Deccani Painting

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DECCANI PAINTING Over the centuries, immigrants and traders from East African, Arab, Turkic, Central Asian, and Iranian lands settled on the Deccan plateau along with the indigeneous population. An examination of the relatively small corpus of extant paintings produced in the Muslim courts of the Deccan sultans between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries reveals distinctive styles that often reflected a synthesis of indigenous and foreign artistic influences.

In 1292 ʿAlaʾal-Din Firuz Shah and his forces began the process of wresting control of the region away from the Yadava, Kakatiya, and Hoysala Hindu kings in the name of the Khalji Sultan of Delhi. The first capital of the Deccan sultans was established in 1327 at Daulatabad (in modern Maharashtra) by the Tughluqs (r. 1321–1351), successors to the Khalji Sultans (r. 1290–1321). Only twenty years later, a group of Daulatabad nobles rebelled against Tughluq rule and enthroned ʿAlaʾal-Din Hasan Bahman Shah (r. 1347–1355), thereby establishing the Bahmanid dynasty (r. 1347–1538), a new line of rulers independent from Delhi. Although the remains of the great fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Bahmanid forts and palaces, such as those at Daulatabad, Gulbarga, and Bidar, display a beautifully designed interplay of stone, wood, and tile mosaic decoration evidencing the creativity of court artisans, there are no extant paintings or manuscripts that can be attributed to the patronage of these Deccan sultans.

During the reign of Sultan Mahmud (r. 1482–1518), the Bahmanid kingdom, weakened by internal and external pressures, split into smaller, independently ruled sultanates. The three most powerful and most significant to the history of Deccan court painting were the Nizām Shahis (r. 1496–1636), who made their capital in the northern Deccan at Ahmadnager (in modern Maharashtra); the ʿAdil Shahis (r. 1489–1686), ruling from Bijapur (in modern Karnataka); and the Qutb Shahis (r. 1512–1687) at Golconda. Many of the Deccan sultans were great patrons of the arts and maintained artistic workshops and libraries that drew painters, calligraphers, poets, musicians, and scholars from all over the Muslim world. As Shiʿa Muslims, the three sultanates shared a religious affiliation, but their origins differed. The first Nizām Shah had indigenous affiliations, as he was descended from a Hindu slave that had converted to Islam; the founder of the ʿAdil Shahi dynasty was an immigrant who, according to Ottoman sources, was of Turkman origin; and the Qutb Shahis' founding sultan was a Turkman prince who was forced to flee Iran for political reasons.


It was at the Nizām Shahi capital at Ahmednagar that the earliest and perhaps most innovative paintings of the Deccan sultanates were created. These rare works, of which only about twenty survive, indicate that royal portraits predominated as a favorite subject. Perhaps the earliest example of painting at Ahmednagar are twelve illustrations that accompany a manuscript from about 1565, the Tarif-i Husayn Shahi (History of Husayn Shah; Puna, Bharata Itihasa Samshodhaka Mandala), a posthumous history of the reign of Sultan Husayn Nizām Shah I (r. 1554–1556) written by Aftabi. In these early Deccan paintings, the figures, foliage, and architectural features are rendered with a simple but exuberant line that may be related to works produced at Mandu, capital of the Sultans of Malwa (r. 1401–1531, 1534–1561). However, the inclusion of vibrant colors to indicate a profusion of decorative patterning anticipates a later Deccani preference for highly ornamented works. Ghostly silhouettes of a female figure sharing Nizām Shah's throne included in five of the manuscript illustrations may be abraded images of the sultan's beloved wife, Queen Khanzada Humayun, who lost favor after her husband's death, and perhaps represents a rare example within Islamic court art of royal female portraiture.

In the decade following the production of this manuscript, great advances in technical refinement had occurred at the Ahmednager atelier, as evidenced in three royal portraits from around 1575, possibly painted by the same artist, that exhibit a new interest in naturalistic portraiture. These magnificent works indicate an awareness of artistic developments in the Mughal, Safavid, and perhaps even European courts. A fine example of painting from this period includes the Sultan Murtaza Nizām Shah Enthroned (Paris, Bibliothèque National), a portrait of Nizām Shah's son and heir Murtaza I (r. 1565–1588), rendered in minute parallel strokes upon a luminous golden ground. The painting depicts the youthful sultan seated on an elaborately inlaid throne, presenting gold to a courtier. To the sultan's left is a weapon-bearing attendant fanning him, and a young page who hurries to offer the courtier betel nut, an indication that the audience has concluded.

