Odes to a monument
K. D. L. Khan takes a look at some of the costliest paintings of the Taj Mahal, the famous edifice which has inspired generations of painters world over 

In 2011, 24 lakh tourists visited the Taj Mahal and conservatively more than 100 lakh of photographs must have been taken of the famous edifice to enliven photo albums all over the world. 

The very first photographs ever taken of the Taj Mahal in 1849 was by one Dr Murray and this 150-year-old archival collection of Taj Mahal photographs was auctioned for Rs 4 crore in 1999 by his descendants. Dr Murray lived in Agra for 20 years from 1848 to 1868. He devoted his time to find a cure for cholera. But he also took a great interest in the Taj Mahal, making a point of showing it to visitors at night, when it was illuminated with blue lights. He took up photography in 1849 just 10 years after it had been invented in Europe, and from then on pursued his new hobby with as much dedication as he practised medicine.

But it is interesting to find out, as to when the first painting of the Taj Mahal was made, after the monument was constructed in 1653. The famous historian Giles Tillotson avers in his book on Taj Mahal, that the very first painting of the Taj Mahal is incorporated in the edifice itself, when it was built in the era 1631-1653 and states “On the central inner arch of the mosque that stands on the lower podium of the monument, to the west of the Taj, runs a line of ornamental panels. The middle panel includes the outline of a building which resembles the Taj: a large dome rises over a huge arch flanked by smaller arches in two tiers and with what may be minarets at the end. The outlines are in white. ”

A 150-year-old photograph of the Taj Mahal by Dr Murray was auctioned for Rs 4 crore in 199
A 150-year-old photograph of the Taj Mahal by Dr Murray was auctioned for Rs 4 crore in 1999

Surprisingly, there is only one Mughal miniature of the Taj Mahal in the world created during the Mughal era, and that too as a part of the Badshanama (Emperor’s history) made for Emperor Shah Jahan by his biographer Abdul Hamid Lahori. And there is in only one of the copy of the album. The famous original of the Badshahnama, now in possession of the British royal family does not have a copy of this miniature. In 2009, when the Government of India wanted to issue a commemorative stamp in the honour of the Taj Mahal, initially they were not able to find a Mughal miniature to illustrate it. Finally, the scholars found this one and had to go to the famous Khuda Baksh Oriental library at Patna, a unique repository of about 21000 Oriental manuscripts/paintings and 2.5 lakh printed books. The copy of the Badshahnama in this treasure house had this miniature and it was used by the government for the stamp.

Of foreign artists, British painter William Hodges (1744-1797) was one of the first English travellers to visit Agra and Delhi. Struck by the extraordinary beauty of the Taj Mahal, he wrote, “The effect is such as, I confess, I have never experienced from any work of art. The fine materials, the beautiful forms and the symmetry of the whole with the judicious choice of situation, far surpasses anything I ever beheld”. His Select Views in India, published in parts between 1785 and 1788, includes some of the first printed published views of the Taj Mahal. Hodge’s Taj Mahal aquatints were published in 1783 as a book and one copy of the book was sold in 2011 for Rs 22.9 lakh.

The Taj Mahal, Evening, by Russian artist Vereschagin fetched Rs 19 crore
The Taj Mahal, Evening, by Russian artist Vereschagin fetched Rs 19 crore

Most of the 19th century paintings available now of the Taj Mahal are what is known as Company paintings. As the British presence in India expanded, the power of the Mughal court waned and court patronage of the arts declined. In the early 19th century, Indian artists adapted their skills to the desires of this new clientele, incorporating western painting techniques and subjects, and developing a genre known as Company Painting, referring to the East India Company, the establishment responsible for British trade in India since the early 17th century. Company Paintings can be distinguished from other Indian paintings by their materials, style, and subject matter. They were primarily executed on English paper made by a number of British companies specifically for use by the East India Company in the humid tropics.

For their western patrons, Indian artists often used gouache or the more traditional English medium of water colour. Indian miniature paintings were typically done in gouache using a labour-intensive process of burnishing the pigment, a practice brought to India by Persian artists in the 16th century. Their vivid, jewel-like tones were well suited to the tastes of the Mughal court. Indian artists in the early 19th century continued to paint in gouache, but they also incorporated water colour washes, which appealed to western patrons, many of whom were amateur artists themselves.

A commemorative stamp was issued in the honour of the
A commemorative stamp was issued in the honour of the 
Taj Mahal in 2009

Sita Ram, an early 19th century Company Painting artist of great talent flourished between 1810 and 1822 and created atmospheric landscapes using a delicate palette dominated by blues, browns, and greens. Sita Ram’s painting of the archetypal view of the Taj Mahal devotes nearly as much attention to the trees on either side of the main approach as to the monument itself. He also painted a more unusual view of the gardens surrounding the tomb. Although the ubiquitous marble dome is never completely out of sight, only a hint of it peeks above the trees. The diagonal axis of trees draws the eye into the surrounding grounds. The long shadows in the left foreground and the atmospheric clouds demonstrate that Sita Ram fully incorporated western landscape painting traditions into his distinctive style. Sita Ram is considered the best of Indian artists of the 19th century to portray the Taj and recently his Taj Mahal painting was sold in auction for Rs 28 lakh.

But the costliest painting so far of the Taj Mahal has been one by the famous Russian artist Vereschagin, who toured India in the 1850s. On June 8, 2011, Vereschagin’s painting The Taj Mahal, Evening sold at Sotheby’s Auction House in London for a record price of Rs 19 crore — MF