The fascinating story of the Indian portrait reveals a rich and complex past: absorbing influences from Iran and Europe; encompassing the real and the ideal, the observed and the imagined. The paintings and drawings tell us about patronage and artistic vision and how Indians saw themselves and wished to be seen.
Jahangir receiving Prince Khurram at Ajmer
Mughal, attributed to 'Abid, c. 1635
Royal Collection © 2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Portraiture at the Mughal court
Accurate portraits of living people started to be produced at the Mughal court for the Emperor Akbar (r.1556–1605) in the late sixteenth century. Traditional likenesses of the ancestors of the Mughal dynasty had already been produced, but Akbar required realistic depictions of his many courtiers. They were painted with a new naturalism that was partly a result of the influence of Western printed images that were brought to the court by visiting Europeans, such as Jesuit missionaries. This replaced the less-naturalist Iranian style that was used by the earliest Mughal artists.
Portraits continued to be an important element ofMughal court art under Akbar’s successors, Jahangir (r.1605–1627) and Shah Jahan (r.1628–1658). Concepts such as equestrian and group portraits became popular, and the profile bust-length portrait became especially favoured for images of the emperor.
Many of the most talented Mughal artists painted portraits not only of the emperors but also of holymen, musicians, scribes and lesser courtiers. These sympathetic portraits of ‘ordinary’ people often reveal the artists’ imagination and creativity even more clearly than the highly formalised images of the Mughal emperors.
Sultan Muhammad 'Adil Shah of Bijapur and Ikhlas Khan riding on an elephant
Bijapur, by Haidar 'Ali and Ibrahim Khan, c.1645
Portraiture in the Deccan sultanates
The Deccan (from Sanskrit dakshina meaning ‘south’) is the large central plateau that covers much of peninsular India. The five Islamic kingdoms or sultanates of Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapurand Golconda ruled over a large section of South-Central India, but they were gradually conquered by successive Mughal emperors from Akbar to Aurangzeb between 1596 and 1686.
Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda in particular were centres of art and learning, and because of their adherence to the Shi’a branch of Islam (unlike the Sunni Mughals) their artistic influences came from Iran and the Middle East as well as from their powerful Mughal neighbours and earlier South Indian traditions. Sophisticated styles of painting developed at these three courts, where artists were already familiar with portraiture before the Mughal conquests.
The ‘Adil Shahi dynasty of Bijapur commissioned some of the finest of all Indian paintings between about 1590 and 1680, and portraits of three generations of the ruling family are shown here, together with a fine, Mughal-style portrait of one of the many African officials working in the adjacent sultanate of Golconda.
Raja Bhupat Pal of Basohli smoking a huqqa
Mankot, c. 1685
Portraiture at the Rajput courts
The independent Hindu kingdoms of Rajasthan and the Hill (‘Pahari’) region north of Delhi were ruled by warrior clans known as Rajputs or ‘sons of kings’. The Rajput rulers had all been conquered by the Mughal emperors between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, and as a result had absorbed many aspects of Mughal culture into their own.
Portraiture was one of the ideas that came from the Mughal court but was taken up and developed within local idioms by artists working for the Rajput rulers. Some artists in Rajasthan and the Hills produced portraits which grew directly out of the Mughal love of realistic depiction of people, while others used local styles of painting, and less naturalistic representations, to suggest the sitter’s status or physical presence.
Bold colours, strong graphic line and undecorated backgrounds characterise many of the different schools of Rajput painting, some of which are identifiable with individual small courts or even single artists. While we know the names of a few of these artists, for example Nainsukh in the Hills and Bakhta in Rajasthan, most remain anonymous, unlike their renowned Mughal counterparts.
Banda, Bundelkhand by Uday Ram, 1809
From the collection of Claudio Moscatelli
Portraiture in the British Period
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British presence in India moved from that of a trading company to that of a ruling power. While some British artists found work there, Indian artists were also employed by the British to provide paintings of local scenes and people. They worked in a wide variety of styles and techniques, all showing the influence of European painting in different degrees. These are sometimes referred to as ‘Company’ paintings as some patronage came from employees of the East India Company, but Indian patrons also commissioned such work.
Indian artists painted portraits both of westerners living in India and of local residents, while female subjects also started to be painted from life. The use of shading and perspective, the abandoning of the traditional profile format and, from the mid-nineteenth century, the influence of photography all contributed to this mixture of Indian and western approaches to portraiture. While some of the portraits of this period appear a curious blend of Eastern and Western styles, others achieve a realism and presence rarely surpassed in India.