William Dalrymple Love Affair with Mughal art: Princes and Painter in Mughal India an exhibition by in New York

At the peak of their power in the mid-seventeenth century, the Great Mughals were the richest and most powerful Islamic dynasty of their day. They ruled over some 100 million subjects—five times the number commanded by their only rivals, the Ottomans. From the ramparts of the Delhi Red Fort, the seat of power, Shah Jahan—the Emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal— controlled almost all of India, the whole of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as much of Afghanistan. The latter, then known as Khorassan, the Mughals held more successfully than any other invader, before or since.

For their impoverished contemporaries in the distant west, floundering in their codpieces and doublets, the Mughals became symbols of power, sophistication, luxury and might–  in Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, the cities of Mughal India are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God’s creation. These are attributes with which the word ‘mogul’ is still loaded four hundred years later: when someone writes today of a Hollywood or Real Estate mogul, they are unwittingly recalling the impression the Mughals made on our befuddled Elizabethan ancestors.

Sooner or later, all Empires fall, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century, just as the British were beginning to make their presence felt on the coasts and seaports of India, the political power of the Mughals had begun to fall apart in the most spectacular fashion. As the provinces broke off one by one, the imperial capital of Delhi descended into violent chaos. Three Emperors were murdered, while one of them, Farrukhsiyyar, was imprisoned and starved, then later blinded with a hot needle and strangled; the mother of another ruler was also throttled while the father of a third was forced off a precipice on his elephant.

It has long been believed that the art and architecture of the Mughals followed a similar trajectory to their political fortunes: that from the triumphs of the period of Shah Jahan, notably the great Padshahnama, subject of a spectacular exhibition at the Queen’s Galleries in 1997, Mughal art rapidly declined. Shah Jahan’s puritical son, the Emperor Aurangzeb, is often said to have disbanded the Imperial painting atelier, and later Emperors were assumed to have failed to muster either the resources, or the energy, to restore it. Successive sackings of Delhi by Persian and Afghan invaders, the coming of the colonial British, followed finally by the arrival of photography, have traditionally been seen to have dealt the final death blows that killed the Mughal miniature tradition.

Today few specialists would hold with such a bald version of events, but it certainly remains true that the art of the later Mughals remains under-studied and much under-appreciated. This is one reason why, over the last five years, the art historian Yuthika Sharma and I have been sourcing and putting together the first ever exhibition of late Mughal art, aiming to showcase the neglected masterpieces of this fascinating transitional period and to provide a taste of the extraordinary strength, colour, and vivacity of the work produced in the Mughal capital at this time. Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857 opened recently at the Asia Society in New York. The whole project has taken far longer and was much more of a struggle than I could possibly envisaged at the start; but I am ecstatic about the results. The Asia Society has done a fabulous job of designing the show and pulling it all together, and to its happy co-curator at least, it looks just beautiful.

The show is part of a much wider reassessment of the later Mughal period that has been going on for some time.  It is now recognised that despite its political decline, Delhi remained a major artistic and cultural centre for 150 years after its military and economic power had ebbed, and despite much diminished resources, the later Emperors continued to patronize remarkable artists and poets with Medici-like discrimination. Art historians are only now coming to recognize that the work of this period is every bit as interesting and innovative, and arguably more diverse and surprising, than the art produced under their better-known predecessors.

One of the first exhibits shows the longest surviving sovereign of the age, the Emperor Muhammad Shah II, 1719-48, (called Rangila,  the Merrymaker), playing Holi, the Bacchanalian Hindu spring festival  of colours. The painting, by Bhupali Singh, dates from about 1737, less than three decades after the death of Aurangzeb, yet already we have moved as far as can be imagined from the joyless world of the puritan Mughal. Now a Muslim Emperor joins in a Hindu festival, throwing colour bombs at his favourite courtesan, Gulab Bai, as female musicians play tablas and sarangis and the court dissolves into a riot of bright yellows, purples, oranges and inferno reds.

