November 23, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 3/4)

titunamaScene from Tutinama (Tales of the Parrot), ca.1560

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


The Mughal Empire, a dynasty that presided over 4 million square kilometers of the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan at the height of its power, was comprised of a Turco-Mongol lineage whose rulers insisted on a Persianate culture. This choice was based on their belief that the Persian heritage was more sophisticated. Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the empire, spoke Chagatai Turkic as his native language. Yet he so admired the Persian language and culture that he sought to emulate all aspects of it in the establishment of his new court. Such an adoption, along with its continuation by his successors, indicates the way in which Mughal emperors tried to rescue their nomadic, cross-cultural heritage from the barbaric label that was implied in their reputation as military conquerors.

To Babur’s credit, his occupation as a warlord had no effect on his introspective tendency and sensitivity toward the natural world. His interest in the native flora and fauna of northern India, for instance, is given great focus in his writings, the most famous of which is his epic autobiography, the Baburnama. While these memoirs chiefly chronicle the advancement of Babur’s military career, they also reveal his thoughtful nature, erudition, and worldliness as someone who organized his Chagatai Turkic prose into Persian sentence structures, interspersed with Persian poems and phrases. Indeed, Babur, devoted naturalist and poetry enthusiast, was no barbarian. Unfortunately, however, his short reign of only four years disabled him from making further strides in the cultural realm.

His son, Humayun (1508-1556), inherited his father’s artistic inclination and showed it to a more significant degree. While his reign was not without its own problems—most notably, his fifteen-year exile—the fact that he found refuge at the court of the Persian Shah Tahmasp proved to be a blessing in disguise. There he saw the running of the Shah’s renowned painting atelier firsthand and was able to replicate it to great success once power was restored to him. When Humayun returned to his court in Kabul in 1549, he brought with him two of the Shah’s finest painters, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd as-Samad. As their patron he was attentive to their production processes, and he kept them so close by that he even had them accompany his military campaign when he retook Delhi in 1555. Despite Humayun’s ability to foster artistic talent within his court, however, the distinctive style that would begin to constitute Mughal art only came to light during the reign of his son, Akbar the Great (1556-1605).

Under Akbar’s rule, the Mughal Empire came into a golden age that tripled in both size and wealth. After creating a centralized system of government administration, which unified the state, the empire experienced one of its greatest periods of peace and prosperity. And, as with all golden ages, it also flourished culturally. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Akbar’s art patronage was how it was used as tool of governance. While the diverse ethnic landscape that Akbar’s territory encapsulated initially made it difficult for him to instill a sense of solidarity and loyalty in his subjects, by building an atelier that consisted of over a hundred Indian and Persian artists, who collaborated with one another to create a style of art that combined Indian and Persian visual elements, Akbar successfully fostered a new visual culture that his subjects could find pride in.

Popular subjects in this new mode included Persian fables depicted in Indian landscapes, as well as Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata that were rendered in the fine lines and realistic manner for which Persian painting was known. By this time, maritime trade with Europe had also allowed Akbar’s court to become familiar with the Western perspective in art, and as such, pictorial depth gradually became an element of the Mughal style as well. The range of visual material that Akbar’s atelier produced was a testament to the diversity of the Mughal Empire and the inclusiveness with which many of its emperors sought to rule.

Next (part 4/4): Samurai and the Tea Ceremony as a Political Instrument



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