Until recently the finest achievement of Islamic painting in India was held to be the school which flourished from about 1560 to 1650 under the patronage of the Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The main stimulus to its growth was the personality of Akbar himself. Sympathetic to Indian manners, literature and religion, he was nevertheless proud of the house of Timur. He was also aware that it had come but recently to the throne of Delhi, and not the least duty of the artist was to reinforce the prestige of the dynasty by recording the magnificence of the court of the 'Grand Mogul' and the features and exploits of its memorable personalities. Realism, vigour and brilliant finish were the qualities demanded of the Mughal painter. He bad them certainly, and was moreover a sensitive observer of the Indian landscape and, in his gentler passages, could express the pastoral mood with a quiet charm. What he lacked was an integrated style. He was an apt pupil and a clever improviser, but seemed unable to knit his many sources—Persian, Indian and European—into a personal language.
The painting of the contemporary Islamic kingdoms of the Deccan, like the atmosphere of their courts, was of a different order. The rulers of Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda were strangers to Akbar's purposeful energy. Their history reads with the inconsequence of an operatic libretto. With them the possession of a fortress or a good-looking eunuch had equal force as a casus belli, and if they were prompt to take the field, they quitted it as swiftly. Frivolous in war, they were indolent in peace, leaving the conduct of affairs to a stream of ministers and favourites chosen as much for charm as efficiency. They occupied their long leisure hours with the arts, with women and attractive cup-bearers. Akbar's paintings give the impression that these things were the official adjuncts of a great court. With the rulers of the Deccan, serious only in this, they were a passion. Unlike the Mughal with his illustrated epics and memoirs, they and their courtiers set the artist to interpret love poetry or to portray the charming companions with whose help they whiled away the time. In their own portraits they preferred to see themselves as musician, poet—many of them were poets of merit—or munificent patron. Their mature and civilized values conditioned the vision of their artists, and style, which eluded the earnest Mughal, came naturally and easily to them.
The permanent settlement of the Islamic invaders in the thirteenth century abruptly submerged the classic tradition of Indian art, which had not faltered in its development for upward of a thousand years. Painting, where a limited patronage could be found in less accessible parts of north India, survived as tiny illustrations to religious manuscripts: in these the artist was content, until well into the sixteenth century, to ring the changes on a slight, though decorative formula. The Islamic rulers might have been expected to draw some inspiration from the fourteenth-century Persian masters or the early Timurid school. If they did, the results are lost to us, and were, in any case, unable to revitalize or redirect the declining native tradition. It was not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that Persian painting seems to have elicited a response in India. There is in the India Office Library an illustrated manuscript probably painted about 1500 in the ancient province of Malwa, which lies astride the high road from Delhi to the Deccan. In the manuscript, a Nimat Namah or Cookery Book, the composition and landscape of the paintings follow closely, but ineptly, the attractive contemporary idiom of Shiraz. In his lively little figures the artist, though drawing on Persia and the native manuscript tradition, is feeling his way towards an exquisite formula, which was to feature in the loveliest sixteenth-century style of north India. The style of the Nimat Namah, which may have been shared by the neighbouring Islamic kingdoms of Gujarat and Khandesh, was also to contribute a good deal to the painting of the Deccan, of which Malwa, by virtue of its position, had frequently formed a cultural province in the past.
The high plateau of the Deccan, bounded to the north and south by the Narmada and Tungabhadra rivers, had been raided since the early fourteenth century, and became in 1347 an independent kingdom under the Bahmani dynasty. Here too painting disappeared with the advent of Islam, even though their hostility towards the northern kingdom of Delhi brought the Bahmanis into close contact with the metropolitan centres of Persian art. Moreover, their kingdom was bordered on east and south by two powerful and flourishing Hindu states, Orissa and Vijayanagar, which preserved the ancient tradition in painting. But again the association seems to have proved sterile.