'ARt & soul
The European impact

Prints, paintings and drawings, mostly with religious themes, which the Jesuit fathers and other Europeans brought with them influenced the work of painters in Akbar’s court,
writes B. N. Goswamy

A scene in a tavern: album page attributed to the painter Basawan; Mughal, ca. 1590
A scene in a tavern: album page attributed to the painter Basawan; Mughal, ca. 1590

THERE is a gold-rimmed aura that surrounds the period of 50 years (1556-1605) in which the great Akbar sat on the throne of India. Momentous things were happening then: at the political level, for instance, consolidation of power, expansion, great administrative changes; at the social plane, all those wonderful attempts at reconciling faiths and communities; in the field of arts and crafts, unprecedented blossoming. What marks this period also, however, is meaningful European presence in India. Not that the first ever contact between Europe and India was established at this time: that goes back a long time in the past. But no one had ever invited Christian missionaries to India before.

The details of the invitation are preserved in the farman that the Emperor issued in 1578 to the Society of Jesuits in Goa, then under the Portuguese rule. In this, he asked that two priests be sent "who should bring with them the principal books of the law and the Gospel so that I may learn the law and what is most perfect in it". He also promised that "they will be received with all possible honours and that they may go whenever they like" and "I shall send them with many honours and favours".

Following the receipt of the Emperor’s missive, there was much discussion among the Jesuit fathers in Goa, and some natural hesitation. Some thought the real purpose of the delegation that had come from the Akbari court was to spy on the Portuguese in Goa; others believed that Akbar’s real motive was to take the Fathers hostage and use them to extract some political concessions from the Portuguese.

But many saw in the invitation a great opportunity for, judging by the example of what had happened in Europe, they were convinced that that if the Emperor could be converted to Christianity, a mass conversion of his subjects would follow. The temptation was too strong and it is this view that finally prevailed. A mission was despatched, consisting of Fathers Aquaviva, Monserrate, and Henriques, the last one a Persian scholar who, originally a Muslim, had himself converted to Christianity. There was much hope.

This is not the place to trace in any detail the fortunes of this or the two subsequent Jesuit missions to the Akbari court. Much documentation exists, some contemporary, other pieced together later by scholars. The Emperor, one knows, was warm and respectful; the presence of the Fathers excited much curiosity; debate and disputation took place between Islamic and Christian scholars. But, to the great disappointment of the Jesuit missionaries, there was no conversion.

What stands out, however, at least from the viewpoint of the history of art, is the impact that European images — prints and paintings and drawings, mostly of religious themes, which the Jesuit fathers, and other Europeans, brought with them — made on the work of the painters at the great Mughal court. The synthesis of European and Mughal art is a theme in itself, and several scholars have written on it.

But how the Jesuit fathers themselves saw the interest evinced by the Emperor in these works remains of absorbing interest, even if it is tinged with that secret hope of conversion. This is what Father Henriques wrote in a letter to his principals in Goa in 1580:

The first thing he (the Emperor) did was to go into the Church (at Agra), which was well appointed with its perfumes and fragrance. On entering, he was surprised and astonished and made a deep obeisance to the picture of Our Lady that was there, from the painting of Saint Luke, done by Brother Manuel Godinho, as well as to another beautifully executed representation of Our Lady brought by Fr. Martin da Silva from Rome, which pleased him no end. After stepping outside briefly to discuss these pictures with his attendants, he came back in with his ‘’chief painter’ and other painters, and they were all wonderstruck and said that there could be no better paintings nor better artists than those who had painted the said pictures.

It is not difficult to imagine that there is overstatement in this account, but it is also easy to believe that the Mughal painters — how one wishes the Jesuit Father had given us their names — were ‘wonderstruck’ by images that were so different, so very different, from what they were used to making or seeing. One cannot be certain that these were the very first European works they ever saw, but pictures like these must have appeared passing strange, and visually exciting, to men as sensitive as some of the great Mughal painters were: men like Basawan and Kesho and Dharamdas, for instance.

So much was unfamiliar in these works: the subject, the treatment, the technique, all those receding views and tricks of perspective, light and shade, the weight of draperies. And yet — such were the skills they possessed, and such the interest of their patron/s — that with remarkable ease they set about understanding them. Some of this was done through the making of copies — scenes of Crucifixion, annunciation, visitation, images of the Virgin, St. Sebastian’s martyrdom, St Jerome reading, and the like — but most of it took the form of taking from European works, with stunning discrimination, only such elements as they could integrate, almost seamlessly, into their own works and their vision. Some remarkable works emerged from the Imperial workshops: influenced by Europe but Mughal in spirit and execution.

With each passing year, the list of works like these keeps growing. The most recent one that came to my notice just the other day was an album leaf attributed to the great Basawan in a London catalogue of antiquities: a brush drawing in black ink. It is not a religious scene but what appears to be a view inside a tavern. In the disorderly interior, a well-fed man is seen reading a book placed on a large bolster resting atop a chest; a young man crouches in front holding a goblet; another man sits on the floor also reading; books, scrolls and ewers lie everywhere; a hatted servant brings in a hatted tray of eatables. Obviously copied from some European print, it is a delightfully rakish scene. But what prompted the Mughal painter to copy or adapt from this enigmatic scene stays as a puzzle. Did it remind him — the European dresses and architecture notwithstanding — of some scene familiar to him from his own surroundings, perhaps? The workplace of some artist, or the study of some literary figure known to him?

One wonders, and then sets about separating the European strands from the Mughal in the picture.