A World in Miniature

Mughal Miniature: Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak presenting Akbarnama to the Grand Mogul Akbar

Mughal Miniature: Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak giving Akbarnama to Akbar

The historic, colourful and bustling city of Jaipur, Rajasthan, is home to some remarkable artists who are repositories of that ancient skill: the painting of miniatures. Miniatures that have found their way around the world! And, thanks to my meeting with one such extraordinary individual, a selection of Jaipur Miniatures now graces the display cases at Arastan.

It is no exaggeration to say, that every time I see a miniature, I am taken by surprise!

Its size never ceases to amaze me. Then there’s the intricate detail – down to the last, delicate eyelash resting on a rosy cheek. The smooth, flowing lines of the human body, a bird’s wings, a horse going full tilt. Vibrant, vivid colours – picked out in burnished (in fact 24 karat!) gold and sparkling silver.

Amazing! And to think that the Indian miniature is an art form that can be traced back to about the 10th century. Maybe a little bit of time travel is now called for…

Life portrayed in mere inches

This is a timeless world where men and women, birds and animals, trees and flowers are depicted on an impossibly small scale. On talking to the artists behind the magic, I found that they are quite matter-of- fact about the skill, experience and talent that go into the making of these miniatures. One of these brilliant artists, I found out, has been doing this for over 30 years, winning a number of awards and much accolade in the process!

Ancient Temple Carvings at Ajanta and Ellora Caves

Ancient Temple Carvings at Ajanta and Ellora Caves
© Danial Chitnis

The earliest examples of miniature painting in India exist in the form of illustrations to religious texts on Buddhism executed under the Palas of Eastern India. The 10th century illustrated Buddhist text, Prajnaparamita, is the first known example of a painting on a canvas of miniature size. In style, the Pala miniatures resemble contemporary bronze and stone sculptures of that age, reflecting some of the classical art forms found at Ajanta and Ellora Caves in Maharashtra.

Between the 10th and 12th centuries, miniature painting evolved further in Western India. Generally two to four inches in size, these miniatures illustrate Hindu and Jain manuscripts and are largely to be found in the region comprising Gujarat, Rajasthan and the Malwa area of Madhya Pradesh.

This was principally due to the support given to this art form by the Kings of the Chalukya Dynasty who ruled Gujarat, and parts of Rajasthan and Malwa, from 961 AD to the end of the 13th century. An enormous number of beautifully illustrated Jain religious manuscripts were commissioned from 12th to 16th centuries by the princes, with their ministers and rich Jain merchants who, not wanting to be left behind, enthusiastically followed suit!

Kamancheh Player, painting from Hasht Behesht Palace, Isfahan, 1669

Kamancheh Player, painting from Hasht Behesht Palace, Isfahan, 1669

During Mughal rule, the art of miniature painting grew and developed. While doing my research, I found that the Mughal style of miniature painting is a happy synthesis of indigenous Indian style and the Safavid school of Persian painting – a style based on close observation of nature, with images captured in fine, delicate lines.

As I studied the Jaipur miniatures (painted in the Mughal style) in the Arastan Collection, I saw that these miniatures are, indeed, a lovely blend of Indian, Persian and Islamic styles. The best of all worlds, I thought to myself! Mughal miniatures featured the pomp and pageantry of life in the royal courts and palaces as well as depictions of plants, flowers and animals. Mughal kings wanted visual records of their deeds as hunters, conquerors and rulers.

Their artists accompanied them on military expeditions and missions of state; recorded their prowess as animal slayers; and depicted them during the great dynastic ceremonies of marriage.

The Mughal School of painting actually began during the reign of Emperor Akbar in 1560 AD. At the beginning of his rule, he established an atelier of painting under the supervision of two Persian masters, Mir Sayyed Ali and Abdul Samad Khan. A large number of Indian artists from all over India were recruited to work under these Persian masters. More than a hundred painters were employed, most of who were actually Hindus from Gujarat, Gwalior and Kashmir!

These bygone artists (unheralded and unsung) used a palette of natural colours, derived from insects, shells, minerals and vegetable matter, as well as silver and gold, to bring miniature paintings to vibrant life. Real gold leaf is generally understood to be ultra-thin sheets hammered out of pure (92%) gold, which gives them a rich and regal look. This process of gold leafing has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years and is still done by hand. A variety of materials were used as surfaces to paint on: from handmade paper and boards of wood to ivory and marble. Paintings were done using squirrel brushes, sometimes with just a single strand of fur! Looking at the incredibly fine lines, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the effort and care involved in painting these miniatures.

Emperor Jahangir receiving his two sons: album-painting in gouache on paper, c1605-06

Emperor Jahangir receiving his two sons: album-painting in gouache on paper, c1605-06

During Emperor Jahangir’s rule, miniature paintings acquired greater charm, refinement and dignity. He had a great fascination for nature and delighted in the portraiture of birds, animals and flowers. Paintings from this period are remarkable for their superb illustrations, fine modelling and realism.

There is liberal use of gold on the borders, which are decorated with floral designs. Quite often, text in Persian appears along the borders. Under Emperor Shah Jehan, Mughal paintings maintained their fine quality but the style, however, became florid and over-blown during the latter part of his reign.

The Jaipur miniatures in the Arastan Collection have all the best aspects of Mughal miniatures. The artist, whose skilled and experienced hands work their magic on even old, used government stamp papers, is the proud successor of an artistic tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

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