The emperors strike back: The artistic treasures of the Muslim Mughal dynasty

Indian art began to flourish 500 years ago when East met West. Adrian Hamilton marvels at the masterpieces of the Muslim Mughal dynasty in a wonderful new show at the British Library

The British have always had special regard for the Mughal Emperors, who ruled India from 1526 to 1858. They were intelligent, cultured and tough – all virtues in the eyes of Westerners who came to India, awestruck by the luxury of the imperial court and the extent of its conquests.

It's not an admiration, it should be said, shared by most modern Indians, who tend to dismiss their rule as just one more foreign incursion in a history of many millennia. Nor did British respect last a moment longer than the Mughal's failure to support the British in the uprising of the Indian Mutiny. Tried, condemned and exposed to public gaze, the last Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, was sent to a pathetic exile in Burma in 1858, where he died four years later.

In the meantime, the British amassed a host of visual and literary treasures, not least from the imperial library itself, to be shipped back to England for study and display. The British Library has more than its fair share, a great deal more indeed than I'd ever suspected. They are as good as anything in India itself and, if sometimes reading the origin of these works, one feels it a qualm of conscience, it is arguable whether the Indians themselves would treat them any better in view of their disregard for Islamic culture.

The Mughals were emphatically Muslims, with varying degrees of abstemiousness. They were of Turkish origin, powerfully influenced by Persian culture and, at least in the reign of Akbar the Great, tolerant and interested in other cultures. All these strands are on show here, most spectacularly in the miniatures and manuscript of the first century of their rule. Although the British Library tries to make this a story of a dynasty as much as show of art, and puts the case for the late flowering of Mughal culture in verse as in painting in the 18th and early 19th century, there is no doubting where the masterpieces lie.

Akbar, third in line of the rulers, gathered together in his court artists and craftsmen from Persia, Central Asia and the Hindu kingdoms of India. Painting was his passion. Dismissing the strictures of Islam against representation and display, he commissioned illustrated works of poetry, epic and family history as well as translations of the Hindu classics from an imperial studio of the finest artists of his time.

The resulting output was a style, Persian in source and expression, but broader, earthier than its models. It's fascinating to see in the illustrated manuscripts how Hindu colouring and naturalism begin to make their mark on royal patronage, and how too the arrival of Christian missionaries and merchants, bringing with them the prints of Western masters, introduced new ideas of perspective and figuration.

The portrait in profile was an Indian tradition. But the Mughal artist made it their own with an exquisite concentration on detail and mood. To the Persian taste for decorative detail and jewel-like colours, they added the deep greens and browns of India's jungles and forests. Against the hierarchical compositions of traditional court art, they now introduced Western imagery and composition.

The curators would try and herd you into themes and subjects – Christian subjects, family histories, science and medicine and religion. It works in a didactic sense but the real pleasure is to see how the younger artists coming into the imperial studios began to break free of conventions, loosen their pens and brushes and develop a more fluid style.

A precise painting of Nizami's poetic love tale, Laila and Majnun by the Persian artist Mir Sayyid 'Ali, from the time of Akbar's father about 1540, is succeeded by a pair of illustrations of the same poem done by Sanvala towards the end of the century of a totally different, more energetic and dramatic style.

The records of reigns, in the Baburnama (Memoirs of Babur and the Akbarnama (History of Akbar) allowed artists to depict scenes not just of military clashes but personal encounters with a contemporary freshness. Portraiture developed apace. The Library has a touching brush drawing of Akbar with eyes concentrating downwards, and a series of pictures of his nobles commissioned by the Emperor towards the end of his reign.

With Shah Jahan and his eldest daughter and son, Princess Jahanara and Prince Dara Shikoh, arts reached their most confident peak. Dara Shikoh, one of the most cultured and sympathetic figures in Mughal history, is represented by pages from a beautiful album of pictures he collected and presented to his beloved wife. His name was blotted from the book when he was usurped and executed by his brother, Aurangzeb, in 1659.

Aurangzeb was an enemy not only to his brothers but to the artists whose work he no longer commissioned and to Hindus whose temples he destroyed. Ascetic, orthodox and intent on expanding the frontiers of his empire, he spent most of his half-century reign (1658-1707) fighting the Muslim sultanates on the Deccan and died still in the field in 1707. He was buried, according to his wishes, in an open grave paid for out of the income from caps sewn by himself and sold anonymously in the bazaar.

Thereafter, Mughal power and wealth declined as the Europeans extended their hold. The 19th century certainly saw a revival of energy in painting and the arts, but it was not in the studios of a bankrupt court but in works commissioned by the Maratha princes and the British East India figures such as James Skinner of Skinner's Horse fame.

The Western influence is stronger, the perspective and scale more pronounced and the colours more forceful. A splendidly boisterous long picture, The Procession of the Mughal Emperor Akbar II Through Delhi to the Idgah, from around 1815-1825 shows a scene more realistic but a good deal less disciplined than similar public occasions a couple of centuries before. Topography makes its appearance as do street scenes, in answer to a Western market. The skill is still there, but the sense of an art bent on excellence has gone in a market now dominated by Western demand.

The British played no small part in that decline. But they also, as this exhibition attests, played a large part in the preservation of the glorious culture that once was. A wonderful exhibition, if at the end a melancholic one.

Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, London NW1 (01937 546546) to 2 April

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam