‘The Indian Portrait’ opens today, March 11th, at the National Portrait Gallery. Bringing together 60 works from international private and public collections, including the V&A, the British Library, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York, and the Institut Néerlandais in Paris, the exhibition charts the history of the Indian portrait over three centuries. The diversity of the portraits on display and the insights which they provide into the history of the Mughal Empire are fascinating.
The portraits are, first of all, hugely diverse, varying in subject matter, size, style and technique. They range from scenes of court life to individual portraits which depict Mughal emperors, courtiers and holy men, as well as women and Europeans living in India. The first Indian portraits date to the reign of the third Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), who commissioned a series of portraits both of himself and of his courtiers. Abu’l Fazl, the historian of Akbar’s reign, recorded this innovation in Mughal court painting in his chronicle the Akbarnama: ‘portraits [surat] have been painted of all His Majesty’s servants, and a huge book [ketab] has been made’. Shah Jahan commissioned a similar ‘official manuscript’ of his reign, the Padshahnama (‘The Book of the Emperor’), which features 44 illustrations depicting events from his life. Another grandiose official portrait is the six-foot life-size image dating to 1617 of the fourth Emperor Jahangir holding a globe, which is believed to be the largest painting to come from the Mughal Empire.
However, the display also provides more intimate glimpses of the Mughal emperors, as well as moving insights into the lives of their courtiers. Alongside the stylised images of Akbar presented in the Akbarnama, for example, there is also a simple black and white ink drawing of the emperor which captures his mood and personality. Particularly sombre and moving are the drawing and accompanying finished painting of ‘Inayat Khan, one of Jahangir’s attendants, in his last days. The portrait was commissioned by Jahangir who recorded in his memoirs on October 10th, 1618, that ‘Inayat Khan ‘was addicted to opium, and when he had the chance, to drinking as well […] He appeared so low and weak that I was astonished… As it was a very extraordinary case I directed painters to take his portrait’.
The exhibition also reveals the evolution of Indian portraiture over three centuries, its richness and its complexity; it both influenced art in regions which gradually fell under Mughal control and was, in turn, influenced by European and British traditions. Art in the Deccan sultanates, which included the five Islamic kingdoms of Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda on the Deccan Plateau in south-central India, became increasingly influenced by Mughal traditions as the region was conquered by the Mughal emperors from 1596 to 1686. The sultans increasingly commissioned portraits of themselves similar to those of the Mughal emperors. By 1614, the independent Hindu Rajput kingdoms of Rajasthan and the Hill (Pahari) region north of Delhi had also been incorporated into Mughal territory. The conquered kingdoms similarly absorbed aspects of Mughal culture, which is reflected in portraits of time such as that of Kunwar (‘prince’) Anop Singh of the principality of Devgarh in the powerful Mewar kingdom riding with a falcon.
But Indian portraiture was also influenced by British and European traditions and increasingly so in the 18th and 19th centuries as India came under British control. A portrait of Jahangir triumphing over poverty believed to date to 1625 reveals, for example, how Indian portraiture increasingly came to incorporate elements of western art: two European cherubs are placing a crown on the emperor’s head, whilst a third is handing him the arrows which he is using to kill poverty. During the British period, Indian artists were employed to produce paintings of local scenes and people and some also received patronage from employees in the East India Company. Portraits from this period include a curious and amusing depiction of William Fullerton (c.1725-1805), a surgeon with the East India Company, who is portrayed in a totally Indian way reclining against a bolster on a terrace and smoking a huqqa.
A colourful, detailed, beautiful, and at times grandiose, insight into the history of the Mughal Empire from 1560 to 1860.
The Indian Portrait 1560-1860
March 11th – June 20th
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place
London WC2h 0HE
Telephone: 0207 306 0055
For further information on the Mughal Empire, read our article The Mughal Dynasties
To read more about the history of India, visit our India focus page.