Two Groups of Ascetics Battling
A miniature by Kailash Raj, a contemporary artist engaged in reviving India’s universally celebrated miniature art style, in characteristic Mughal idiom of the Akbar’s period, bringing back to canvas the Akbar’s court artists Basawan’s strokes of brush and Tara Kalan’s fine and sensitive colouring, represents two groups of ascetics engaged in fierce battle calling for intervention of royal forces that could control them but not without further shedding some blood.
From the Akbarnama
Water Color Painting on Paper
Artist: Kailash Raj
12 inch x 20 inch
Illustrated realistically, the battle has turned so fierce that not only that the bodies of many senior ascetics have been torn but even the intervening Mughal forces appear to be the part of the ongoing battle. Unlike the depiction of a symbolic battle where dismembered bodies lie scattered, severed heads thrown here, and arms there, in the painting the agitated, anguished faces full of wrath, are intact and as in a real battle swords and other weapons have just torn their bodies inflicting deaths or injuries, no one having any time to mutilate any. Not apparently compartmentalized, the folio illustrates the event in three parts. The bottom half on the obverse side of the green hill, its descent, valley and the plain beyond, portrays two groups of ascetics with swords, shields, bows, arrows … in hands engaged in fierce fighting. Except a few figures with swords and shields in hands, Mughalia turbans on their heads, in full sleeved tunics and with waist-bands-like sashes around waists – obviously, the intervening Mughal soldiers seeking to control the situation, almost all other fighting figures have on their foreheads identical Vaishnava ‘tilak-marks’ revealing their Vaishnava identity. They are most powerfully gesticulated, each face revealing wrath, dauntlessness and anguish. Only partially clad, in mere loincloths or lower wears with or without a sash around necks, bare-headed but with long hair – disheveled or knotted, there is apparently nothing that divides them on sectarian lines. Some of them are fair-complexioned, while the other, grayish blue, obviously smeared in ashes – a practice prevalent alike among both sects Vaishnava and Shaivite. Alike, some have bearded faces while the others are without beards but ascetics of both lines had beards as also did not have. Obviously, not a confrontation of the followers of two warring sects, the two groups appear to be the members of two different ‘akharas’, a long prevailing medieval institution of semi-martial character the members of which practiced austerities and having relinquished family life were ascetics, though besides practicing rituals they also practiced martial arts and were part-time soldiers and for running their akharas fought like professionals on hire. Sometimes for supremacy and similar other interests they confronted mutually and were often a threat to sovereignty of the state. The folio seems to illustrate one of such occasions when the inmates of two ‘akharas’ clashed for some self interests. The folio has on the top a course of palatial structures, obviously the imperial palace thronged by columns of officials reached to report the incident. The central register portrays the emperor himself riding his horse reaching the venue. Emperor, obviously Akbar, is wearing his characteristic ‘chakdar jama’. Here a group of villagers are seen complaining of the threat to the peace of the region that the battling ascetics were creating. Behind him is a column of elephant riding soldiers arrived for controlling the situation. The painting seeks to reproduce a Mughal miniature of circa 1590 AD, now in Victoria And Albert Museum, London, illustrating an actual event as narrated in Akbarnama. Basawan was one of the master artists at Akbar’s court atelier, and Tara Kalan, a junior especially skilled in fine and sensitive colouring. Basawan was a master in all departments but in drawing fine details in particular. The details in this 1590 AD miniature were drawn by Basawan and colours were laid by Tara Kalan something that Kailash Raj, the contemporary painter of this piece, has done single handed drawing each detail with same precision, as much sensitively and has completely succeeded in transporting the viewing eye back to the glorious phase of Akbar’s court art. His painting has the same flavour of past and a feeling of antiquity as has Basawan’s. This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.
The Mughal school of painting runs parallel to the Mughal dynasty. It came into prominence in the sixteenth century, during the reign of king Akbar. It reached its zenith under the patronage of Akbar’s grandson – king Jahangir. The reign of the latter’s successor king Shah Jahan saw its decline and finally under the unsympathetic Aurangzeb it breathed its last. Indeed, as a school of art, the duration of Mughal painting was a limited one, extending only over approximately two and a half centuries. Actually, it has often been referred to as not exactly a school, but rather an exceptionally brilliant phase in Indian art.
The roots of Mughal painting lay in Samarkand and Herat, where under the patronage of the Timurid kings, Persian art reached its apogee. Babur, a descendant of Timur, and the founder of the Mughal dynasty, speaks of a person named ‘Bihzad’ as ‘a most eminent painter’. It was with the descendants of Bihzad and the deep personal interest taken by Akbar, the grandson of king Babur, that the Mughal school of art started off with a flourish.
Regarding the aesthetics of Mughal painting, one exceptional feature is its commitment to realism or the delineation of likeness. The subjects were majorly drawn from the extremely rich and magnificent court life under the Mughals. That this was a flourishing art during Akbar’s reign is borne out by the list of more than forty painters found in a book written during his era.
However, it was under Akbar’s son Jehangir that Mughal painting gained its highest peaks. Not only portraits and hunting scenes, but also scientific studies of botany and natural history found favor with the artists under the king’s support. The Mughal painters were asked to paint unusual specimens of flora and fauna in their exact likeness. Some of these skilfully painted pictures have survived till today, narrating to us the uniqueness of those rich times.
Under the reign of Shajahan, son of Jahangir, the Mughal school of painting entered its decline. The actual treatment of the subject matter is replaced with more decorative embellishments like rich flowery borders etc. Under Shahjahan architecture scaled new peaks (Taj Mahal etc.), but painting deteriorated. Finally, with the rise of Aurangzeb, Mughal painting breathed its last.