Mughal painting, which contributed immensely to the annals of Indian art history, had come fully under the patronage of King Akbar (r. 1556-1605) in the third quarter of the 16th century, and continued without interruption during the reign of his successors. until the end of the 18th century. However, the foundations of the tradition were laid by Akbar’s grandfather and father, Babur (r. 1525–1530) and Humayun (r. 1530–40 and 1555–1556) respectively. Both had a keen interest in painting and interacted with many Persian masters and observed their works.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, in Herat (Afghanistan), Sultan Husayn Bayqara Mirza (r. 1469-1506) had frequented a number of calligraphers and painters. Besides many others, Kamal ud-Din Bihzad (c. 1450-1535), the most famous name in the history of Persian miniature painting, was his court painter. After the Sultan’s reign, Bihzad seems to have moved first to Bukhara (Uzbekistan), then in 1522 to Tabriz (Iran), which was ruled by Shah Ismail I (r. 1501-1524) and his son and successor, Shah Tahmasp (r.1524-1576).
Babur lived in Herat in 1506, and later in the Babur Nama written in Turkish, he had written about paintings made by Shah Muzaffar, who died early in life, and Bihzad. About the latter, Babur wrote: “Among the painters, one was Bihzad. His work was very delicate but he did not draw hairless faces well; he made his double chin much longer; bearded faces which he drew admirably. Babur’s cousin, Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat (c. 1500-1551), who ruled Kashmir, had written more candidly about the painters of Herat in his Persian book, the Tarikh-i-Rashidi. He said, for example, “Abd al-Hayy is unraveled in the purity, the delicacy and the firmness of the brush, indeed in all the characteristics of the art of painting. (Then) came Shah Muzaffar and Bihzad, and after these till our days there has been none like them.
Humayun succeeded his father in 1530, but was dethroned in 1540 by Sher Shah Suri (fl. 1486-1545). In 1543 Humayun lived in Tabriz and got acquainted with many painters and their works. Most notable were Abd al-Samad (c. 1500-1593) who first worked as a calligrapher; Mir Sayyid Ali (c. 1510–1572), the son of painter Mir Musavvir (fl. 1510–55); Mirza Ali (fl. 1525-1575), the son of the painter Sultan Muhammad; and, Muzaffar Ali (fl. 1540-1576), the son of the painter Haydar Ali and a great-nephew of Bihzad.
In the Jawaher al-akbaar (c. 16th century) Persian author Budaq Monsi Qazvini mentions that Humayun had said that if the king of Tabriz “releases Mir Musavvir to me, I will offer a thousand tumaans in exchange”, and adds again: “It is thus that the son of the Mir, who had become better than his father, went earlier to India, and that the father followed him there. In the Tadhkira-i Humayun Wa Akbar written in Persian by Bayazid Bayat, a subordinate of Humayun, the author states that Humayun had sent a farmer (royal decree) in 1546-1547 from his temporary capital in Kabul (Afghanistan) to the king of Tabriz, and asked him to send the two painters from Tabriz. Thus, Abd al-Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali, and a third, Mulla Fakhr, bookbinder, came to Kabul and “presented themselves humbly before His Majesty, who honored them with many favors”. The author further states that in 1553 Humayun had sent gifts to his friend, Nawab Rashid Khan of Kashghar (China), together with a letter in which he wrote: “Another (of the gifted artists with us) is the painter Abd al-Samad, the farid al dhar (the only one at the time), the shirin qalam (soft pen), which surpassed its contemporaries.
Abd al-Samad had taught drawing and painting to Akbar and most likely also to Humayun. In 1555, Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali came to Delhi with Humayun, who died seven months later. The two painters later shone at the court of Akbar.
Humayun’s sister-in-law, Gulbadan Begum (c. 1523-1603), in the Humayun-nama in Persian, mentions numerous manuscripts and albums exhibited at a festival in Agra. According to Tezkerh al-Vakiaat (Private Memoirs) in Persian written by Jouher, a trusted aide to Humayun, a tent was placed for the ruler at Amerkote (near the Sindhu River, Pakistan) and then, “…a beautiful bird flew into the tent, the doors of which were immediately closed, and the bird caught; His Majesty then took a pair of scissors and cut some feathers from the animal; he then sent for a painter, had a picture taken of the bird and then ordered that he be released.
How I wish Jouher had mentioned the painter and the bird by name. Nevertheless, it is extremely interesting to note that Humayun had commissioned a separate painting which shows the study of a bird’s life. Akbar’s son, Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), surely inherited his grandfather’s taste in this regard; for, under his patronage, many Mughal painters produced several paintings of wild animals and birds, sometimes with their keepers. None of these life studies of wild beings were commissioned by Akbar, and the bird painting done for Humayun, to my knowledge, has not been revealed so far.
Associate Professor in Art History and Aesthetics, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University