Muhammad Shah, depicted by Bhupali Singh as an eye-shadow-wearing dandy, was the longest surviving sovereign of the age. He seems to have survived by the simple ruse of giving up any pretence of ruling: in the morning he watched partridge and elephant fights; in the evenings he was entertained by jugglers, ventriloquists, and mime artists, while the Emperor watched on, often dressed in a lady’s peshwaz and pearl-embroidered shoes. But while presiding over the decline of Mughal political power, Muhammad Shah also proved to be a discerning patron, employing such master artists as Nidha Mal (active 1735–75) and Chitarman (active 1715-1760), whose great masterworks show bucolic scenes of court life, Diwali firework parties alive with sprinklers and rockets,  hunting and hawking, and even the Emperor making love.

Again and again the artists of the period return to the idyll of the Mughal pleasure garden, a hint of escapism, perhaps in reaction to the frequently violent reality.  There is a direct parallel to the spirit of Restoration London: after the grim chill of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, with the theatres closed and festivities banned, society reacted to the enforced Puritanism by heading wildly in the opposite direction. In Delhi this was, for example, the age of the great poet-courtesans: Ad Begum would turn up stark naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice: “she decorates her legs with beautiful drawings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them.”

In addition to re-establishing the imperial painting atelier, Muhammad Shah presided over a cultural and intellectual renaissance, as Delhi’s scholars, mystics, musicians, poets and painters increased in fame as fast as her military fortunes diminished, and the city was enlivened by a culture of coffee houses and literary salons.

Rich and cultured as it was, shorn of its provinces and most of its army, Delhi remained unprotected, a valuable jewel ready to be seized by the first adventurer bold enough to take it. That man proved to be Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia. In 1739, Nadir Shah defeated the Mughal army and advanced on Delhi. After several of his soldiers were killed in a bazaar brawl, Nadir Shah ordered a massacre. At the end of a single day’s slaughter, 150,000 of the city’s citizens lay dead and the accumulated wealth gathered by the Mughal Emperors was taken away to Teheran in a caravan of several thousand carts and camels. Among the treasures looted were the Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan and the Koh-i-Noor diamond.  Two further sackings of the city followed, this time by Afghans, until in 1803 the British arrived to fill the power vacuum.

During the eighteenth century, the East India Company had transformed itself from a coastal trading organization into an aggressive proto-colonial government. Yet in Delhi, initial contact between these two powers was surprisingly positive. The first Company ‘Residents,’ or ambassadors to the Mughal court, immersed themselves in its culture, wore Mughal dress, took Mughal wives, and became important patrons of Mughal painting, reviving and transforming the art of the capital in the process.

The first British Resident, the Boston-born Sir David Ochterlony (1758–1825) set the tone. A miniature in the exhibition shows Ochterlony wearing turban and kurta pyjamas and smoking a huqqa while watching a troupe of Delhi dancers perform. From the picture rail above, Ochterlony’s outraged Scottish ancestors peer down disapprovingly. When in the Indian capital, Ochterlony liked to be addressed  by his full Moghul title, Nasir-ud-Daula (Defender of the State) and he had a jade Persian seal made to commemorate its conferral, which sits gleaming brightly in the exhibition beside the miniature of its owner.

Though Ochterlony is reputed to have had thirteen wives,  each of whom had her own elephant, one of these,  Mubarak Begum, took precedence over the others. She offended the British by calling herself ‘Lady Ochterlony’- in one letter it is recorded that ‘Lady Ochterlony has applied for leave to make the Hadge to Mecca’- and also offended the  Mughals by awarding herself the title Qudsia Begum, previously the title of the Emperor’s mother.  It was for her that Ochterlony built the last of the great Mughal garden tombs whose design, seen in another miniature, pleasingly mixes a domed church tower topped with a cross, hedged around with a forest  of minarets and very Islamic-looking Timurid semi-domes and cupulas.

Ochterlony was however by no means alone in his Indianized tastes. When the wife of the British commander in chief in India visited Delhi in 1810, she was horrified by what she saw. It was not just Ochterlony, who had “gone native,” she reported; his two assistants “both wear immense whiskers, and neither will eat beef or pork, being as much Hindoos as Christians.” One of these men, William Fraser (1784–1835) a Persian scholar from Inverness, lived in Delhi for three decades, making perhaps the most interesting journey of any British figure of the period, transforming himself into a White Mughal with an Indian family and close relationships with the most interesting artistic, theological, and political figures of the day, notably the greatest of the city’s poets, Ghalib (1797–1869) of whom he became a prominent patron.