A small group of exquisite line drawings, rendered with the grace of a Persian master calligrapher's line, herald the last stage of imperial patronage at Ahmednagar, as in the elegantly rendered Young Prince Embraced by a Small Girl (San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney III Collection), from about 1580–1595. Mughal stylistic elements evident in these works may be due to a taste acquired by Murtaza's brother, Burhan II (r. 1591–1595), who as a prince was in exile at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) for attempting to usurp the throne.


The ʿAdil Shahi sultans were great patrons of the arts, and their capital at Bijapur was second only to the Mughal capital at Delhi as a center for artistic creativity.

Among the earliest known Bijapur paintings are those contained in a copy of a Persian manuscript on astronomy titled Nujum al-ʿUlum (Stars of science; Dublin, Chester Beatty Library), dated 1570–1571/A.H. 978. Probably created for Sultan ʿAli ʿAdil Shah I (r. 1557–1579), the subjects are illustrated in an unrefined but highly animated style.

It was under the patronage of Sultan Ibrahim ʿAdil Shah II (r. 1579–1627)—poet, musician, and mystic—that Bijapuri painting came into full flower. During Ibrahim's rule, elegantly conceived and painted works were created, featuring nobles depicted in languid ease within palatial surroundings, hawking on horseback, or in other princely pursuits set against a foliate dream-scape. One of four anonymous artists identified as contributing to the small corpus of Bijapur painting was particularly adept at capturing the introspective nature of his patron, as depicted in Sultan Ibrahim ʿAdil Shah II (London, British Museum).

A number of illustrations depicting mystics and ascetics were produced for the sultan, including a beautifully conceived portrait titled Yogini (Dublin, Chester Beatty Library) painted in the early seventeenth century. Exemplifying the jewel-like works produced during this period, this richly adorned and mysterious yogini (female ascetic) stands within a fantastic landscape of deep earth tones juxtaposed with gold-embellished pastel pink, purple, and green. Bijapuri paintings of this period exhibit elements of both indigenous South Asian and contemporary Safavid Persian court painting traditions, evidencing the cosmopolitan nature of Ibrahim ʿAdil Shah's court, which drew ambassadors, scholars, artists, and musicians from many regions.

By 1600 the Mughals had captured Ahmednagar fort and were preparing to challenge Bijapur and Golconda. Included among the Mughal entourage were Rajput ("sons of kings") nobles and military commanders from the Hindu princely kingdoms of the western and northern regions of the subcontinent. The Rajputs were also patrons of the arts, and often their artists accompanied them on military campaigns. The influence of Mughal and Rajput artists is apparent in works produced during the reign of Sultan Muhammad ʿAdil Shah (r. 1627–1656), in which the ethereal otherworldliness of earlier paintings has been replaced by a more realistic representation of figures, a placement within naturalistic settings, and the use of a subtle, subdued palette.

Although portraiture continued to be a popular subject, rulers and nobles were now depicted in profile within Mughalized compositions such as formal court ceremonies and parades. In more intimate compositions, they were shown seated or standing, equipped with shield, sword, and dagger—the accoutrements of power—or displaying the sensibilities of a connoisseur by holding a delicate flower. During this time, works often included notations identifying both subject and artist (or artists), influenced no doubt by Mughal artistic tradition, as the portrait The African Prime Minister Ikhlas Khan and a Page (San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney III Collection), from the mid-seventeenth century, which contains the inscription "work of Muhammad Khan, son of Miyan Chand."

Just before Bijapur fell to the Mughals in 1686, under the patronage of ʿAli ʿAdil Shah II (r. 1656–1672) and Sikandar ʿAdil Shah (r. 1672–1686), there was a revival of brilliant, fantastically colored paintings. The last extant painting attributable to Bijapur imperial commission is a genealogical painting Sultans of the ʿAdil Shahi Dynasty (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), from about 1680, by the artists Kamal Muhammad and Chand Muhammad. Sultan Yusuf ʿAdil Shahi, the dynasty's founder, is shown enthroned between his seven descendants, including Sikandar ʿAdil Shah (r. 1672–1686), the last sultan of Bijapur, depicted here as a dark-skinned youth.


