Manuscripts illustrations in India go back to Buddhist Pala period towards the end of the 10th century A.D. when a late Ajanta style of painting was used on palm leaves and wooden patlis in the east of the country.
The introduction of paper two centuries later changes the size (and format) but the form (and content) remained the same, but the royal patronage for the still nascent art was still to come. Although the Sultanate rule began in AD 1192 after the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan at the battle of Tarai, the Mamluk dynasty as also the Khalji, Tughlaq and Sayyid dynasties, turned a blind eye to manuscript paintings, and it was not till the Lodis came to power in AD 1451 that things improved, both for the art and for the artists.
Although the Lodis didn’t go so far as to maintain a court atelier, they had none of the prejudices of Feroz Shah Tughlaq who had placed a ban on all figural paintings. But the boost the Lodis provided was enough for a cultural renaissance of sorts to take shape, and for a bourgeois school of manuscript illustrations of Persian texts and Indian epic and folk romances, to come into being.
However, Babur who defeated Ibrahim Lodi in AD 1526 and founded the Mughal Empire has no artistic inclinations like his predecessors. Neither, for that matter, did his son Humayun. The change came when Humayun, ousted, took refuge in the court of Shah Tahmasp of Persia. There he saw the work of an outstanding royal studio and so impressed was he that, when he regained the throne in AD 1555, he brought along two master artists – Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd Al Samad with him.
Humayun’s son Akbar, who came to power at the tender age of 14, too had no interest in the arts initially and his intentions and energies were focused on sports and adventure activities. It was during a hunting expedition in AD 1564 when the young emperor was entertained with the tales of the legendary exploits of Hamza, that he decided to have the story illustrated.
Thirty Indian artists trained under two Persian masters for the purpose and 1400 oversized paintings were made. Hamza – Nama thus ushered in the great Mughal School of painting. The robust and vigorous style that was developed proved equally suitable for illustrating translations of Hindu epics and the achievement of the Emperor himself.
Prior to the Mughals, realistic portrait paintings were unknown in Indian art, but thanks to Akbar’s efforts, the imperial library was more than adequately stocked with illustrated manuscripts at the time of Jehangir’s accession. No significant headway was made in the art in Shah Jahan’s period, but no damage was done either.
It was under the puritanical and orthodox Aurangzeb that royal patronage – the oxygen of miniature paintings, took a knocking. Artists were forced to seek employment as craftsmen or designers in the Hindu courts of the Rajputs.
The Rajput princes were great soldiers and they also had an eye for art. Artists were encouraged to move from one court to another and many distinctive styles of painting blossomed, particularly in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in Rajasthan, the Punjab hills and the Himalayas.