In spite of the excellent critical studies of Mughal painting that have been published, and the wealth of Mughal miniatures in public and private collections, probably no branch of Asiatic art has been so misapprehended. Not many years ago it was regarded as a kind of provincial variety of Persian painting, while nowadays one sometimes hears it depreciated in another way, as a hybrid blend of East and West.
Neither description is quite without justification, but both are misleading. This art may have been—it is not unique in that—eclectic during its formative period, but it can stand on its own merits, and, limited as it is in some respects, it is, when judged at its best, entitled to an honourable position in the record of Asia's cultural achievements. In one of its branches—portraiture—its place is indisputably high, quite apart from its 'photographic' value as an adjunct to the history of India at its most colourful period.
Mughal painting would seem at first acquaintance to represent a fundamental departure from Indian tradition, so obvious are its many contrasts with the Buddhist and Hindu art of earlier ages. It is in fact the work of the court painters of the members of an invading dynasty, from which its name derives; the painters being subject to the wishes of their masters. It arose with apparent suddenness in the sixteenth century, reached its zenith in the early and middle years of the seventeenth, and then steadily declined. It is a specialized form of painting, directed at first to the illustration of fine books—which were only at the time being produced in any numbers in India, the palm leaf being replaced by paper for manuscripts. These entailed an elaborate organization of the different craftsmen, only possible in established ateliers. Akbar the Great, who was the real founder of Mughal painting, used to inspect the work of his artists—his personal servants—every week. Adopting, as he did, the sumptuous standards which he had taken over from Persian practice, he defrayed the cost of the pigments and other precious materials which fine bookcraft called for. The painters needed a wealthy patron, and when Emperors who took a personal interest no longer ruled, many of them migrated to provincial courts, where their art lost much of its distinctive character.
But the above summary takes no account of the ancient soil which the new seed fertilized. Painting in India is of to great antiquity. The world-famous Buddhist frescoes of Ajanta, Bagh, and Sigiriya, dating from the first to the seventh century a.d., must have been preceded by a long course of development. Of astonishingly mature accomplishment, they reveal great narrative gifts testifying to close observation of the contemporary scene. This is an anthropocentric art, excelling in the faithful delineation of human types. Even the sublime idealized, figure of the great Bodhi-sattva in Cave I at Ajanta is based on a close appreciation of the structure of the human form. Afterwards, for nine hundred years, there are few monuments, but literature reveals a continuance of the practice of both religious and secular painting through the ages, both in temple art and as a polite accomplishment. Examples of miniature painting which have survived, mainly from Western India, Nepal and Bengal, show that the art had become generally stylized, sometimes extravagantly so, in obedience to a persistent current of indigenous expression, encouraged no doubt by theoretic rules, and in the absence of strong religious or secular patronage; though there is still an obvious feeling for life and movement.