The Mughal Empire’s Place In The Global Renaissance

The Mughal Empire’s Place in the Global Renaissance: Case Study of the Akbarnama

By Sabah Rana

The study of history is often limited by structural biases that favor Eurocentricity; when looking at the Renaissance, scholarship has been even more heavily focused within the limits of Northern Italy despite contemporaneous renewals in art and architecture across the globe. Akbar (1556-1605), or fully Abū al-Fatḥ Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Akbar, is often considered the “greatest of the Mughal emperors” to have ruled over the Indian subcontinent. His patronage produced innovations in art and architecture, among other noteworthy achievements and policies. This renaissance was influenced by the global context and the European renaissance through increased exchange, as well as specific regional factors. The Akbarnama, a densely illustrated chronicle of his reign, was one of the many artistic works commissioned by Akbar and painted by the artists of his court. It contains 117 illustrations that span themes of urban life as well as political, military, and social affairs1 – all set within the region and often depicting its architecture. This research project will analyze the illustrations of the Akbarnama and its iconography within the historical, global, and regional context to evaluate the developments of the region’s art and its reflections of urban life. Through this analysis, the similarities and differences between contemporary renaissances will be established and ultimately, the study will justify the Indian subcontinent’s place with the Global renaissance. 

The illustrations of the Akbarnama reflect a strong influence by the European Renaissance, developed due to Akbar’s religious tolerance and the increased exchange between the two regions. Unlike many of his predecessors, Akbar (1556-1605) was known for his religious tolerance as he abolished the tax on people who were not Muslim and actively sought to learn about other religions.2 This allowed the city of Goa to become a “thriving center of Christian art comprising especially devotional themes”, with many active European artists.3 Akbar invited a number of Jesuit missionaries to his court from whom he received Flemish engravings by artists of the Quentin Matsys school in addition to European pictures, printed books, and tapestries from other religious and diplomatic visitors.4 By the early 1570s, he was able to develop a strong collection of European art which began to show influences in Mughal court art.5 The spread of European styles of art and iconography encouraged Indian artists to adopt and integrate new modes of visual representation, with realism being specifically encouraged by Akbar. 

The set of illustrations titled “Emperor Akbar on an elephant hunt” (figure 1) shows the blending of regional and European styles. Persian art had been imported to the Mughal courts starting in the 1540s by Akbar’s father, Humayun, who also employed Persian artists.6 Both Persian and Indian art were traditionally “strictly two-dimensional” pictures7 that emphasized a flat treatment of the landscape and figures. However, within the Mughal style, there was a greater desire to model linear perspective as shown by the difference in scale between the buildings and figures in the foreground compared to the background (figure 2). Various degrees of shading can also be seen throughout the illustrations – most notably in the architecture, both in the exterior features as well as the modelling of the interior (figure 3). The “Scene from marriage entertainment of Baqi Muhammad Khan” (figure 4) is another illustration that shows the emphasis on creating depth through shading and receding architectural features (figure 5). Visual realism through more naturalistic representation was also achieved in the figures by the use of a greater range of expressive gestures (figure 6), moods, and feelings, rather than relying on standard portrayals, which further set it apart from Persian art. The use of shading and increased visual realism are considered to be “European contributions to Indian art.”9 

At the same time, these paintings also retain clear elements of the Persian and Indian artistic traditions. Similar to how Akbar was interested in European art, he was also interested in collecting Persian art. The Persian illustrated manuscripts had a “decisive influence on the formation and development of the Mughal school” as seen in the shared characteristics of a visual field containing at least two units, the geometric forms, and the high horizon lines, among other features.10 The Mughal style was also set apart by the complexity of its compositions as seen in the “Rejoicing at the birth of Akbar’s second son at Fatehpur Sikri” (figure 7). This illustration is a strong example of how rather than relying on visual units separated into different scenes, the Mughal style created complexity through the integration of multiple units in a single scene (figure 8) and a focus on diagonals. The limited but prominent use of bright colors and highly detailed patterns (figure 9) are also key characteristics of both the Persian and Indian art styles that even pre-date the Mughal empire.11 Due to the cosmopolitan nature of Akbar’s rule, the Mughal style that took root under his reign incorporated elements that were both local and more global – lending itself to be coined a “hybrid blend of East and West.”12 But ultimately, it incorporated and developed these elements to create a unique visual language. 

In addition to its hybrid nature, the illustrations of the Akbarnama also reflect the innovative development of new genres of Indian art that were formed due to Akbar’s support for the secular. Akin to the Italian humanists seeking to focus on humanities rather than strictly religious subjects, Akbar actively sought to “liberate paintings from the strait-jacket of sectarian ideology” because Indian art had traditionally been exclusively concerned with religious themes.13 A large factor of the artistic restraints came from Islamic texts that “forbid the representation of living creatures” and deems painters, or other artists, blasphemous.14 In response to Islamic critics, Akbar would say that art is a source of revelation of divine wisdom which is one reason he emphasized realism.15 This allowed for the development of a much wider range of artistic themes and elevated the status of the painter, again akin to the Renaissance trends of Europe. It paved the way for further innovation within the Mughal style and gave artists the opportunity to explore both new modes of representation and new subjects. The hunting scenes like “Akbar Hunting” (figure 10) gave artists the opportunity to experiment with detailed, naturalistic depictions of flora and fauna – these types of illustrations were “careful studies of animals.”16 Highly detailed illustrations of natural history became a keystone of the Mughal style and reached its peak under the rule of Akbar’s son, Jahangir. 17

