Sultanate Painting

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SULTANATE PAINTING The term "Sultanate painting" should refer to manuscript illustrations or murals commissioned by Muslim patrons in the regions of India ruled by sultans before the founding of the imperial Mughal atelier in 1556. Though the so-called Sultanate period began in 1206, manuscript painting cannot be traced back much earlier than about 1450. Thus, most Sultanate painting dates between about 1450 and 1550, and the centers of production seem to be primarily Mandu in central India and Jaunpur in eastern India, with some work being done in the Delhi region and in Gujarat in western India. The succession of Muslim sultans ruling from Delhi in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were more concerned with public building projects, and many of them were opposed to figural painting for religious reasons. Several examples of the Qurʾan with calligraphy and ornamentation distinctive to India have survived from this period, but they include no figural illumination. Several passages in literature refer to the existence of wall paintings during the time of the early Delhi sultanates, but little survives.

In 1398 Timur, the Turkic warrior from Central Asia (known in the West as Tamerlane), sacked Delhi and defeated the ruling sultan, Firuz Shah Tughluq. The ensuing decentralization of political power led to changes in the history of Indian art. Provincial governors in out-lying regions gained greater independence and became self-proclaimed sultans. Over the course of the fifteenth century, these provincial sultans strove to take on the trappings of kingship, following the Persian model. These trappings included the building of fortifications, palaces, mosques, schools for the study of the Qurʾan (madrasa), and libraries. The libraries were for the use of scholars of the court and for the personal enjoyment of the patrons. They required books, and the rulers and wealthy Muslims on the eastern fringes of the Islamic world began to commission illustrated versions of the classics of Persian literature.

As a rule the works commissioned during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were epics and lyric romances. Most popular were the Shah Nāma, a history of the kings of the Islamic world; the Hamza Nāma, which relates the fantastic adventures of Hamza, uncle of the prophet Muhammad; and the Khamsa of Nizāmī, or its retelling by the Indian author Amiir Khusrau Dihlavī, which contains five distinct books of poetry, including the Sikandar Nāma, which recounts the exploits of Alexander the Great. The Chandāyana (also called the Laur Chandā) was evidently the most popular among the lyric romances; five fully illustrated editions survive in more or less fragmentary condition, painted in different styles.

Styles of Sultanate Painting

The illustrated manuscripts made for Muslim patrons between 1450 and 1550 vary considerably in style, as there was no unifying force in the production of these works. Some of the early works were heavily reliant on Turkman prototypes, namely paintings made in Shiraz in eastern Iran, or in Herat in Central Asia. It appears that the painters themselves were typically Indian, trained in the stylized and highly conservative indigenous styles exemplified by illuminations of devotional manuscripts commissioned especially by Jains in western India, but also by Buddhists in eastern India, and by Hindus. These Indian artists were apparently charged with adopting the Turkman style, and different artists produced works with greater or lesser fidelity to their foreign sources. Most of the surviving examples of fifteenth-century Sultanate painting are significant more for historical than aesthetic reasons. Among the more visually engaging works is a Shah Nāma of about 1450, now dispersed primarily among museum and private collections in Europe. The manuscript is arranged in a vertical format with horizontal illustrations and four columns of Persian text. The paintings are closely related to the indigenous western or central Indian styles of paintings in non-Muslim sacred texts of the time.

A remarkable manuscript called the Ni'mat Nāma, painted in Mandu in central India around 1500, is a book of recipes, which shows the sultan surrounded by attendants preparing foods, medicines, and aphrodisiacs. The painters of the pictures were Indian, but they drew heavily from Shirazi models, with much use of thick green swards, pastel background colors, and provincial Persian figural types. Indian elements are especially noticeable in the renditions of the Indian ladies, who were part of his extensive, multicultural harem.

By the mid-sixteenth century a harmonious fusion of Persian and Indian styles was achieved, seen especially in the paintings illustrating the adventures of the lovers Chandā and Laurak in the Chandāyana of about 1540. The text was composed by a Muslim poet in India, written in the northeastern dialect of Hindi known as Avadhi, in Persian script, and the paintings were painted by a Hindu artist. Artists working in this unique hybrid style, characterized by bright pastel colors, repeated ground patterns, delicate line drawing, and exquisite arabesques, were particularly influential in the early decades of the imperial Mughal atelier.

Sonya Quintanilla

See alsoMiniatures


Digby, Simon. "The Literary Evidence for Painting in the Delhi Sultanate." Bulletin of the American Academy of Benares (Varanasi) 1 (1967): 47–58.

Goswamy, B. N. A Jainesque Sultanate Shahnama and theContext of Pre-Mughal Painting in India. Zürich: Museum Rietberg Zürich, 1988.

Khandalavala, Karl, and Moti Chandra. New Documents ofIndian Painting: A Reappraisal. Mumbai: Prince of Wales Museum, 1969.

Losty, Jeremiah P. The Art of the Book in India. London: British Library, 1982.

Skelton, Robert. "The Ni'mat nama: A Landmark in Malwa Painting." Marg 12, no. 3 (June 1959): 44–50.