Art of Mughal India” presented some 30 works of art, including brilliantly colored, intricately detailed manuscript paintings and luxury objects in jade and lacquered wood, that offer a glimpse into the conceptually creative and technically innovative tradition of Mughal painting and its lasting impact on the courts of Rajput India and Safavid Iran. In the early 16th century, the conquest of northern India by Babur (reigned 1526–1530) ushered in one of the most remarkable political, cultural and artistic periods in the history of the subcontinent. Babur was a direct descendent of the Mongol conqueror Ghenghiz Khan (d. 1227), and the Turkic warlord Timur, who had established the Timurid dynasty in Iran and Central Asia (1370–1501). Babur and his successors were known as the “Mughals,” a derivation of the word “Mongol,” and ruled over India until 1858. The wealth and opulence of their courts so impressed foreign visitors that the term “mogul” entered the English language as a synonym for power and wealth. Like their Timurid ancestors, the Mughals expressed deep interest in the arts of the book, but it was only after Akbar (reigned 1556–1605) succeeded in consolidating Mughal power in north India that a distinct artistic tradition began to emerge. With the help of Persian painters, who migrated to India at the invitation of Akbar’s father, the second Mughal ruler Humayun (d. 1555), early Mughal painting synthesized the refinement of Persian painting and the dynamism of Hindu compositions with Western naturalism. Akbar’s wide-ranging interests encouraged the extensive production of illustrated Hindu and Muslim epics, historical narratives and portraiture.
Akbar’s son Jahangir (reigned 1605–1627) was more interested in highly finished individual compositions and portrait studies, drawing on both Persian pictorial ideals and European naturalism. During the reign of his successor, Shah Jahan (1628–1657), the patron of the Taj Mahal, Mughal fascination with portraiture reached its zenith. The relative naturalism of earlier Mughal painting gave way to highly formal portraits, transforming figures into iconic images of power and grandeur as is evident in a series of lavishly produced royal albums.
By the 17th century, the Mughal pictorial idiom also played a formative role in the development of painting at the Rajput courts of northern India as members of the Hindu nobility, who had been largely integrated into the empire through marriage alliances, began to employ Mughal painters and commission works of art that echoed Mughal artistic taste. In Iran too, 17th-century artists looked to India for new sources of pictorial inspiration, resulting in a distinct, hybrid style of painting.