The Qutb Shahis apparently had a great appreciation for Central Asian and Iranian artistic modes, perhaps influenced by their descent from the Qara Qoyunulu (Black Sheep) Turkman sultans of Anatolia and western Iran. Some of the earliest paintings in Golconda under Qutb Shahi patronage are attributable to the reign of Ibrahim Qutb Shah (r. 1550–1580). Illustrations to a 1569 copy of Hatifi's Khusrau and Shirin (Bankipur, Patna, Khuda Bakhsh Library) are of varied quality but betray links to works produced in the late-fifteenth-century Turkman and Timurid artistic centers at Bukhara, Shiraz, and Herat, and to sixteenth-century illustrations produced in the Tabriz and Qazvin ateliers of the Safavids.

The Kulliyat (Collected works) of Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (r. 1580–1612), from about 1590 (Hyderabad, Salar Jung Museum), is one of the first illustrated manuscripts under imperial patronage at Golconda to combine successfully Indo-Persianate artistic modes. Cluttered compositional schemes, a preference for surface patterning, and the use of thickly applied rich, vivid colors indicate a prototype for future developments in Golconda painting. Sultan Muhammad was an important patron of the arts, and this lavishly painted manuscript of his own Urdu verses may have been commissioned as a personal copy.

Works attributed to the reign of Sultan Abdullah Qutb Shah (r. 1626–1672) exhibit the lively interplay between contemporary Safavid and Mughal artistic influences implemented in the Golconda atelier, where indigenous and foreign artists may have worked side by side. One of the most beautifully rendered paintings from this period is the Darbar of Sultan Abdullah Qutb Shah as a Youth (London, British Museum), dated about 1630. The representation of darbars, or formal court gatherings, became an important subject for depiction by Mughal artists under Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–1627). Here, however, their Golconda counterpart has interpreted the theme to suit local tastes. Eschewing the Mughal penchant for realism and psychological insight into subjects, Sultan Abdullah, his courtiers, and attendants are rendered with idealized features and stare vacantly at the viewer. Although the composition is restrained, the artist has successfully presented the opulence and power of the Qutb Shahi court through the use of bold coloration and the lavish application of gold throughout.

An expanding Mughal military presence in the Deccan led to an increased exposure to Mughal iconographic traditions. Golconda's court painters, however, continued to interpret their works through the lens of Deccani aesthetic preferences. This tendency is evident in a handful of portraits attributed to the reign of Sultan Abdullah, such as the compositionally animated and realistically rendered Procession of Sultan Abdullah Qutb Shah Riding an Elephant (St. Petersburg, Saltykov-Shtshedrine State Public Library), dated about 1650.

In a rare portrait of the last Golconda ruler, Abuʾl Hasan Qutb Shah (r. 1672–1687), Sultan Abuʾl Hasan Walking in a Garden (San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney III Collection), from about 1672–1680, the robust sultan is dressed in multiple layers of exquisite garments, enjoying the scent of a flower just plucked from his garden. Although Abuʾl Hasan is depicted in profile and is centrally positioned within the composition, conforming to Mughal painterly ideals, he is not a static figure. Indeed, the Golconda artist has conveyed the relaxed and almost sensual demeanor of the sultan with fluid line, embellished by rich coloration and opulent patterning.

In 1687, after an eight-month siege, Abuʾl Hasan ceded the Golconda fort to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1657–1707). Mughal control of the region was thereafter centered at Hyderabad (in modern Andhra Pradesh), where Mughal nobles ruled as governors of the Deccan from 1685 to 1724. During this period, it is thought that Deccan artists and works of art made their way to northern courts in the company of Mughal and Rajput nobles returning from the Deccan campaigns. Evidence of Deccan artistic influence can be seen particularly in works of art produced at the Rajasthani ateliers in Bikaner and Kishangarh.

Hyderabad and the Provinces

In 1724 Nizām al-Mulk, the Mughal viceroy of the Deccan at Hyderabad, declared independence from the Mughal emperor at Delhi and took the title of Nizām Asaf Jah I, establishing the Asafiya dynasty (1724–1950). Portraiture continued to be popular at Hyderabad and provincial Deccan centers such as Kurnool, but increasingly courtly themes, featuring idealized ladies of the court, were included in the Deccan artistic repertoires. A complete set of thirty-six ragamala (garland of musical modes) paintings called the "Johnson Ragamala" (London, India Office Library, Johnson Album 36) is considered by some to be the finest and most sophisticated example of Hyderabadi painting. Painted sometime in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the acquisition of this ragamala set by Richard Johnson, the British Resident at Hyderabad in 1784 and1785, heralds a new clientele for artists in the Deccan and other parts of the subcontinent: English, Dutch, and French traders and adventurers.

Rochelle Kessler

See alsoRajput (Rajastani and Hill) Painting ; Sultanate Painting


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