Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire at the British Library

By Sophie Furse | 20 November 2012
An image of an ancient illustration of an Indian man wearing a beautiful orange robe
Portrait of Prince Dara Shikoh (1631-32)© British Library Board, Add.Or.3129 folio 59v
Exhibition Review: Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, London, until April 2 2013

Thousands of men press forward in murky cavalry herds. Behind a billowing, crushing, curve of canon explosion, their army decapitates Afghan opponents, trampling them under elephant foot and raping the besieged castle’s women with graphic acuity.

An image of an illustration of a tree in India hundreds of years ago with squirrels in it
Squirrels in a Plane Tree© British Library Board, Johnson Album 1,30
This is Mughal India: the third Battle of Panipat, illustrated in around 1761 by an anonymous court artist in the miniature tradition.

The British Library’s Mughal India display covers an immense range of the Mughal culture, representing a dynasty spanning some 300 years (1527-1857), covering territory from Kabul in north Calcutta, in the east, to Chennai in the south.

From the Instructional Poem for Pigeon Fanciers and the melancholic photograph of the diminished final ruler before execution to coins treasured Persian manuscripts and architectural drawings, this is an exhibition which excites all manner of historical and aesthetic interests.

Humour, beauty, explicit sex, international relations and insanity; the miniature paintings, in particular, demonstrate the artistic heights of the Mughal empire. The folios on display cover a impressive range of examples.

The Battle of Panipat, made in around 1761, is a literal illustration of thousands of men and their savage battle.

An image of an illustration of ornately-robed men in a court in India hundreds of years ago
Prince Aurangzeb Reports to Emperor Shah Jahan in Durbar (1650-55)© British Library Board, Add.Or.3853
Conversely, the squirrels in A Wonder of Time, made by Abu’l Hassan at the start of the 17th century, are playful, and the royal sex scene of more than a century later, Muhammad Shah Making Love, is even a little perturbing.

One of the treasures of the Mughal library – a folio by revered Persian painter Bizhad, made in 1495 – is a joy to see.

Bizhad is perhaps the most famous artist of the Persian tradition, and this exquisite painting is a small indicator of the Persian school’s definitive influence on Mughal painting.

The depiction of Europeans (most likely Jesuit missionaries) drinking tea at the start of the 17th century has to be one of the best works here, if only for their slightly camp expressions, askew hats and drapery flowing in a style directly lifted from the renaissance prints and paintings the Europeans brought with them to the Indian subcontinent.

Madness is apparent in the miniature painting of Sufis in Ecstasy, by Muhammad Nadir Al-Samarqandi, where men hug, dance and cry in religious fervour, this time painted in the Bizhad-admiring-school of Bokhara.

This exhibition is one worthy of examination with a magnifying glass. It is essential to visit, as the detail and subtlety achieved in these magnificent artworks is never done justice in reproduction.

The greater historical remit the exhibition undertakes is also extraordinarily interesting – you may still find yourself engaged after three hours, if a little squinty eyed and tired.

It is, perhaps, an unfortunately less well-known period in global art history. Anyone with the vaguest interest will be rewarded by getting up close and experiencing the beauty of these paintings.

Mir Kalan Khan’s painting of a princess watching a maid kill a snake, from the late 18th century, perhaps sums it up; funny, full of irreverent detail and an insight into what was a vast courtly culture.

  • Open 9.30am-6pm (8pm Tuesday, 5pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday, click herel for seasonal closures). Tickets £5-£10. Book online. Visit the library on Twitter @britishlibrary.
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