Sunday, November 30, 2003

Art controversies at the Mughal court

Portrait of a nobleman
Portrait of a nobleman,
Mughal or Deccani; 17th century

One should have anticipated this in some manner, but the perennial question came up again in the course of the three-day workshop on mughal painting I was conducting at Delhi recently: what view does Islam take of painting? We spoke of this at some length, for a few things needed to be established, at least in outline. The making of idols, or offering worship to them, is of course taboo, but it is also clear that there is no Koranic injunction against painting: the objection surfaces only in the Hadith, ‘Traditional Accounts of things said by The Prophet or his Companions’. Therein it is stated that the maker of forms, who arrogates to himself a task that belongs only to Allah, shall on the day of judgement be made answerable, and, being obviously unable to infuse life into what he had made, shall be shamed, and sent to perdition. This might be a simplification, but broadly this is the view that orthodox Islam took in the early years. And yet one knows all too well how much painting was done in the Islamic world, and with what brilliance. Was all this then done in defiance of the law? Or did the wonderfully pragmatic view that emerged in later centuries – that you shall not make any images ‘that cast a shadow’, meaning sculptural forms, of course – come to prevail in most of the Islamic world? There are no clear answers. What is certain, however, is that the orthodox view was never truly abandoned, and every now and then objections even to painting were raised, and controversies raged.

As seemingly they did at the Mughal court under Akbar when that extraordinary monarch began to take deep, passionate interest in painting. Precise documentation is not available but clear hints about the passage of painting in Mughal India having not been smooth can be found in what the Emperor’s great chronicler, Abu’l Fazl, wrote in his Ain-i Akbari. The chapter he wrote – A’in 34 – on ‘The Arts of Writing and Painting’ – is short, but is of the greatest interest from this point of view. After establishing early on that "His Majesty, from his earliest youth, has shown a great predilection for this art", and speaking of how wonderful the work being done by some of the artists working in the imperial ateliers is, the chronicler takes on ‘the opposition’, as it were, frontally. "I have to notice", that liberal thinker writes, "that the observing of the figures of objects and the making of likenesses of them, which are often looked upon as an idle occupation, are, for a well-regulated mind, a source of wisdom, and an antidote against the poison of ignorance. Bigoted followers of the letter of the law are hostile to the art of painting; but their eyes now see the truth." It is easy to read between the lines: it was the likes of Mulla Abdul Qadir Badauni, a contemporary, devout Muslim who prided himself on being a very orthodox man, that Abu’l Fazl was targeting, and speaking of as "being hostile to the art of painting", and thus not being in possession of "well-regulated minds."

Clearly, there were battlelines, and the liberals and the orthodox seem to have been occupied constantly with drawing them. Abu’l Fazl’s firm, even if brief, statement in defence of painting could not have been made without the Emperor’s personal knowledge; in any case, to remove all doubt in this matter, in the very next lines, Abu’l Fazl cites the words of the Emperor himself. "One day", he writes, "at a private party of friends, His Majesty, who had conferred on several the pleasure of drawing near him, remarked: ‘There are many that hate painting; but such men I dislike. It appears to me as if a painter had quite peculiar means of recognising God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the giver of life, and will thus increase in knowledge." Here, should it have been needed, was the imperial seal of approval for the painter’s work and, after this, only those who wished to run the risk of being "disliked" by the Emperor could have gone on to express their reservations about painting. At least openly. In any case, the Emperor’s own observations are couched in subtle, if not necessarily in persuasive, words, for he was referring to the stated orthodox objection to the making of forms, as given in the Hadith, and countering it, without seeming to do so.

One cannot hear the din of battle that must have raged in Mughal India, and elsewhere in Islamic lands, but one can sense its presence. Here, however, the battle was clearly won by the liberals, for painting flourished in India under the great Mughals – even from Aurangzeb’s period fine paintings have survived – and in the Akbari period alone, "most excellent painters are now to be found", as Abu’l Fazl recorded, "and masterpieces, worthy of a Bihzad, may be placed at the side of the wonderful works of the European painters who have attained world-wide fame." With a sense of exhilaration, the chronicler goes on to speak then of the some of the greatest artists then active, and the incomparable "minuteness in detail, the general finish, the boldness of execution" to be found in their work.

Other subtleties

In his chapter on these arts, one notices that, subtly, Abu’l Fazl opens with a passage in praise not of painting but of the art of calligraphy: "I shall first say something about the art of writing, as it is the more important of the two arts." It is not unlikely that this is said with conviction, but one somehow senses that the chronicler was also intent upon disarming the orthodox, for calligraphy – which meant essentially scripting the holy Koran – had a very special status in the eyes of the faithful. Whatever be the case, Abu’l Fazl speaks of the written word with uncommon eloquence. A letter – harf – he says, is "the portrait painter of wisdom; a rough sketch from the realm of ideas; a dark night ushering in day; a black cloud pregnant with knowledge; the wand for the treasures of insight; speaking, though dumb; stationary, and yet travelling; stretched on the sheet, and yet soaring upwards`85."