Fraser became a crucial figure in Delhi’s artistic development and the Fraser Album, which he commissioned was the supreme masterpiece of the period.  Indeed the best works produced in Delhi under Company patronage show a sympathy with the Mughal world quite at odds with the usual post-colonial stereotypes of colonial philistinism and insensitivity. The Fraser Album with its detailed portraits of Delhi’s soldiers, noblemen, holy men, dancing girls, and villagers, as well as Fraser’s staff and his bodyguards, are unparalleled in Indian art, and in the New York show we have managed to gather the largest collection of Fraser pages assembled since the album was split and sold off at auction some thirty years ago.


Particularly remarkable are the images of the village of Rania which was home to Fraser’s mistress, Amiban, and his two Anglo-Indian sons, and daughter. Fraser’s connection to the village means that there is an intimacy here quite unlike the usual Mughal or colonial commissions of generic ‘rustics’. The wild-looking and handsome villagers are living breathing individuals and are superbly painted with a realist flourish. These men were intimately known by Fraser, and formed part of his circle of acquaintances—as he wrote himself, the images recorded “recollections that never can leave my heart.”


The name of the master artist of the Fraser Album has not survived, but he was part of the circle of the last great family of artists to work for the Mughal court. The head of that family described himself in an inscription on his most celebrated pictures, the Corination Portrait of Bahadur Shah Zafar II—a fabulous icon of the Emperor looking as as ethereal and other-wordly as a desert father from the apse of some Coptic monastery, subject to the laws of gravity thanks only to the weight of the crown anchoring him to the terrestrial world– as “the hereditary slave of the dynasty, Ghulam Ali Khan the portraitist, resident at ShahJahanabad.” Elsewhere he signs himself simply “His Majesty’s Painter.”  Although Ghulam Ali Khan’s family were very proud of their status as hereditary painters to the Mughal throne, the truth was slightly more complex. The court no longer had sufficient funds to employ Ghulam Ali Khan’s family exclusively, and to survive the painter had to moonlight as painter to other members of Delhi society. These included the Nawab of Jhajjar, who Ghulam Ali Khan memorably painted taking exercise astride his pet tiger, the Rajput-Scottish mercenary James ‘Sikander Sahib’ Skinner and several British diplomats, as well as Fraser himself.

Traditionally, art historians have conceived of early Colonial commissions of Indian artists as ‘Company School Painting,’ which they see as something quite separate from the art of the Late Mughal court. It is argued in this exhibition that such distinctions are actually meaningless, for in Delhi at this period the same artists were working in similar styles for very different patrons. Just as Delhi at this period saw a remarkable intellectual renaissance as new scientific and theological ideas from the west impacted on the Mughal scholars of the town, so the Delhi court artists were experminting at will with western styles and western materials, taking what they liked from both worlds, exerting their own agency to define character and style and experimenting with the different traditions with both confidence and grace.

As British arrogance increased towards the mid-nineteenth century, this brief dialogue of civilizations drew to a close; mutual interest was replaced by mutual suspicion. On a May morning in 1857, three hundred of the Company’s Indian troops mutinied, rode to Delhi, massacred the British, and declared the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar to be their leader.  During the four hottest months of the Indian summer, the capital was besieged and bombarded.  Finally, on September 14, 1857, the British assaulted the city, massacring and looting as they went. Anyone who survived was driven into the countryside. Delhi was left an empty ruin and the last Mughal exiled to Burma where he died. But as this show demonstrates, this is a period both of huge historical interest and great artistic value. The late Mughals left much that was astonishingly beautiful; and there is far more to admire and love about their art than has ever been previously understood.

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Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857 is on at the Asia Society Museum in Park  Avenue, New York until May 6th 2012. The catalogue of the show is published by Yale University Press.


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