Court Patronized Arts under Aurangzeb: Music and Paintings

bherī or dhol, from the chapter on instruments. Ghunyat al-Munya (British Library IO Islamic 1863, f. 47v)

A number of arts were actively given patronage by the Imperial Mughals. Amongst them the most prominent were music, paintings, calligraphy and architecture: no royal court, imperial or sub-imperial were without them.

We know that when Babur came to India, he was accompanied by painters, architects and musicians. However, distinct “schools” of Mughal Art and Architecture arose only during the reign of his grandson Akbar. Foundations of a Mughal Atelier of Miniature paintings were laid during this period. Similarly in the other fields like music and architecture new beginnings were made. The reign of Jahangir saw the growth in these courtly arts. Finally, the period of Shahjahan is supposed to be the period of zenith as far as these aesthetic arts were concerned. As per the general and popular understanding the reign of Aurangzeb however marked a decline of these arts. Here we will see whether this popular perception of “decline” under an “orthodox” Aurangzeb holds water or not.

I. Music:   It is generally stressed that one of the worst sufferers during the reign of Aurangzeb was the art of Music. It has been argued that Aurangzeb being a bigot was against music which he banned soon after ascending the throne. There has been an overwhelming reliance on just two near contemporary sources, Manucci’s Storia do Mogor (begun 1699) and Khafi Khan’s Muntakhab al-Lubab (begun 1718). According to Manucci, he not only ‘banned’ music from the court but also arrested those from whose houses he heard its sound. He would also break the instruments. This resulted in a ‘great destruction of musical instruments as well.

However we have a different kind of information as well.

After the death and execution of Dara, we have evidence (cited by Jadunath, vol. III) that Aurangzeb demanded from Shahjahan women singers of Dara. Why? – ‘As there is no skilled songstress with me whose music may soothe my ears!’

Even after 1668 when the ban on music is said to have been imposed, we find that music still remained not only as part of court functions – the ensemble – but also within the haram. Manucci himself tells us that music remained allowed for queens and the princesses. Manucci also provides us with the names of 33 Superintendants in the haram who were ‘overseers of music’. They had Hindu names – Surosh Bai, Chanchal Bai, Dhyan Bai etc – who were however Muslims. Each had under her charge about 10 apprentices. Manucci further informs us that each queen had her own set of musicians.

In a letter reproduced both by Ruqqat-i Alamgiri and Rag Darpan, written to his son Muhammad A‘zam Shah around c.1690 Aurangzeb demonstrates that, at least in private, the exact opposite was the case. In praising his own father’s way of life, he wrote:

After sunset he retired from the ‘Divan-i-Am’, offered evening prayers and (then) entered his special private chamber. There were present sweet tongued historians, eloquent story-tellers, sweet-voiced musicians [qawwalani khush al-han]. . .In short, His Majesty passed, till midnight, the hours of day and night, in this manner, and (thus) did justice to life and sovereignty. As (my) paternal love regarding (my) son is from the heart (i.e. true) and not from the pen (i.e. false), I was obliged to write and inform (my) dear son what was good and valuable.

It conclusively demonstrates contrary to expectation that he considered the patronage and performance of music, at least in relation to the qawwals, to be essentially ‘good and valuable’. In this letter he strongly recommends Shah Jahan’s practice to his son. It is impossible to argue on this basis that Aurangzeb actively discouraged his subjects from listening to music.

That his patronage was not simply a concession to court ceremonial is demonstrated by Bakhtawar Khan in the Mir’at-i ‘Alam, which describes Aurangzeb as possessing a ‘perfect expert’s knowledge’ of, and enjoying, the musical art. The high-ranking nobleman Faqirullah described Aurangzeb’s favourite singers and instrumentalists by name in 1666 in his musical treatise Rag Darpan, and noted the emperor’s enthusiastic enjoyment of their talents.

We have further evidence to show that music in fact was never buried deep!

More musical treatises in Persian were written during Aurangzeb’s reign than in the previous 500 years of Muslim rule in India, and all of them make significant references to current music making.

