The Distinct Mughal-European Art of Basawan

Alexander the Great Visiting the Sage Plato in his Mountain Cave. Illustartion of a poem by Amir Khusrau, painted by Basawan (1597-98)
A Hindu from a cowherd community became one of Akbar's greatest painters. His paintings include Christian iconographies.

In 1580 A.D., the first Jesuit mission to the Mughal court gifted emperor Akbar with a copy of Plantyn’s Royal Polyglot Bible. On receiving the Bible, Akbar reportedly “held them in his hands and publicly kissed them, and placed them on his head.” A Jesuit priest observed Akbar’s behavior in following words:

Removing his cap or turban, kneeling on the ground with great devotion, he prayed before the picture of Christ and of the Virgin, venerating thrice, once in our manner, the other in that of the Muslims and the third in the Hindu fashion, that is to say, prostrate, saying that God should be adored with every form of adoration.

The mission brought forth an entirely new tradition of visual art to the Mughal court, that of the European schools of painting. Ten years later in 1590, one of the Mughal Empire’s greatest painters came forth with a painting of a Madonna and her Child, referencing the Virgin Mary.

Its three-dimensional shading and poignant human expressions were the hallmarks of Basawan – a painter from a cow-herding community, who was among Akbar’s favourites. In his lifetime, he produced over 100 paintings. Akbar’s official historiographer, Abu al-Fadl, wrote of Basawan in the Akbarnama:

In designing and portrait painting and colouring and painting illusionistically…he became unrivalled in the world.

The derivation from European schools of painting gives Basawan’s work a distinctiveness amongst Mughal art. Initially, Akbar’s artists merely worked at replicating the Christian artworks that missionaries had brought from Europe. But in Basawan’s hands, these paintings acquire a European-Mughal flavour in its own right. Of note is the two-tone colour scheme in this portrait of the Virgin Mary holding a book.

Little is known about Basawan, besides his paintings. His earliest known work is found in the Tutinama in 1560 A.D. In ‘Tales of a Parrot”, the painting “Fifth night: The hunter throws away the baby parrots, who pretend to be dead, and captures the mother,” is made in watercolour with ink and gold on paper. You can see its sequel here, where the hunter offers the mother parrot to the king Kamarupa. These paintings demonstrate a technique of rich, layered background detailing that distinguished Basawan from his other illustrious competitor in the Mughal court – Daswanth.

Basawan and Daswanth were among the three most prolific painters featured in the Razmnama, Akbar’s illustrated Persian translation of the Ramayana. 33 paintings within the manuscript were composed by Basawan. While each had their charms, Abu Fazl gives Basawan the advantage when it comes to his “backgrounding, drawing of features, distribution of colours, portrait painting.”

Later works, such as this one from the Jahangirnama, best show the interplay of European and Mughal styles. In it, you can see a robed woman gazing up at the sun with her hands folded in the Hindu ‘Namaste’ gesture. The sun was significant to Akbar’s newly created religion ‘Din-i-Ilahi’ where Sundays were deemed a day of veneration in honour of the sun. It was also Basawan’s style to incorporate European figures against Mughal surroundings, such as in “Europeanized Woman and Old Man“.

Basawan truly shines in his portraits, such as this one of a fat man.

Drunk European seated on ground. ca. 1580-1585. (Image: Freer and Sackler Gallery/ Public Domain)

The figure, sometimes described as a drunk European, other times, as a seated man with a Rabab (a type of Lute from Afghanistan), demonstrates Basawan’s rich caricatural ability to detail and caricature. There are few portraits like this in the Mughal collection. This portrait stands in stark contrast to the “Learned Man“. The big belly remains, but the figure’s mood is altogether different and more pensive. It’s also known as the “Venerable Sufi” or “Old Sufi” and is a timeless image of learning.

What these portraits best demonstrate is the technique of nim-qalam, designed to imitate European engravings. In it, the outlines are drawn in ink and then washed over with a light brush to give a rounded effect.

The vain Dervish and the Sufi (Image: Bodleian Library, Oxford/ Public Domain)

This image of the Vain Dervish being admonished by the Sufi saint, is part of Jami’s Baharistan, prepared for Akbar in 1595. This chapter is the theme of ‘Wise Men, Generosity and Love’. A Sufi mullah ‘gently admonishes’ a vain dervish who deeply prizes his ascetic’s coat. The Mullah asks, “Would you consider this robe as your god?”

Basawan was also involved in producing portraits of the Mughal elites. Abu’l Fazl spelled out the intention in the Akbarnama:

His Majesty himself sat for his likeness, and also ordered to have the likenesses taken of all the grandees of the realm. An immense album was thus formed: those that have passed away have received a new life, and those who are still alive have immortality promised them.

Basawan was among the artists commissioned to create these. He also depicted ordinary scenes of people, such as this one of a Jain ascetic.

Jain ascetic walking along a river bank, 1600 (Image: Public Domain)

In his portraits, he could also be mysteriously evocative such as in this illustrated figure of fortitude.

By the time the Akbarnama was composed, Basawan had adopted many styles. The Akbarnama demanded complex backdrops, which required the artist to adopt the linear perspective style from Europe. As Annemarie Schimmel and Stuart Cary Welch write:

Basawan’s ‘European qualities,’ nevertheless, seem to have been fundamental characteristics of his artistic personality, which was little more than catalysed by seeing Western solutions to common visual problems.

Basawan’s work in the Akbarnama demonstrates his mastery of three-dimensional composition and dramatic staging.

Akbar taming the mad elephant Hawai, in the Akbarnama. Composition by Baswan, colouring by Chitra.

His paintings of Akbar hunting (co-produced with Miskin) are considered the best studies of animals in the Akbar era.

Akbar hunts in the neighborhood of Agra, from the Akbarnama, 1590-95 (Image: Victoria and Albert Museum/ Public Domain)

Basawan goes down in history as among the greatest Mughal painters of all time. The story of how the Hindu cow-herder became a painter is not known, but Basawan’s legacy is immortalized along with his subjects in his voluminous works. But perhaps Basawan’s proudest legacy was his son – Manohar Das – who succeeded him as court painter. Manohar’s work also built on European influences, but it was the son who perhaps mastered the drawing of animals.

Basawan’s works now sell for thousands of pounds, and represent the art of an artist at the peak of his ability, blending the best techniques from around the world. His art remains a priceless addition to India’s secular, multi-cultural ethos.

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