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  • Isabelle Imbert

Adorned like a Meadow: Flowers in 17th century Mughal Albums



Fig. 1: Tulip, Delhi, ca. 1181/ 1767-68, Shah ‘Alam II album (Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin: I.4593, fol. 37r)



If the exhibition Bagh-e Hind has demonstrated anything, it is the predominant role of flowers in Indian culture. Given the luxuriant vegetation of Northern India, combined to rich literary, poetic and artistic substrates, it was only a matter of time before the Mughal emperors developed an interest in the representation of flowers. Under the reign of Jahangir, fourth emperor of the dynasty (r. 1605-1627), a new genre of painting appeared, consisting in full-page flowers enclosed in ornamented margins. The development of this genre resulted from the convergence of cultural and artistic movements from different sources, combined to the artistry of Mughal painters. This production gained in popularity in the first half of the 17th century, and again in the mid-18th century, until the beginning of the 19th century when painted productions drastically changed under the patronage of the British colonials. This short and non-exhaustive essay offers to narrate the birth of Mughal flower painting through the lens of some of its protagonists in India, Persia and Europe.



“Patchwork” Albums, Gardens and Persian Culture


To understand Mughal flower paintings, we must first take a look at their format and their medium, as the three are inherently linked. In the majority of cases, naturalistic flowers were depicted in full-length on empty background, on a sheet of paper pasted on a cardboard page and surrounded by colourful borders and margins. These pages were most often assembled in albums gathering paintings and calligraphies, sewn together in a flap binding. The practice of compiling this type of volume, called muraqqa’, began under the patronage of the Timurid dynasty (r. 1370-1507), descendant of the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) [1]. The term muraqqa’ refers to the dress worn by Sufis and can be translated as “patchwork” [2]. It embodies the concept of various elements gathered in a fluid set that can be enhanced or reduced relatively freely. 


Under the rule of the Safavid dynasty, which reigned over Persia between 1501 and 1722, the popularity of these types of volumes increased, with the notable addition of a preface that described the creative process of the album and replaced it within a history of Persian painting. Of variable length but stereotyped content, these texts provided essential keys to understand the internal organisation of their album, through the use of a rich poetic imagery. In 1560, Malik Daylami wrote the preface of Amir Husayn Beg’s album, comparing the elements of each page to parts constituting a chahar bagh, the classical Persian garden: 


“Every page of [the album] would be like a garden bedecked, the greenery of which would be ambergris-coloured drawings and the joy-increasing flowers of which would be designs and illuminations. The ruling lines around them would be like streams and rivulets that took their rainbow colours of fold, scarlet and Verdigris from reflections of greenery and flowers, designs of birds and trees in the margins would be like the sweet-throated nightingale and strutting partridge, and its pleasing pictures would be like graceful youths and entertainers who promenade in those gardens to take air. […]” [3]


Chahar bagh, as described in agricultural treatises, were enclosed spaces divided in terraces by water channels, usually four, in which grew flowers and fruit trees. These treatises listed all the species that flowered one after another throughout the year, so that the garden was always in bloom [4]. The canonical Persian garden included irises, roses, pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) [5], tulips, jasmine, and violets, every one of these flowers being abundantly used in Persian poetry, in album prefaces, and soon in the 17th century being depicted in Persian and Mughal paintings and in album margins. 



Fig. 2: A Mughal Chahar Bagh, Baburnama, ca. 1590 (National Museum, Delhi. Credit: theheritagelab.in)


Beyond the preface, the whole album could be seen as a miniature version of the enclosed gardens in which princely festivals and romantic encounters took place. The binding covers isolated the contents of the album from the outside world and opened onto an intimate universe dedicated to poetry and contemplation. In the centre of the pages, the anonymous portraits, cupbearers and young women were visual reminders of the “graceful youths and entertainers” described by Malik Daylami. The floral margins served as an evocation of the flowery alleys of these gardens, whose essences carry a symbolic value developed in poetry. 



Fig. 3: Youths in a garden, Bukhara 17th c. Dara Shukoh album (British Library: Add.Or.3129, ff. 39v,40r)


One might immediately ask what the connection with Mughal emperors is. It is twofold: cultural and material. Culturally, the members of the Mughal dynasty were descendant from Timur; Babur, the dynasty founder, being the great-grandson of the conqueror. The link between the Mughal rulers and their Central-Asian origins remained alive throughout the centuries, for instance by referring to their lineage in official imagery. 



