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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