variation of strong Persian influence in his son’s artistic style. He blended these strong Persian traditions that learned from his father, with the contemporary Mughal style, which at this time was, not only firmly influence by older Persian, Central Asian and Indian sources by now had fully adopted and integrated European conventions and techniques. One of Abu’l Hasan’s pupils was Murar, who utilized some his master’s more plainly Persian motifs (Beach et al, 80). Murar who is attributed to the Padshahnama illustration The Siege of Daulatabad, can be seen using more Mughal than Persian conventions in his portrayal of a landscape but reminiscent traces of Persian styles can still be felt. The high horizon line and depiction of buildings is still slightly more in line with traditional Persian conventions, than can be seen in other contemporary works from the Padshahnama, such as The Siege of Landahar done by Payag.
The artist Mahesh and his sons Miskin and Asi comprise another particularly prominent artistic family at the Mughal court. Mahesh and his son Miskin, were both placed on Abu’l Fazl’s, list of the 17 most esteemed artist of the age, at 12 and 8 respectively (Beach, 24). Asi, brother of Miskin, also was active in the Mughal atelier, completing coloring for works done by his brother and other masters such as Kesu Das and Daswanth. Mahesh’s influence over his children is evident in some of Miskin’s work. Because Asi was a colorist it is hard to see his father’s influence, but Miskin’s work does expose the influence of his father. Beach points out that in Miskin’s earlier paintings “the mountain forms of these first paintings…are similar to…shapes of the older artist…” (Beach,124). Miskin’s work is similar to Abu’s Hasan’s work in combining the previously developed Mughal style, with many of the stylistic tendencies that they were taught by their fathers.
The joint work system was a systemic system of collaboration that had been developed in order to accelerate the production of manuscript illustrations under Akbar in the royal atelier. Under Akbar an unprecedented amount of manuscript production was undertaken, requiring the expediency of this novel system of artistic collaboration. The system required the more talented and experienced artists execute the more technically difficult portions of the illustrations. Mean while the less experienced and/or talented artist perform the less complicated portions of the work since it required less technical proficiency. Artist such as Manohar for portraiture and Mansur for animal depictions were assigned these specific parts of the manuscript illustrations to enhance these features. The less skilled artist was assigned to complete this work and in the process to study the example of the master artists through exposure to their works. According to Verma “such collaboration between senior artist and apprentices was undoubtedly indispensable for forming an independent though composite style of art, the Mughal Qalam or school” (Verma, 37). Developing young artist had a chance to examine the work of the masters in detail, obliging the artist to study the styles and techniques employed and successfully utilized by the masters.
The artist Mansur, who later was christened “Uniqueness of the Age” by Jahangir for his proficiency in his portrayal of animals, collaborated on works, with the masters Basawan and Kanha at a young age. Examination of his later works reveals that he comprehended and utilized a large wealth of knowledge from his work with these artists. Basawan and Kanha were master artists and were renowned for their depiction of animal forms (Beach, 81). Referring to Mansur’s and fellow artist Hoseins’s time working with Basawan as colorists, Okada states that “although only humble colorist responsible for finishing the master’s works, they gradually strengthen their talent through their association with him” (Okada, 4). A folio from the Akbarnama, Husain Quli presents prisoners of war from Lahore, represents some of the early colorist work done by Mansur for Basawan. This outline done by Basawan contains only one live animal, a bird, but many animal skins draped over prisoners. The bird though is of particular interest, Mansur who under Jahangir was required to perfect the aspects of realism and naturalism in his art, surpassed Basawan’s depiction of a bird on these terms. Jahangir demanded documentarian proficiency of his artist’s as it suited his personal taste. Mansur’s later depiction of a bird in a 1612 miniature attributed to him, A Turkey Cock. This illustration contains a much higher level of realism or the enhancement of minute details such as the feathers, shading and modeling that show more technical complexity, then Basawan’s bird in Husain Quli presents prisoners of war from Lahore.
Mansur also worked with Kanha while he was leading Mughal artists in the representation of animals. Beach says that collaboration on these animal works “may well have had a major impact on Mansur …many of whose works continue the elder artist’s manner so closely” (Beach, 81). Mansur carried many of Kanha’s standardized artistic techniques late into his career: a simple background, few plants placed rhythmically, use of plain, and concentration on animals (Beach, 81). Collaboration with Kanha explains where Mansur gained his intimate knowledge of animals displayed in his artwork. Mansur, like many artists assimilated other artists’ techniques by collaboration and absorption through the joint work system.
The Mughal atelier was a complex amalgamation of artists working in the ever fusing and changing Mughal School. Grounded in Persian and Central Asian styles, Mughal artists assimilated techniques taken from Indian as well as European sources. Prototypically working under the same roof in the royal atelier, exposure to other artists and their form heavily influenced the artistic direction of many contemporaries. Family relations represented the most basic methods of artistic transmission within the atelier. The transference of artistic techniques however was furthermore facilitated through direct instruction in the master apprentice relationship and through exposure to the techniques of masters in the joint work system. These three forms of artistic transmission along with the artistic expectations of the Mughal emperor effetely shaped and cultivated the Mughal School of manuscript illustration. 

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