The two major Persian language works on music, the Rag Darpan and the Tuhfat ul Hind were written during Aurangzeb’s reign. Both works are very crucial for Hindustani music history. Rag Darpan was written in 1665 by Faqirullah, an expert of music recruited in Mughal service during the reign of Shahjahan. Under Aurangzeb he was not only bestowed a title, Saif Khan, but also elevated as the governor of three subas: Kashmir, Allahabad and Multan. The work is a translation of the famous treatise on music, Man Kautuhal originally written at Gwalior under Raja Man Singh Tomar (1486-1516).

Tuhfat ul Hind, on the other hand was written by a person known either as Mirza Jan / Mirza Khan / Mirza Muhammad. It is in five parts, of which one is totally devoted to music. One of its chapters deals with tala (musical metres). This work was written either for Aurangzeb or for his favourite son Prince Azam, a great patron of literature, poetry and music.

As Prince Azam was only fifteen years old in 1668, and died in the same year as his father, Katherine Butler Brown points out, his entire career as a patron coincided with the years of Aurangzeb’s supposed ‘ban’. A‘zam was famous for his superior musicianship. According to Bindraban Das, (Safina-i Khushgu), he was unequalled in his knowledge of the fundamentals of music and dance, and even the great masters asked his advice. He possessed a perfect command of many genres of Hindavi poetry, and he was above all famed for his excellent musical compositions.

Not only music continued to exist but it also actively evolved during this reign. this is demonstrated by the modern works of Bonnie C Wade and Katherine Butler Brown. Thus from a Sanskrit work – an important text on music – prepared during the same reign (1665) Sangitaparijata of Ahobala, we come to know that the tambur, a drone instrument, came to be indigenized and was available both in its fretted and unfretted version.

The reign of Aurangzeb was a reign of popularisation of music. The Mirzanama of Mirza Kamran, written no earlier than 1672, shows that musical patronage continued as customary amongst the Mughal amirs. The popular masnavi of Muhammad Akram Ghanimat, Nairang-i ‘Ishq, written in 1685, makes extensive (if partly allegorical) commentary on the presence of musicians and dancers at mehfils he attended, one of whom he famously fell in love with. A large number of Aurangzeb’s amirs are remembered as patrons of music during his reign, including many who were his close associates and relatives. The father of Aurangzeb’s principal wife, Shah Nawaz Khan Safavi, is described in the Ma’asir al-Umara’ as having ‘given his heart to rag. . . He gathered together singers and instrumentalists, the like of which were not to be found in any other place at that time’.

An examination of Mughal tazkiras like the Safina-yi Khushgu (1724–35), the Ma’asir al-Umara‘ (1742–47), and the final chapter of the Rag Darpan (1666) reveals that music was patronized through a series of friendship circles with mutual interests in music, poetry, and Sufism, and that musical treatises also circulated through such friendship circles (Brown 2003:44–45,60,128– 33; Schofield). Only one known writer mentioned performers as potential readers of such texts, and only in passing (Qazi Hasan SJ: f. 3b, ASB:f.4a).Instead,Faqirullah, the high-ranking author of the most important musical treatise of the seventeenth century, the Rag Darpan,wrote explicitly for the elite connoisseur—the man of enlightenment or discernment (the. sahib-i nazar, the arbab-i khirad, the xamir-i munir [1996:224, 108, 74 180])—but more importantly for his personal friends (yaran and dustan), specifically those “whose entire pleasure (zauq) is in music” (222–25); this in turn invokes the ahl-i zauq, the term for “connoisseur” that made its way into Urdu.Indeed,I argue elsewhere that connoisseurship itself was and still is gendered masculine: that is, the all-important ideal listener in Hindustani music, equally responsible with the musician for the success or failure of the performance, is male, and the patronage and connoisseurship of music is in part about reinforcing male forms of sociality around an experience that is heightened by the knowledge of esoterica that gives shared pleasure and a sense of solidarity to men in the know, and acts to separate them from men who aren’t (Schofield forthcoming). The musical object of the connoisseur- ship of social elites is thus by definition marked as socially exclusive.

