Visual Culture & Artistic Knowledge in Late Mughal Delhi


A review of Art in Between Empires: Visual Culture & Artistic Knowledge in Late Mughal Delhi, 1748-1857, by Yuthika Sharma.

In Art Between Empires, Yuthika Sharma focuses on the painting culture of late Mughal Delhi in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a period often considered “in crisis.” Nadir Shah invaded and sacked the city in 1739, trotting off Shah Jahan’s famed Peacock Throne, and others followed, forcing the Mughals into alliance with military entrepreneurs such as the British or the Marathas to maintain power. Yet Sharma brilliantly delineates Delhi as a site of artistic transformation that provides a new paradigm for considering painted production during this period. She outlines three main reasons that painting cultures shifted: first, a new patronage base including Mughal and British officials rather than rulers; second, the status of artists who began to work in a wide variety of stylistic modes, and fused them according to demand; and third, the multivalent status of the artwork, where paintings traded on their mixed cultural and aesthetic heritage. This dissertation therefore troubles many of the terms that have been used to describe and separate paintings in this period through culture, style and place of production (Mughal versus British, courtly versus popular) while also opening Delhi as a vibrant place where artists, patrons, and artworks were in constant negotiation. Drawing on a wide range of materials – from maps, panoramas and topographical drawings to paintings in oil on canvas, watercolours on ivory or paper, and in single sheet or album format – this dissertation brings a new set of materials to light on the late Mughal and rising British empire.

The dissertation is structured chronologically over seven chapters. Chapter 1 discusses the role of cartographic representation, particularly the visual mapping of the Red Fort, as a means of projecting imperial authority in the face of growing Company dominance. Sharma relates the architectural image of the Red Fort in particular to the political significance of the return of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II (r. 1759-1806) to Delhi to re-establish the Mughal throne in 1772.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Sharma then turns to lesser-known painters, specifically Khairullah and Ghulam Murtaza Khan, to articulate the artist’s role in building up a new Mughal presence in Delhi through paint. Khairullah reformulated images of the Mughal court through choice references to past Mughal greatness, such as Shah Jahan’s peacock throne, while also infusing them with metaphors of Shah Alam’s training in literature and music. Whereas Khairullah’s successor, Ghulam Murtaza Khan, who worked for Akbar II (r. 1806-1836), incorporated British techniques of perspective within Mughal hieratic compositions in paintings. The purpose, however, was to privilege Mughal interests and subvert British power through visual techniques meant to enact the opposite.

Chapter 4 offers the first full-length study of the multifaceted painter Ghulam Ali Khan (1790-1855), and his family atelier of painters. Working in Mughal manuscript painting, British architectural and landscape drawing, and miniatures, Ghulam Ali Khan skilfully adapted his training in the Mughal court atelier and in European draftsmanship to suit his particular patron’s commissions. Sharma elegantly argues that it is the artist, alongside the pulls of the marketplace, who directed new artistic conventions. She includes analysis of Ghulam Ali Khan’s work for British East India Company officers such as William Fraser (1784-1835) and Colonel James Skinner (1778-1841), and the British painter Thomas Daniell (1749-1840), as well as for the Rajput rulers of Alwar and the Jat rulers of Jhajjar.

In the next two chapters, Sharma focuses on European patronage of artists and the close links of the resultant paintings with cultural and political conditions in Delhi. In Chapter 5, she considers the Company official William Fraser’s desire to create a lasting model of land settlement alongside his commission from Indian artists to portray the residents of those lands, particularly in the villages, in the now famous Fraser Album (1810-1825). In Chapter 6, Sharma turns to the Company official James Skinner, a close friend of Fraser and an equally prolific patron. Through a close examination of his albums and monumental paintings she outlines the self-reflexive pictorial biography that he commissioned.

In the final chapter, Sharma turns to painting in Delhi after the end of Mughal rule in 1857. She examines the transition of Mughal paintings from their production in court and diplomatic contexts to that of the market. Such commodities, like those produced on ivory, she terms “Mughalerie”. Sent home to England, or worn close to the body, these souvenirs actively participated in “the emotional economy” of Anglo-Indians in India and Britain.

Yuthika Sharma’s dissertation, articles, and related exhibition and catalogue, co-authored with William Dalrymple, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi (Asia Society, 2012) have raised critical questions about painting cultures in late Mughal Delhi, more broadly in eighteenth and nineteenth-century South Asia, and the historiography of South Asian painting. This period has often been dismissed artistically because of the consistent raids on the city and the exodus of artists to provincial capitals, as well as the conceived decline of painting due to Mughal artists’ and patrons’ adaptation of British artistic techniques and subjects. However, Sharma beautifully articulates how artists practiced within such a decentralized and fragmented network, how they strove to achieve what their patrons demanded, and, in turn, how their patrons considered what to commission. By conscientiously discerning the artistic workshop of Ghulam Ali Khan, for example, she initiates how an artist worked for both Mughal and British patrons, fusing and melding styles based on the particularity of the commission to create striking novel works.

Her methodological approach threatens the concept of “style”, as well as the terminology of scholarship on the period, in particular the discourse on Company painting. Mildred Archer codified the term in her work cataloguing prints and drawings made by Indian artists for the British held at the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Primarily focusing on works on paper produced for the mass market, rather than for specific patrons, such “Company painting” fell into categories of British interest such as natural history, manners and customs, and cartography. Similar to the restriction of categories, Indian artists were also criticized as being passive receptors of British artistic techniques such as linear perspective, shading, and modes of surveying and drafting architecture. In turn, late Mughal painting has been critiqued for its hybridity.

Sharma refuses these simplistic structures. In her dissertation, the late Mughal painter is understood as agentive, as were the Mughal emperors and the British officials as patrons; while Mughal artistic ideas are recast as mobile, travelling beyond the domain of the Mughals to be practiced writ large. Rather than an unfortunate period of cultural loss, enervation, and mixture, Sharma frames 1748-1857 as a time of shifting political fortunes, artistic possibility, and diffusion. She is part of a coterie of painting scholars studying different regions in South Asia who seek to closely detail the working methods of artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in multiple modes, for multiple patrons, both inside and outside of court ateliers, and across regional and European cultures at this time. Yuthika Sharma’s rich and subtle study has now deservedly placed late Mughal Delhi among those centres as a rich and complex world of artistic interaction and innovation.

Holly Shaffer, PhD
Art History Department
Dartmouth College

Primary Sources

In India: the Alwar Government Museum and, in Delhi, the Alkazi Collection, the State Archives and the Indian National Archives)

In the UK: the British Library, the British Museum, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the Wellcome Library

In Germany: the Museum für Islamiche Kunst in Berlin

In the US: the Smithsonian Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Museum of Art, LACMA, the MFA in Boston, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Dissertation Information

Columbia University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. 2013. 304pp, 87 illus. Primary Advisor: Vidya Dehejia.

Image: Emperor Shah Alam II (reigned 1759-1806) on the Peacock Throne, Khair Ullah Musawir (India, active late 18th-early 19th century), India, Delhi, Mughal empire, 1801, Drawings; watercolors, Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper, 13 3/4 x 9 1/8 in. (34.9 x 23.2 cm), Indian Art Special Purpose Fund (M.77.78), South and Southeast Asian Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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