Fig. 4: Timur surrounded by his Mughal heirs (British Library: Johnson album 64, fol. 38)


The Mughal dynasty affiliation to the Persianate sphere also manifested in 1530 when the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, progressively lost the territories conquered by his father against Sher Shah Suri and was forced to seek refuge at the court of the Safavid king Shah Tahmasp. From 1545 to 1555, Humayun was a refugee in Safavid Persia, during which time he saw numerous manuscripts and albums created by his Timurid ancestors. When he finally left Qazvin for India with an army strong enough to regain lost territories, he took with him several manuscripts and albums, as well as Persian painters, calligraphers and book makers who integrated the royal workshop in Agra in 1555 and contributed to the creation of the Mughal visual identity [6]. From there stemmed a large and long lasting production of albums evolving from the Timurid prototype and which supported the development of a brand new genre of painting: floral.



 


Adriaen Collaert in Mughal India: Copy, Adaptation and Assimilation of European Botanical Engravings 


The development of floral painting is connected to albums, but also to European botanical prints, an exogenous source of inspiration that was discovered by Indian painters in the late 16th or early 17th century.



Fig. 5: Lilies, Florilegium ab Hadriaeno Collaert coelatum et a Philip Galleo editum, Antwerp, 1587, pl. 6 (New York Botanical garden)


This engraving (Fig. 5) of different varieties of lilies comes from the Florilegium ab Hadriaeno Collaert coelatum et a Philip Galleo editum published by Plantin in Antwerp in 1587 [7]. These lilies, as well as other flowers from the small volume of 24 plates, had an unprecedented impact, both in Safavid Persia and in Mughal India where painters and makers used them as models for their own work. 



Fig. 6: Lilies, signed Mansur, c. 1610 (Golestan Palace: MS1663, fol. 103r detail)


This coloured copy was made by the painter Mansur at the beginning of the 17th century, not long after the initial publication of Collaert Florilegium (Fig. 6). It is one of the oldest surviving Indian flower paintings adapted from a European print. 


Mansur’s career is not well known; his name first appeared in a Baburname made for the emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) around 1598-90, and on several imperial manuscripts after that. Before 1619, Jahangir gave him the title of “wonder of the ages” (nadir al ‘asr) to celebrate the painter’s talent and the emperor’s esteem. Mansur was particularly recognised for his rendering of animals and plants, the emperor asking him more than once, to immortalise birds and exotic creatures from his menagerie [8].


The copy of Collaert’s lilies is usually dated around 1610 and considered as Mansur’s first attempt at naturalist depiction of flowers based on European archetypes. Whether or not the date is accurate remains to be confirmed, but he might indeed have used the engraving to train in a pictorial style that was new to him. Copying older master creations was part of the education of young artists, while being expected to bring their own creative twist, hence creating an artwork that was familiar to the audience but inherently new [9]. By adding imaginary colours to Collaert’s design, Mansur proved that he was able to reproduce the source while bringing an innovative spin to it.


In the spring of 1621, Jahangir and his court travelled to Kashmir. At the occasion, he mentions in his memoirs: “The flowers seen in the summer pastures of Kashmir are beyond enumeration. Those drawn by Master Nadirul'asr Mansur the painter number more than a hundred.” None of these hundred flowers can be identified with absolute certainty, but one painting is generally associated with this production for its theme and quality.



Fig. 7: Tulip signed Mansur, c. 1621 (Aligarh University: 60-1-ba-3)


This tulip has been the topic of much debate between art historians and botanists alike, the main questions being what species is depicted and is it native of Kashmir, as it would prove that the painting was indeed produced during Jahangir’s trip. Kashmiri or not, it is unlikely that Mansur drew the plant directly from nature. Indeed, this flower is depicted following the modalities of European botanical illustration, especially its bloom. Three flowers of varied sizes and a closed bud are shown from different angles, revealing all the elements that compose the flower, and every of its development stages. Mansur had a clear understanding of European botanical illustration when he painted this tulip and incorporated some of the most common elements of the genre in his composition. That being said, it is certain that Mansur did see the flower at some point, the level of detail in the depiction of the bloom being only achieved from close examination. 


Aside from Mansur, very few named painters from Jahangir’s workshop are associated with flower paintings. So few, in fact, that we are left with very few clues on the timeline of the development of flower painting. Jahangir’s memoirs indicate that the emperor was passionate about natural sciences, the paintings of flowers, birds and animals signed by Mansur and other artists of the court reflecting that enthusiasm [10]. However, most of these paintings are now isolated from their original album, or were rebound in different volumes through the centuries. It is now nearly impossible to completely grasp the true role and impact of naturalistic flower painting during the reign of Jahangir. It is a lot easier for the rule of Jahangir’s successor, Shah Jahan (r. 1626-57), which cemented the association of floral design to Mughal visual identity. 



