Stories in Miniature: South Asian Painting at Princeton

Two contrasting image types dominate the long history of painting on the Indian subcontinent: the large-scale mural, which decorated the walls of temples and royal palaces, and the miniature, which illustrated the stories of sacred and secular manuscripts. Although both played a fundamental role in the development of the visual culture of South Asia, it is this latter group of highly portable manuscript paintings that first brought the region’s artistic traditions to the world’s attention.

The written word, accompanied by illustrations, played an important role in the various religions found in the region, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jain, and Islam. The rich secular literary tradition, concerned with tales of rulers, romances, and dramas, also contributed to the large output of illustrated texts. Dealers who handled these illustrated manuscripts often unbound the books and sold the miniatures individually. Brightly colored and full of detail, Indian miniatures became highly sought after artworks. At the Art Museum we are fortunate to have several fine examples of small manuscript paintings produced in South Asia.

Indian, Mughal (School of Akbar). Page from an Imperial copy of the Baburnama: Scene of Reception: Feast at Sultan Jalāu’d-dīn’s House at Karrah, ca. 1598. Ink, gold, and color on paper, 35.5 × 23.3 cm. Gift of Mr. C. O. von Kienbusch ’06, for the C. O. von Kienbusch Jr., Memorial CollectionOne of the most prolific royal painting workshops belonged to the Mughal emperors. The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 by Babur, a Central Asian warrior who was a descendant of both Timur (also known as Tamerlane) and Genghis Khan. The Mughal Empire fell in 1857, but during the height of Mughal power (the mid-sixteenth to the late eighteenth century) its borders stretched east to west, from Bangladesh to Afghanistan, and included the tropical southern parts of the Indian peninsula and the arid highlands of Tajikistan in the north.

As founding emperor, Babur sought to cement his place in history by penning an autobiography, the Baburnama (The Book of Babur). Babur was a highly educated ruler, and the text of his book covers the details of his life as well as the history, society, economy, and even flora and fauna of the lands he ruled. Babur’s grandson, Akbar the Great (ruled 1556–1605), was generally regarded as the most successful of the Mughal emperors. He honored Babur by commissioning a lavish, fully illustrated edition of the Baburnama, which was produced in 1589–90. The paintings that illustrate passages of the book are works of the finest order.

Scene of Reception comes from Akbar’s Baburnama and illustrates an episode from March 4, 1529. On that day, Babur and his men were on a military march and stopped to rest at Sultan Jalāu’d-dīn’s house inside the Karrah fort, located in eastern India. Babur is depicted seated at top right, dressed in a pale green robe. Presumably the Sultan himself is the man standing before Babur, gesturing to his two sons, who stand with their arms raised in a pose of greeting.

Typical of Mughal paintings from this period, the image is alive with detail. The architecture of the fort frames the scene above and below and is rendered with colorful tiles, graceful columns, and crenulated walls. In the foreground we see the entrance to the fort bustling with activity: horses prance, a man restrains his dog, and men approach carrying large trays and dishes. Inside the fort, at the far right of the painting, almost beyond its borders, guests are seated in front of serving dishes piled with food. They form an audience for the main entertainment seen in the center of the painting two burly, bareheaded men grappling one another in a wrestling bout.

Indian Mughal (School of Akbar), Arjuna Beheading Karna with an Anjalike Weapon (full view and detail), from the Razmnama (Book of War), 1598–99. Ink and colors on paper, 20.7 x 12.4 cm. Gift of J. Lionberger Davis, Class of 1900Additional leaves from this edition of the Baburnama can be found in the collections of the British Library, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other museums. Apart from their stylistic resemblance, the paintings are further connected by their similar margins, which were clearly taken from a Qur’an manuscript. The small cartouches in the margins contain Qur’anic recitation directives. This remounting was almost certainly done by a dealer in the early twentieth century.

The Museum’s collection includes another miniature painting that is a product of Akbar the Great’s imperial painting atelier. This work illustrates a scene from the Razmnama (Book of War). The Razmnama is a Persian (the official language of the Mughal Empire) translation of an ancient Sanskrit epic poem that recounts a mythical battle. The Princeton Razmnama leaf comes from a second, and more elaborate, copy of the book that Akbar commissioned that was finished between 1598 and 1599.

Indian Mughal (School of Akbar), Arjuna Beheading Karna with an Anjalike Weapon (full view and detail), from the Razmnama (Book of War) (detail), 1598–99. Ink and colors on paper, 20.7 x 12.4 cm. Gift of J. Lionberger Davis, Class of 1900

Arjuna Beheading Karna with an Anjalike Weapon graphically depicts a battle in full fight. Karna and Arjuna are two of the main protagonists in the Razmnama, and the story of their meeting on the battlefield is described in great detail. In the painting, Arjuna enters the scene from the right on a chariot at full speed, having just released an anjalike weapon (which resembles a thunderbolt) from his bow. At his side, identifiable by his blue skin, is Krishna, the Hindu deity.

In firing his weapon toward Karna, Arjuna is flouting traditional battle etiquette, for Karna is defenseless. He has dismounted from his chariot, seen along the left border, and is attempting to lift a stuck wheel out of the mud. Arjuna strikes him in the act. Karna’s body is still positioned as though lifting the chariot, but he has already been beheaded. An arc of vibrantly painted blood spurts upward from his neck. His lifeless head rests on the ground near his feet. The onlooking troops, stunned by this breach of battle decorum, extend their arms toward both Arjuna and Karna.

These two manuscript miniatures represent a period of great productivity and fine craftsmanship in Mughal imperial painting. They will be on display, together with other examples of South Asian miniature painting, in the galleries of Asian art through May 2015.


Click here to see more images from the installation.

Zoe S. Kwok

Assistant Curator of Asian Art