Mughals possessed deep aesthetic sense and were connoisseurs of all fine things. The Mughal ancestry was rich in aesthetic pursuits and the Chagatai band was reputed to be the most cultivated family group in Central Asia.
They were intellectually sound and culturally astute indulging in pursuits of high-level finery and sophistication.
Their reputation in this respect assumed legendary proportions and all fine aspects of life were invariably associated with the Mughals.
Their aesthetic taste took into its stride painting, architecture and environment that saw tremendous fillip during Mughal rule. The Mughals set high standards in the field of fine arts and inspired the entire subcontinent to emulate their various tastes. In the process Mughal became the byword for finesse, sophistication and exquisite outlook.
As patrons of painting the Mughals took this art to the height of unique accomplishment and left a legacy of enduring beauty. The styles of painting which developed during their reign had their origin in the courts of the relatives of the Mughals at Herat and surrounding environs.
To Humayun must go the credit for the founding of the Mughal school of painting as during his exile in Persia he came across painters who had studied under Behzad and persuaded Khwaja Abdul Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali, the pupil of Behzad, to join his court in 1550 and they accompanied him to Delhi forming the nucleus of the Mughal school.
This school was properly developed under Akbar who organised it with his usual zeal. It was under his direct supervision and the more prominent of the hundred or so painters were granted ranks in the governmental structure as mansabdars.
Under imperial guidance and supervision the painters worked in a large building at Fatehpur Sikri and the works of all painters were weekly laid before the emperor who then conferred rewards according to the excellence of workmanship or increased the monthly salaries. Khwaja Abdul Samad was the head of the establishment and was known by the title of shirin qalam (sweet pen) an apt recognition of his skill in calligraphy. Later he became master of the mint and subsequently was appointed diwan at Multan.
The foreign artists included Khwaja Abdul Samad, Farrukh Beg, and Khusrau Quli. They were assisted by local artists who previously obtained training in wall-painting and joined with the Persian painters between 1570 and 1585 in decorating the walls of Akbar’s new capital.
They were quick to learn the principles and techniques of Persian art and the joint efforts of Persian and Indian artists soon led to the rise of the distinct style of Mughal painting.
Occasionally many artists collaborated in the painting of a single picture with the leading artists sketching the composition and other painters putting in the parts at which they were expert. Akbar’s artists specialised in portraiture and book illustration.
Many examples of book illustrations of the period have survived such as Razm Nama at Jaipur, Babur Nama in the British Museum and the Akbar Nama in the Victoria and Albert Museum. These masterpieces are highly valued in the annals of exquisite painting and depict high-level of artistic imagery and sophisticated skills.
They also are indicative of the value attached to this genre of fine arts by the Mughals that was then followed by the other grandee of the Mughal state and numerous principalities spread over the empire that recognised the Mughal suzerainty.
Akbar’s traditions were maintained by Jahangir, who was proud both of his artists and his own critical judgment. He is regarded as the most astute amongst the Mughals royal aesthetes and is widely recognised to be an extremely good judge of painting.
He often claimed that his expertise is of such a level that if any work is brought before him, either of deceased artists or those of the present day, without the names being told, he would say in the spur of the moment that it is the work of such and such a man adding that if there was a picture containing many portraits and each face be the work of a different master, he could discover which face is the work of each of them.
Even if any other person has put the eye and eyebrow of a face he could perceive whose work the original face is and who has painted the eye and eyebrows. It was remarkable insight that Jahangir had acquired that, in turn, hugely enriched the Mughal legacy.
A special skill developed by painters of the subcontinent in Jahangir’s time was the production of extremely faithful copies of paintings. The emperor appreciated gifts of paintings from foreign visitors and Sir Thomas Roe recorded that once when he presented a painting in the morning, by the evening several copies had been prepared by the native artists.
They were such accurate copies that Roe had some difficulty in spotting the original. Jahangir’s best known painters were Agha Raza of Herat and his son Abul Hasan; the Kalmuck artist, Farrukh Beg; Muhammad Nadir and Muhammad Murad, both of Samarqand along with Ustad Mansur, the leading animal painter. These and many others were constantly in attendance on the emperor at the capital and during his travels.
They were commissioned to paint any incident or scene that struck the emperor’s fancy. The court painters have left a record of the public men of note that is probably unequalled for fidelity and artistry.
Under Shah Jahan, painting, like all the other arts, continued to flourish. He reduced the number of court painters, keeping only the very best and forcing others to seek the patronage of the princes and the nobles but the art did not suffer by this. Dara Shikoh was a patron of painting and nobles like Zafar Khan, the governor of Kashmir, who had a beautiful anthology of the works of the living poets prepared, illustrated with their paintings, employed many artists.
Other painters set up studios in the bazaars. An interesting feature of the period, typical of the general predominance of the indigenous elements in various spheres—in the secretariat, literature, and music—was that only one Persian artist was employed by Shah Jahan.
Mughals patronised music lavishly and in this Akbar led the way. Abul Fazl gives the names of nearly forty prominent musicians and instrumentalists who flourished at Akbar’s court. The principal artists came from Gwalior, Malwa, Tabriz in Iran and Kashmir.
The most famous musician of the period was Tansen who was brought up in the hospice of Shaikh Mohammad Ghaus of Gwalior. The variety of music most extensively cultivated at Akbar’s court was the ancient dhrupad. Music received great encouragement under Shah Jahan who had thirty prominent musicians and instrumentalists at his court, who were generously rewarded for good performances.
Along with dhrupad there was a marked tendency towards beautification and ornamentation and the khiyal, or ornate, school of music was beginning to assert itself.
While during Aurangzeb’s reign music ceased to enjoy royal patronage but its popularity with the upper classes was firmly established and a number of books on the history and theory of Indo-Muslim music were written during this period. One of the most famous was the Rag-darpan (Mirror of Music), written by Fakirullah Saif Khan who was at one time governor of Kashmir.
Through such developments, the music of the Mughal court became part of the life of the ordinary people of the subcontinent.