The example of the BnF collections
The variety of the two and a half thousand Indian paintings in the BnF's Prints and Photography Department attests to the richness of the pictorial tradition in South Asia. Roselyne Hurel's catalogue raisonné is a comprehensive and detailed reference work covering all these works.
A very large number of the miniatures in the imperial Mughal style, as well as provincial ones in bound albums, were donated by the Colonel Gentil. Grouped in bound albums, they resemble eclectic collections very typical of the Mughal muraqqas whose canon the colonel followed.
The origin of Mughal painting goes back to the reign of Humayun. During his exile in the court of the Persian king Shah Tahmasp, he was amazed by the art of Persian manuscripts. When he returned to Delhi to reclaim his empire in 1555, he was accompanied by two Persian artists, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd-us-Samad, who helped him lay the foundations of Mughal painting. But it was his son Akbar who was responsible for the flowering of this art. Akbar, an enlightened and open-minded ruler, founded a syncretic and universal religion sulaih kul. His imperial workshop was made up of Sephardic painters and calligraphers as well as Hindu artists. It produced remarkable works in which one can discern a confluence of three main styles: European, Islamic (or Persian) and Hindu (indigenous). The imperial workshop executed, among other things, commissions for exceptional illustrations of great narrative and historical texts: Hamzanama, Tutinama, Razmnama, and Baburnama.
With the accession to the throne of his successor Jahangir, the great subjects of illustrations with their formal and official aspects gave way to murraquas or collections of more intimate and spiritual paintings. Spirituality (scenes of encounters with ascetics), the pursuit of worldly pleasures as well as symbolic imperialism (the divine right of the sovereign) were in full swing during this period. The European influence becomes much more pronounced and the pictorial space more airy, free of clutter. In the portraits one can discern a psychological penetration of character and individuation. It was under Jahangir that painting reached its peak: pictorial art saw a perfect fusion of Persian, European and Hindu influences.
His successor Shah Jahan, a builder, gathered his resources to erect majestic buildings such as the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort or the Great Mosque in Delhi. During his reign, painting took on a dimension of ceremonial glory through the development of a classical style. The Padshahnama or the Shah Jahan albums were the most striking creations of the time.
His successor Aurangzeb precipitated the disintegration of the Empire and the decline of pictorial art. The imperial artists were forced to seek refuge with provincial rulers (Awadh, Lucknow or Murshidabad). The style that developed there belongs to the provincial Mughal school. It favoured an openness towards subjects little explored in the imperial schools: women and their veiled quarters (zanana), romantic subjects drawn from the Indo-Persian imagination (Baz Bahadur and Rupmati, Shirin and Khusrau), religious or spiritual subjects as well as musical ones (Ragmala)
Rajput painting, a rather complex and heterogeneous tradition, sometimes lacks the coherence of the historical development of the Mughal style. However, artists trained in the imperial Mughal schools and finding employment with Rajput princes, thanks to political contacts and matrimonial alliances, developed their own style integrating local and Mughal influences. The regional schools were differentiated by their stylistic and thematic specificities. In some paintings one can find pre-Mughal or indigenous characteristics. The artists of the Mewar region (Udaipur, Chittorgarh) drew their inspiration from pre-Mughal traditions where the composition was divided into rectangular compartments and primary colours were applied in a flat manner without modulation, reminiscent of the so-called Chaurapanchasikha style. In the artists of the Marwar kingdom (Jodhpur) imperial Mughal influences are recognisable. The theme is closer to hedonism (lovers on a terrace, music and dance scenes) with resplendent backgrounds. Other smaller kingdoms such as Bundi, Kota (from the Ragamalas or the Bhagawata Purana) or Bikaner also display their specificities. The BnF contains very few works from Rajasthan but a series from the Bhagawata Purana illustrating the incarnations of Vishnu, executed in the sub-imperial style, deserves attention.
The Deccan plateaus in the centre of the Indian subcontinent were under the control of the Sultans. These kingdoms, such as Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda, were already experiencing a flowering of pictorial art in the 16th century. The Golconda school is the best represented in the BnF, with most works dating from the 1680s.
The Indian peninsula, framed in the north by the Vindyas and the seas on the other three sides, is a particularly different area from the rest of the country. The literature and arts of South India remain closely linked with the Hindu religion (Shaivism and Vishnuism) and the temple precincts were the site of all human activity. It is the temples that have lent their iconography to painting. The gods and their consorts can be identified by their attributes, posture or gesture.
Preserved in bound and intact albums, the South Indian paintings in the BnF collections are mainly from the regions of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The Prints Department has albums devoted to Hindu deities, especially the incarnations of Vishnu, gods and demons. The tradition of kalamkaris (cloths painted with mythological tales used by itinerant storytellers to tell stories) inspired artists to illustrate on paper scenes from great post-Vedic religious texts such as the Bhagavata Purana. The album by a Swami Brahmin, entitled "Moeurs et usages des indiens" and devoted to the castes and professions of the Hindus, probably intended for a European clientele as souvenirs, can also be considered as belonging to the "Company paintings".
The "Company" style
Invented by Mildred Archer, the term "Company Painting" (paintings made by Indian artists for the agents of the British India Company) remains however a rather ambiguous term. Today, it can include all kinds of works intended for a European eye (and market) that arouses their curiosity about indigenous life and culture. In the BnF, some of the South Indian albums and paintings count among the earliest with characteristics of this style. Paintings from the Murshidabad region (Bengal), Lahore (now in Pakistan) or the Awadh region, however, constitute most of its important examples.