Court Patronized Arts under Aurangzeb: Music and Paintings

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 as well as a distinct Mughal School of Architecture were laid during this period. Similarly in the other fields like music and literature 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 most of these aesthetic arts, as well as literature 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 have already dealt with the actual position of music under Aurangzeb separately, where, basing on the works of Katherine Schofield and others, we have seen that knowledge and practice of music actually percolated down to the non-imperial levels. Much more was written about music under Aurangzeb than before.

Here we will look at,m painting, architecture, as well as developments in the field of literature and the emergence of what today is known as Urdu/Hindi.

I. 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.

II. Architecture:

Aurangzeb’s Mosque, Lahore

As with other court sponsored cultural arts, during Aurangzeb’s reign there appears a sudden decline in architectural projects as well. As he was a staunch Sunni, he is said to have not only commissioned only religious buildings like mosques, he was also responsible for the destruction of many of the temples.

However, a look at modern works and explorations however reveal that Aurangzeb also commissioned structures like sarais, baths, gardens, tombs and fortified walls. Is this not true for other reigns as well? He is also credited to have repaired mosques built during earlier reigns and built many within captured forts.

For example the Sarai at Jajau was constructed during this period according to an inscription of Aurangzeb put up on it and dated 1674.

Jajau Sarai of Aurangzeb

The best known mosques of Aurangzeb’s period include the Moti Masjid in the Delhi Fort, a mosque on the site of the Keshav Dev Temple at Mathura (destroyed 1669-70) and the Badshahi Mosque of Lahore.

The first and the last are very ornate structures: the Moti Masjid is a marble structure, while the Lahore mosque is a red sand stone structure with insertions of white marble. The Mathura Mosque is more austere and resembles the mosques built by royal ladies of Shahjahan’s reign.

Some of the architectural features which distinguish the mosques constructed during the reign of Aurangzeb are as follows:

a. Most of these mosques stress their vertical elevation: they are all provided with minarets which provide them with the vertical perspective. This is true not only for the above mentioned mosques, but also for the Jami’ Masjids at Mathura, Merta and Varanasi.

Alamgiri Mosque, Varanasi

b. As pointed out by Ebba Koch, the ornamentation is richly organic, which not only reflects Aurangzeb’s lack of personal interest, but also that forms once appropriate for the palace architecture, such as the ornament on Shahjahan’s Delhi throne, were now utilized on palace mosques.

As far as the Tomb architecture under Aurangzeb is concerned, it is best represented by the Tomb of Rabia Daurani (who died in 1657) built in 1660-61. Although a rough copy of the Taj, it reflects a new aesthetic that developed in Aurangzeb’s reign. Just as in the case of mosques, instead of perfect balance of proportions which were a hall-mark feature of Shahjahan’s reign, there is an emphasis on verticality. Further, though generally discussed as evidence of ‘decline’, this tomb reveals a new spatial arrangement, as well as a highly naturalistic fine floral ornament, much of it in stucco, which according to Asher, renders it as quite innovative.

Tomb of Rabia Daurani (Bibi ka Maqbara)
Ceiling Decorations
Carvings at Bibi ka Maqbara

With this tomb also truly ends the long established imperial tradition of setting monumental mausolea within a chaharbagh: Now we find burials within courtyards of mosques or shrines with just a screen and a cenotaph – the grave of Jahanara, the tomb of Aurangzeb at Khuldabad. Was this just a full circle: from an open to sky tomb of Babur at Kabul to Aurangzeb’s tomb at Khuldabad? Probably where the resemblance ends is that the former is located within a garden, the latter within a Chishti shrine.

III. Evolution of Deccani Urdu and rekhta:

We have already seen the development of the vernacular languages under Akbar. We have also commented that in the initial stages when the Arabs and the Persian speaking people – as well as the Greeks – came into contact with the Indian sub-continent, they not only named the country on the river Sind – Hind, but also used the term Hindi or Hindvi for its inhabitants. Later on Amir Khusrau in his writings, especially Nuh Sipihr, uses the term ‘hindavi’ and then goes on to enumerate a number of vernaculars, meaning that to him the term actually meant and connoted ‘Indian languages’. When he himself wrote in hindavi, he actually uses [in Ghurrat ul Kamal] the term zaban-i dihlavi. It seems fairly clear that after the Ghurid conquest of Delhi, Persian and Punjabi words got interwoven with the language which was spoken there, which was a mixture of Khari Bholi, Brij, Rajasthani, and Hariani.

Now during the reign of Aurangzeb, the terms applied for this language were either hindavi / hindi or rekhta. In the Deccan when Vajhi (fl. 1600-1640) wrote his Sabras (1634) at Golkunda, he called the language as zuban-i Hindustan.

Technically the term rekhta means ‘mixed, poured’. The term initially was applied for a form of poetry in which hindavi and Persian were freely mixed in various proportions. Thus the language, as spoken, was generally called hindavi / hindvi / hindi; when applied for literary and poetical purposes, it was known as rekhta. When spoken and written in Bijapur and Golkunda, it was simply known as ‘Deccani’.

