The Flower Garden of Spring
Paintings from Mughal India
Founded by Babur in 1526, the Mughal empire in India was consolidated by his grandson Akbar (r.1556-1605). A man of inquiring mind and dynamic energy, Akbar was keen to explore beyond the inherited Persian court culture of his Central Asian forebears. Although born a Muslim, he was a devoted student of other religious traditions.
Akbar was also an enthusiastic patron of painting. A large studio of Indian artists, directed by leading Persian masters, was soon recruited and set to work on a prolific programme of manuscript illustration for the imperial library. Their subject matter included Persian romances and other literary works, Hindu epics, and the histories of Akbar’s ancestors and of his own reign. Their normal medium was gouache (opaque watercolour) on paper, with additional use of gold or silver. A highly expressive style of painting thus developed, combining Persian technical finesse with Indian vitality and feeling for nature. European influences were also increasingly assimilated from imported prints and paintings. The superb Baharistan manuscript of 1595 belongs to the culminating phase of this development.
The art of naturalistic portraiture, a Mughal innovation in India, also first evolved under Akbar and came to maturity under his successors Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan (1627-58). Individual portraits of rulers, nobles or holy men among other subjects, along with fine specimens of Persian calligraphy, were mounted in sumptuous decorative borders and assembled in bound albums (muraqqa’). This practice continued into the later Mughal period, both at the imperial court of Delhi and at provincial centres in Oudh (Awadh), Bengal and the Deccan.
With the decline of Mughal power from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, many of the old princely libraries became dispersed. Illustrated manuscripts and albums were thus often acquired by resident British officials, from whom they eventually passed to libraries such as the Bodleian. Through donations of this kind, the Bodleian’s Indian collection, which had begun with Archbishop Laud’s gift in 1640, grew steadily in size and importance until about 1900. It remains one of the richest historic collections of Mughal period painting in the world.