Fig. 8: Geranium, Mughal, c. 1630. (Metropolitan Museum: 2022.191)


3. Flower paintings in Mughal albums: the Dara Shukoh album

The Dara Shukoh album is the only surviving album made in the first half of the 17th century to include flower paintings, most likely produced specifically for the volume [11]. Dara Shukoh was the eldest son of Shah Jahan, and the emperor’s first choice to succeed him on the peacock throne. In 1633, Dara married Nadira Banu Begum, and according to an inscription, the volume was gifted to her. 



Fig. 9: Shah-Jahan honouring Dara Shukoh at his wedding (12 February 1633) c. 1635 – 1650. Signed Bulaqi. Padshanamah, fol. 124v (Royal Collection Trust: RCIN 1005025.124)


Today composed of 74 folios, the muraqqa’ initially included five more folios that were removed and lost at an unknown date. Internally, it follows the same layout as other Mughal albums made for Jahangir and Shah Jahan, alternating double pages with calligraphies and double pages with paintings. Only one painting is signed by an otherwise unknown painter, Muhammad Khan, and dated 1633, the year of Dara and Nadira’s wedding. Apart from a few identifiable court members, most of the portraits in the album are generic, depicting youths, cupbearers, as well as dervishes and religious men. These figures can be appreciated for their aesthetic quality without any knowledge of art or history, and pair quite nicely with the birds and decorative floral compositions scattered in the volume. It also includes several calligraphic works by contemporary calligraphers such as Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri Zarrinqalam and ‘Abd al-Rahim Ambarinqalam. Finally, the addition of European engravings underlines the luxury of the volume with a touch of exotism brought by Christian themes and European pictorial techniques.


Eighteen flower paintings are disseminated in the album, and flowers are otherwise omnipresent in the volume, either as a unique subject, as secondary elements and in all the margins. This has led eminent scholars to connect the album with the gender of its owner. They speculated that since the muraqqaʻ was intended for a young bride, its “entire contents are of a serene and feminine nature” [12], such as young people conversing, couples of birds, flowers, but nothing related to war or hunt, not even a figure on horseback. The association of the album with a “feminine” content is problematic, since flowers in the Persianate cultural sphere were never gendered, many depictions of men holding flowers or being dressed in flower embroidered clothes having existed through the centuries, including at the Mughal court. On one of the folios of the album, Dara Shukoh himself is shown holding a flower. Likewise, if war was indeed not an activity for the women of the court, horse riding and hunting were part of the panel of skills they were expected to master. Neither the inclusion of flowers nor the exclusion of hunting scenes in the volume can be linked to the gender of the recipient.



Fig. 10: Snowbell, lily and hibiscus; narcissus and iris, Mughal, ca. 1633, Dara Shukoh album (British Library: Add.Or.3129, ff. 56v-66r)


Instead, we must see in the volume, the garden metaphor developed in 16th century album prefaces. Full-length portraits are placed in flowery environments reminiscent of gardens, for instance the two facing Persian paintings reproduced above which evoke a romantic encounter in an enclosed garden (Fig. 3), the wall being visible behind the figures. The floral margins of the album and the full-page flower paintings (Fig. 10), when associated with these portraits, reinforce the evocation of the garden. Birds, ducks, herons, pigeons, were also commonly depicted in Persian and Indian chahar bagh paintings (Fig. 2). The album embodies the idea of the closed garden, in which the full-page flower paintings take on their full meaning. 


Floral designs were not only depicted in albums, but they were also used on all artistic media during Shah Jahan’s reign. The Taj Mahal is the most famous example of the emperor’s grandiose patronage, the monument perfectly linking the garden metaphor and floral imagery. Its construction began in 1631, immediately after the death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, and ended in 1648. The mausoleum and two adjacent buildings were erected at the northern end of the enclosure, overlooking the Yamuna River, and preceded by a chahar bagh, compared in contemporary sources to the garden of paradise.


The presence of a chahar bagh within the Taj Mahal is not only the result of a century-old tradition but also takes on a strong symbolism related to the funerary function of the building. Ebba Koch, who has produced extensive studies on the monument, underlined the importance of the metaphor of the paradisiacal garden, to which she associated the rich floral decoration covering the buildings. Flowers designs were produced in marble outside the central mausoleum, in pietra dura inside, and in red sandstone on the side buildings. These flowers mostly follow a strict axial symmetry and are most often tripartite, with two side elements flanking the central stem. Symmetry is one of the most prominent aesthetic principles in Shah Jahan-era art, echoing the concept of qarina, which: “expresses the notion of pairing and counterparts, but of integration too, thus it fits conceptually into the ideas of universal harmony that played a great role in the imperial ideology of Shah Jahan. In a typical Shahjahani qarina scheme two symmetrical features flank a dominant central feature.[13]” This concept is applied to the smallest details of the monument, the flower serving as a synecdoche for the building and its multiple symbols.




