Migration of Images, Texts, Ideas and Objects from Timurid Central Asia to Mughal India, 16th–18th Centuries

Collaborative BMBF-project Bilderfahrzeuge

Dipanwita Donde, Junior Research Associate, MWS IBO

Mughal rule in India was characterised by an extraordinary artistic efflorescence, as a result of the literary and artistic shift that occurred at the court of Timurid sultan, Husain Bayqara, in Herat (Central Asia) in the 15th century. My project focuses on the dense traffic of images that migrated from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent.  Some of this movement was physical – moving through the vehicle of travelling objects and artists, and some of it virtual, with artists of Hindustan trying to depict an imagined vision of the Timurid/Central Asian heritage that neither they nor their Timurid-Mughal patrons had seen.

The goal of the project is to examine meanings, intentions and ideas concealed in Mughal paintings that evidence transcultural encounters between Central Asia, Safavid Iran, Europe, China and Mughal India. These hidden meanings reveal the rich archive of political, social and cultural memory inserted within a distinct pictorial language for the purpose of constructing a legitimate dynastic identity (as Mughals were foreigners from Central Asia, reigning over subjects whose culture, geography, religion and history differed from their own).

Parallel to the research, this project will also create a database of Mughal images and texts within certain groups – portraits, vessels, environments and emotions, under which clusters of images can be classified and analysed from within Turko-Mongol cultural categories and practices.

In the sixteenth century, there was a dense traffic of images that migrated from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent.  Some of this movement was physical – moving through the vehicle of travelling objects and artists; some of it was virtual, with imaginative artists of Hindustan trying to create a vision of the Timurid/Central Asian heritage. My research focuses on this dynamic moment when Mughal artists attempted to depict the imagined glory of the Timurid empire in illustrated manuscripts. To record and display the greatness and grandeur of their empire, several Timurid princes had initiated prestigious illustrated manuscript projects, showcasing the artistic brilliance of calligraphers, artists, colourists, and album makers, employed at the imperial courts. On account of their portability, illustrated manuscripts were easily transportable, and arrived from Herat (in present day Afghanistan) to India, particularly after the decline of the Timurids in early sixteenth century. These illustrated manuscripts, containing images and texts that described the history and culture of the Timurids, served as models for Mughal artists while narrating and illustrating the Mughal reign in India.

I ask the following key questions: How can the historical, political, social and cultural memory of the Mughals be traced in illustrated manuscripts? What were the particular events, episodes and genres, which expressed a shared cultural heritage with Timurid ancestry, favoured by the Mughals for shaping their dynastic identity? How significant was classical Persian literature for translating meanings, intentions and ideas into conversations between text and image in illustrated folios? Were Mughal artists successful in rendering gestures, postures and emotions, contained in Persian literary works, for expressing moods and feelings upon portrait-personalities of chief protagonists, including emperors, in historical and classical manuscripts? Did the encounter with Western art, brought by Jesuits to the Mughal courts in the 16th century, transform the art of Mughal artists? Did the Mughal artist merely “mimic” the artistic vocabulary accessed from European art for achieving realism in documenting historical events and details from life? Or, did “borrowings” from European art particularly benefit Mughal artists in developing a signature pictorial language for expressing emotions, feelings and dramatization?

My study takes issue with the accepted view of the dominance of the impact of Western art on Mughal art. Instead, it sees in the Central Asian roots of Mughal art as strong an influence. At the same time, these original images were customised by Mughal artists as they migrated from Central Asia to Hindustan. The study, analysis and interpretation of images and inscribed texts that often accompanied pictorial compositions will provide insight into the intellectual matrix of the Mughal elite, and help identify the impact of Persian Sufism on image-making practices in Mughal art. Further, the poetics between text and image will provide a methodology for examining Mughal paintings contextualised within its own cultural practices, such as in classical Persian poetry, literature and philosophy.

Related Publications

Blog essay: “Synthesis between Text and Image: Sarnath Bannerjee’s Graphic Fiction”, (to be published) in Bilderfahzeuge>Blog>Review, 2020. https://bilderfahrzeuge.hypotheses.org/4650

Book Review: Kavita Singh, Real Birds in Imagined Gardens (2017), published in Bilderfahzeuge>Blog>Readings, 2019. https://bilderfahrzeuge.hypotheses.org/3950

“The Mughal Sikander: Influence of the Romance of Alexander on Mughal Manuscript Painting”, Dialogue of Civilizations: India and Greece, ed. Anil Kumar Singh, Aryan Books International, 2019, pp. 201-217

“A Mole on Akbar’s Nose: Subjectivity in Mughal Portraiture in Response to Persian Sufism”, India and Central Asia, Institute of Indo Persian Studies and the India International Centre, New Delhi, 2019 (manuscript in preparation)

Related Events

Planning, hosting and participating in Image/Vessel – a workshop organized by the International Research Group, ‘Bilderfahrzeuge’ at the Warburg Institute, London, 17-18 June 2019. Presentation of paper, “Birth of Timur” at the workshop

“Rustam and Akbar: Poetics between Text and Image in Mughal Manuscript Painting”. Presentation at the Warburg Institute, London, 14 March 2019