Over the centuries, Mughal miniature paintings continue to intrigue, awe us with their beautiful, intricate and delicate brushwork and the elaborately illustrated records and stories of the Mughal world. Emperors Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan were great patrons and lovers of the art form and it is due to them that contemporary artists continue to be inspired and interpret the miniatures in their own way. Shahzia Sikander, Nilima Sheikh and the Britain based twins, Amrit and Rabindra Singh are some of the well-known names in this field.
In addition, the Mughal artists also showed their skill and ability to be playful and creative. Composite animals were one such area. These animals were a blend of intertwined animal and human forms. The animals often depicted were the horse, the camel and the elephant. According to one theory, such paintings possibly represented the “belief in the internal unity of all beings and illustrate the doctrine of the transmigration of souls through successive reincarnations”. The other reason could be the depiction of “the mystical and ambiguous relationship of man to the natural world.”
Nevertheless, these composite paintings have continued to enthrall the viewers.
Shantala Palat, a Delhi based new generation contemporary artist, who received the Nippon Award from School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), confesses that she has been immensely inspired by the Mughal miniatures and in particular, the animal composites. She points out certain features of the art form that make it truly special.
1. Special Colours- The miniature paintings used handmade colours that were acquired from vegetables, minerals, indigo, conch shells, precious stones, pure gold and silver.
2. Two-dimensional format- Scenes such as the various events of the battle were drawn within the same frame and supported by a bright colour palette and the fine linear forms. The figures would have appeared flat and unrealistic had it not been for the colours and careful rendering.
3. Subject matter- The Mughal emperors were progressive in their outlook. They encouraged stories from the Bible to the Persian elements and down to the Hindu epics such as the Ramyana and the Mahabharata. The stories also centered around the Mughal court , the emperor and the life of the people. In addition, the artists also illustrated the flora and fauna of those times. Animals, in particular, were given prominence as mentioned earlier.
4. The raga theme - The melodies of the Indian classical music was yet another area the artists worked on as well.
The Mughals, perhaps more than any other Islamic dynasty, made their love of the arts, a central part of their identity as rulers. The Mughal emperor, Humayun believed that artists "were the delight of all the world" (Dalrymple,2012)