According to Katherine Butler Schofield it was during Aurangzeb’s reign that the process of recodifying Sanskrit and earlier works of music gained an impetus and manifested itself in earnest in the Persian language. A number of treatises designed to satisfy the needs of high-ranking connoisseurs of Hindustani music who were more comfortable in the offical language of the Mughal empire were compiled and prepared. The following six key treatises in Persian, according to her, became the ‘canonical core’ of Mughal music theory for the next two hundred years:

1) The Miftāḥ al-Sarūd or Key to Music: a translation of a lost Sanskrit work called Bhārata-saṅgīta by Mughal official Qazi Hasan, written for Aurangzeb in 1664 near Daulatabad. Although this treatise is not itself available in the British Library (there is a beautiful 1691 illustrated copy in the Victoria and Albert Museum IS.61:1-197), a précis of it appears in the margins of some copies of the 1547 Persian translation of al-Qazwini’s famous Wonders of Creation.

II. Painting:  Aurangzeb’s reign is not known for its encouragement to painting. He is said to have forbade the art at the court and showed no interest in its developments. However, if we believe contemporaries like Bernier, the Royal Atelier was still in function – at least in the early years of his reign. Under Shahjahan, the depiction of court and the personality of the emperor had been transformed to visions of cosmic splendour. A case in point would be the Windsor Castle Padshahnama: highly accomplished self confident works of art, highly ritualized public life, formal settings, bright colours and use of gold, which heightens the scene’s opulence and grandeur.

Now under Aurangzeb, the quantity, quality and range of Mughal paintings is said to have considerably declined: still from whatever survives from this reign, it appears that the idealized tendencies of Shahjahan’s reign still continued. A case in point can be, according to Catherine Asher, the composition done by Hashim in c. 1658 preserved in Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University of Arts Museum, Cambridge. But then unlike Shahjahani works, its undefined background and inconsistent modelling seems somewhat simplified and flat.

Thevenot while giving a critical analysis of the paintings which he saw says that the ‘deficiency’ was not of the art per se but due to the fact that the artists ‘are not encouraged’ instead ‘these unhappy men are condemned, with harshness, and inadequately renumerated for their labour’.

As J.F. Richards in his New Cambridge History of India points out, during this reign a new moralistic and legalistic tone began to undermine the eclectic and inclusive Mughal Court Culture so brilliantly nurtured by Akbar and Jahangir. The Mughal paintings and style began to ossify by 1658: What had begun as an extra-ordinary burst of creativity under Humayun and Akbar, now slowly hardened into an officially accepted style with increasingly rigid representational and thematic conventions. The painters now simply followed established studio formulae, rather than invent new ones.

However, as Portraits were more politically useful, they continued to be produced especially in the early years of Aurangzeb’s reign.

During his lifetime, Aurangzeb was often represented in one of two ways: either as a warrior for Islam or as a devout Muslim ruler reading a Qu’ran. As compared to the lavish paintings of Shah Jahan’s period, the artistic style radically changed. Artists tended to paint simple individual portrait studies. The paintings were often painted in the nim-qalam (tinted drawing) technique with hints of and gold. Artists seemed to steer away from the developed backgrounds landscape settings. In fact, it was exceptionally rare for artists to paint historic scenes. Contemporary accounts do not offer a precise explanation for the decline in the painting traditions. Contributing factors may have included Aurangzeb’s curtailing of state expenditure, banning histories in praise of the emperor, forbidding music and dancing for pleasure at the court, and increased religiosity.

It is held that in 1665 Aurangzeb, whose interest in painting was on the decline, even went so far as to shut down the imperial studios. Artists, henceforth deprived of imperial favour and support, sought to place themselves in the service of new patrons, often chosen from among the nobles and major dignitaries. A brief pictorial revival characterised the turbulent and unhappy reign of Emperor Muhammad Shah (r. 1719–1748), which the sack of Delhi by the Persian Nadir Shah in 1739 would bring to a brutal and tragic end.