Fig. 11: Screen of tombs inside the Mausoleum, Agra, 19th c. (British Museum, London: 1945,1013,0.9.5)


After the assassination of Dara Shukoh by his brother Aurangzeb and the destitution of their father Shah Jahan, flower paintings and floral designs fell out of fashion for a century. They made a strong come-back in the middle of the 18th century, especially in the courts of Awadh and Bengal where they caught the eyes of European collectors settled in India, who collated them in albums and brought them back to their native countries. These albums are the direct descendants of Timurid and early Mughal muraqqa’, but adapted to the taste of their patrons [14].


The story of Mughal flower painting didn’t stop there, naturalistic floral designs came back to Europe through ornament books of the early 20th century… A story for another time!



Fig. 12: Gol-e Kochanar Gujarat, Awadh, 18th c.? (V&A: IS.48:33/A-1956)


 

Published: 2nd February 2024


Isabelle Imbert is a Manchester-based French specialist of Islamic Art. She is a researcher, lecturer and host of the podcast, ART Informant. More on her work here.

 

FOOTNOTES


  1.  Timurid and early Safavid albums have been extensively studied in Roxburgh, D., The Persian Album, 1400-1600: from dispersal to collection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). 

  2. Translated from Farsi by Thackston, W.M., Album Prefaces and Other Documents on the History of Calligraphers and Painters (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 15. 

  3. Thackston, W.M., ibid., 19–20.

  4. See for instance the treatise written by Qāsim ibn Yūsuf Abū Naṣrī in Herat in 921/ 1515, Irshād al-zirāʻa. The text was translated and analysed by Subtelny, M., “Agriculture and the Timurid Chaharbagh: The Evidence from a Medieval Persian Agricultural Manual.”, Petruccioli, A. (ed), Gardens in the Time of the Great Muslim Empires (Leiden:Brill, 1997) 110-128; Subtelny, M., Le monde est un jardin: aspects de l'histoire culturelle de l'Iran medieval (Paris: Peeters Press, 2002). 

  5. The common marigolds (Tagetes sp.) were introduced to the region from Mexico around the turn of the sixteenth century, and thereafter became ubiquitous as well, especially in the Indian Subcontinent.

  6. The historiography is extensive on the development of Mughal painting. Among other, we will refer to Verma, S.P., Art and material culture in the paintings of Akbar's court (New Delhi: Vikas, 1978); Losty, J.P, Indian book painting, (London: British Library, 1987); Stronge, S. Painting for the Mughal emperor : the art of the book, 1560-1660 (London: V&A Publications, 2002).

  7.  The volume has been entirely digitised by the Universite Paris Cite

  8.  See for instance the painting of a zebra, brought from Ethiopia for Jahangir in 1621 and depicted by Mansur. The painting bears an inscription by the emperor reading: “a mule that the Turks came with Mir Ja’far brought from Abyssinia, year 1030 of Hegira, painted by Nadir al-ʻaṣr ustad Mansur, year 16” (Victoria and Albert Museum: IM.23-1925). 

  9. On this question, see Roxburgh, D., ‘Kamal Al-Din Bihzad and Authorship in Persianate Painting’, Muqarnas, 17 (2000), 119-146.

  10. On this point, see the work of historian Corinne Lefevre, especially Lefevre, C., ‘Recovering a Missing Voice from Mughal India: The Imperial Discourse of Jahāngīr (r. 1605-1627) in His Memoirs’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 50, no. 4 (2007): 452–89; Lefevre, C., ‘Curiosité et Pouvoir : Les Collections de l’empereur Moghol Jahāngīr  (r. 1605- 1627)’, Études Épistémè, 26 (2014): online.

  11. British Library, London (Add.Or.3129). Falk, T. and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981), 72, cat. 68; Losty, J.P. and Roy, M., eds., The Mughals: Life, Art, and Culture: Mughal Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library (London: British Library, 2012), 124–37 cat. 75-86. Partly digitised by the British Library.

  12. Falk, T. and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981), 73.

  13. Koch, E., The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra (New Delhi: Bookwise Pvt. Ltd., 2006), 104.

  14. Imbert, I., “Patronage and Productions of Paintings and Albums in 18th century Awadh”, Journal of Islamic Manuscripts, 12-2 (2021), 174-201.

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