Mogul art -- the best of two worlds

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WHEN the Moguls conquered India in 1526, they brought Islamic art to a country with a long art tradition of its own. The result was a brilliant synthesis; the Mogul empire is long gone, but Mogul painting remains one of the glories of Indian culture. The first Mogul emperor, Babur (1483-1530), owned at least one illustrated manuscript and wrote one of the earliest stylistic descriptions of the work of Bihzad, a great Persian painter. Babur's son, Humayun, actually studied painting, and when he returned to India after some years of exile in Iran, he took Persian artists with him.

But it was the third and fourth Mogul emperors, Akbar and Jahangir, who brought Mogul painting to its zenith. Akbar, who ascended the throne in 1556, first devoted himself to expanding the empire. With his military duty done, he began binding up the wounds.

He commissioned illustrated translations of the Hindu classics so his Muslim coreligionists could know and respect their Hindu brethren. He gave a wide variety of Indian peoples a part in the machinery of government.

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Keenly aware that religion divided people from one another, Akbar invited representatives of many religions to join in all-night conversations at his court. He went so far as to establish an ecumenical religion, but that effort failed.

He collected European as well as Islamic and Hindu art. Christianity seems to have held a special interest for Akbar, and he paid Indian artists to paint such quintessentially Christian subjects as the Madonna and child.

Akbar's basic contribution to Indian art lay in bringing Persian artists together with native Hindus. The resulting style owed something to both traditions. In its precise realism, however, it went beyond anything previously done by either Islamic or Hindu artists, and one may speculate that the Renaissance in Europe was exerting a distant influence; Albrecht D"urer was much admired by Indian artists.

In 1605 Akbar's son, Salim, ascended the throne. He took the name Jahangir, which means ``world seizer,'' but his father had already seized so much that Jahangir had little in the way of public obligations. Instead he became the greatest patron and connoisseur of art in the history of India.

The double portrait reproduced here symbolizes the succession. In Indian iconography the falcon is thought to represent political authority. The man holding the falcon is Akbar; the younger man is Jahangir. There is a sense in which the picture is itself an act of reconciliation. For some years Jahangir was in armed revolt against his father, and the painting, done at Jahangir's court, reflects a degree of mutual acceptance the two men did not always feel in life.

Akbar and Jahangir were, in effect, foreign conquerors who respected the art of the country they ruled. With all their striving for cultural synthesis, they remained in conflict with those orthodox Muslims who frowned on the realism that was the hallmark of early Mogul painting.

Akbar believed that exact observation encouraged religious feeling. ``There are many that hate painting,'' he once said. ``But such men I dislike. It appears to me as if a painter had quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the giver of life, and will thus increase in knowledge.''

This portrait of Akbar and Jahangir may be seen in ``Indian Miniatures from the Ehrenfeld Collection,'' an exhibition currently being circulated by the American Federation of Arts. Closing today at the Newark Museum, it will travel to New Orleans; Worcester, Mass.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Evanston, Ill.; Fort Dodge, Iowa; Oklahoma City; and Chapel Hill, N.C.

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