Furthermore, the combination of the emphasis on details, realism, and variety of subject matter enables the illustrations of the Akbarnama to serve as an important documentation of the contemporary urban landscape. The Mughal illustrations provide a “detailed account of the ordinary life and culture of the past in its purest form” due to the aim at “perfection in rigorously accurate details” and the large output of work by court painters.18 As a biographical work of Akbar, the Akbarnama represents a documentation of urban life but with a focus on the royal elite. The “Rejoicing at the birth of Akbar’s second son at Fatehpur Sikri” shows the relationship between the public and the royal palace – while separated, there is still a collective celebration outside the palace walls and in the city (figure 11). There is even a woman giving offerings that is being accepted through the open door. The depiction of so many people celebrating in both public and private spaces indicates that the palace and its events are significant to the larger city. “Akbar Hunting” shows Akbar and his hunting group within a layered, grassy landscape and in the distance, a city can be seen (figure 12). This indicates that expansive natural landscapes must have existed near the city if it is still within sight and accessible. But this type of terrain was most likely private hunting grounds, like other elites had access to in contemporary societies. Similar insight into the contemporary urban landscape and practices can be pulled from a range of Akbarnama’s illustrations. 

During Akbar’s reign over the Indian subcontinent, he showed a great interest in the arts and was thus, a strong advocate and patron of the arts. He was considered progressive for his time due to his tolerance for other religions as well as his desire to explore secular subjects. Akbar’s views stood in stark contrast to the contemporary and historical Islamic powers and they enabled him to create a cosmopolitan region that encouraged both local and global artistic exchange. He sought out Persian and European art for his royal collections which ultimately set the foundations for the Mughal style. Akbarnama’s illustrations reflect the strong influence of the European renaissance as seen in the increasing emphasis on naturalism, linear perspective, and light and shadow. At the same time, it retained both Persian and Indian elements through aspects of the composition, color palette, and patterning. But ultimately, the Mughal style was a unique synthesis that developed its own distinctions and would go on to influence other schools of regional and global art as well as allied forms of art, such as architectural motifs. Additionally, the emphasis on accurate detail enables the Akbarnama to provide a look into various aspects of the society and culture. In total, the artistic innovations cultivated by Akbar’s artistic patronage and progressive ideology, as reflected in the Akbarnama’s illustrations, solidifies the South Asian subcontinent’s place in the Global Renaissance. 

Figure 1: “Emperor Akbar on an elephant hunt,” Basawan and Chetar, illustration from the Akbarnama, c. 1586-89, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 33 x 30 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

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Figure 2: Blue boxes highlight the change in scale of the figures and red boxes highlight the change in scale of the buildings.  
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Figure 3: The building is highlighted to show the shading details that create depth on the exterior and in the interior.  
Figure 4: “Scene from marriage entertainment of Baqi Muhammad Khan”, La’l and Sanwala, illustration from the Akbarnama, c. 1590-95, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 33 x 30 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
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Figure 5: Highlighted boxes show the depth created through the shading of the architectural features.  
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Figure 6: Diagram of “Emperor Akbar on an elephant hunt” highlighting the range of gestures present. 
Figure 7: “Rejoicing at the birth of Akbar’s second son at Fatehpur Sikri,” Bhura and Basawan, illustration from the Akbarnama, c. 1602-5, Mughal Empire, gouache on paper, 33 x 30 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
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Figure 8: The highlighted boxes each represent a different unit and the use of 5 units within a single scene is an element that differentiates Mughal art from Persian art. 
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Figure 9: Diagram of “Scene from marriage entertainment of Baqi Muhammad Khan” highlighting the intricate patterns. 
Figure 10:  “Akbar Hunting”, illustration from the Akbarnama, late 16th century. illustration from the Akbarnama, late 16th century, Mughal Empire, Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, 33 x 30 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). 
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Figure 11: Diagram of “Rejoicing at the birth of Akbar’s second son at Fatehpur Sikri” highlighting the separation between the public city (in blue) and the private palace (in red). The palace walls separate the two zones.  
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Figure 12: Diagram of “Akbar Hunting” highlighting the city in the distance. 

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Figure 13. Timeline


1 Ahmad Khan, “An Illustrated Akbarnama Manuscript in the Victoria and Albert Museum” in East and West, 4.

2 Mircea Raianu, “Indo-Islamic Political Culture”, Hist 219J: Modern India from the British Raj to the World’s Largest Democracy, (lecture, University of Maryland, College Park, September 8, 2021).

3 Som Verma, Interpreting Mughal Painting: Essays on Art, Society, and Culture. (New Delhi: Oxford University
Press, 2009), 96.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Verma, Interpreting Mughal Painting, . 7 Ibid, 9.
8 Ibid, 42.
9 Ibid, 73.
10 Ibid, 127.

11 Verma, Interpreting Mughal Painting, 129.
12 Som Verma, Painting the Mughal Experience (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005),23.
13 Ibid, 11.
14 Verma, Interpreting Mughal Painting, 3.
15 Ibid, 10. 16 Verma, Painting the Mughal Experience, 89.
17 Ibid, 88.

18 Verma, Interpreting Mughal Painting, 22.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

1.- Ballhatchet, Kenneth. “Akbar.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed December 2, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Akbar. 

2.- Khan, Ahmad Nabi. “An Illustrated Akbarnāma Manuscript in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.” East and West 19, no. 3/4 (1969): 424–29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29755453.

3.- Raianu, Mircea, “Indo-Islamic Political Culture,”, History 219J: Modern India from the British Raj to the World’s Largest Democracy. Class lecture at the University of Maryland, College Park, September 8, 2021.

4.- Verma, Som Prakash. 2009. Interpreting Mughal Painting : Essays on Art, Society, and Culture. Oxford Collected Essays. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

5.- Verma, Som Prakash. 2005. Painting the Mughal Experience. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 

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