During the late 17th Century and early 18th Century there was a new term which was applied: Urdu. It derives from the Turkish Ördu – the camp / military camp. Although the term was there since 1150 in Persian, in India the term was first employed for camp by Babur. Thus the term Urdu stood for the language of the army. It was necessary to have a term to distinguish this pidgin of the military camp – zaban-i urdu-i mu’alla – which was a mixture of many languages and dialects, from the unmixed vernacular of the people and the Persian of the court.

The earliest known example of the employment of the term ‘Urdu’, standing by itself and meaning a language, is first encountered in the poems of Mushafi (1750-1824) [Tazkira-i Shu’ara-i Hindi]. Here in this collection as well the term Hidi in the title stands for the new emerging language of the Indians. The term zuban-i urdu (language of the camp) for the first time occurs in Tazkira-i Gulzar-i Ibrahim compiled in 1783 by Ali Ibrahim Khan.

If we look at the development of this language in the Deccan it is convenient to divide its evolution into three heads: (1) Literature in Golkunda or Haidarabad, connected with the Qutb Shahi court (1590-1687); (2) Literature in Bijapur, connected with the ‘Adil Shahi Court (1590-1686); (3) Literature in the Deccan during the time of Aurangzeb and his successors (1687-1730). There are two great names connected with the development of this ‘Deccani’ register is Shamsuddin Vali Aurangabadi (1667-1741) and Muhammad Faiyaz popularly known as Vali Dakani (active between 1690-1707). The later was the author of a romance, Qissa e Ratn o Padm, 8,000 lines long, based on Muhammad Jaisi’s Padmavat, which has been attributed to the other Vali, and of a collection of elegies, about 10,000 lines in all, called Rauzat ush Shuhada, 1707.

Vali Aurangabadi, probably the greatest name in Deccani Urdu at this period, was born and brought up in the Deccan. His actual birthplace was Aurangabad. Little or nothing is known of his family, but he is supposed by some to have been descended from Gujarat ancestors, and possibly connected with the famous saint Vajih ud Din. When he was about 20 he went to Gujarat to complete his education. While he was studying in Gujarat he became very much attached to a Sayyid called Abu’l Ma’ali, with whom he travelled to Delhi, perhaps in 1700. There he placed himself under the spiritual direction of Sa’d Ullah Gulshan to whom he showed his verses. He must already have written a considerable amount of  Dakhani verse, for he lived among Dakhani poets with a long line of nearly a hundred Dakhani poets behind him, whose works must have been familiar to him, but now probably his teacher, seeing how excellent his Dakhni verses were, advised him to give up Persian altogether.

He is said to have recited his Urdu poems before the poets of Delhi. These men whose vernacular was Urdu/ rekhta but were writing poetry solely in Persian, unaware of the fact that for nearly 400 years prose and verse had been written in Urdu; but they were immensely impressed by the facility with which Vali expressed his thoughts in that language. His verses became so popular that people began to sing them in the bazaar and he was everywhere received with honour. Vali’s visit to Delhi created a revolution in the poetry of north India. After a time he revisited his native land, but returned again in 1722 to Delhi, a city of which he was very fond. This time he took with him all his poems and his triumph was complete. He died in Ahmadabad in 1741.

 Vali’s writings may be divided linguistically into three sections, viz. pure Dakhni, about a third of the whole; ordinary Urdu but with many Dakhni words; pure Urdu. His lyrics number 422 and take up about three quarters of his collection; he wrote six odes dealing with religious subjects or eulogising saints; two magnavis, one being in praise of Surat; and a number of poems in other styles. He wrote no long poems, and he never wrote encomiums on earthly rank or greatness. One poem traditionally attributed to him, Dah Majlis or Rauzat ush Shuhada, is by the other Vali.

His style was simple and dignified, sometimes rising to real eloquence; he was essentially a religious man of a mystical cast of thought, and his writings present a vivid picture of the life of the time. He ranks probably in the first half-dozen Urdu poets, and his importance as being the man who induced the Delhi poets to write in their native language can hardly be over-rated. In the days when the wealth of early Dakhni poetry was not known, he received the title of Baba e Rekhta, Father of Urdu; and so far as his relationship to Delhi is concerned he almost deserves it.

In the north, the development of rekhta was under the influence of a number of scholars and writers, the chief of whom was the satirist Zatalli. Mir Muhammad Ja’far, who gave to himself the unlikely and self-mocking pen name of Zatalli (“babbler of nonsense”) was a phenomenon in many ways. Besides being the first Urdu writer with an uninhibited love for words, he was the first Urdu humourist and the first social and political satirist in Urdu, the first and the greatest Urdu writer of obscene and bawdy prose and verse, and the first Urdu prose writer in North India. He did all this almost entirely on his own. Doubtless, Persian with its great treasure house of the bawdy, the erotic, the pornographic, and the obscene, provided precedents of sorts. But there was no Persian writer who devoted himself exclusively to these modes.

Almost nothing is known of Zatalli’s life, except that he came from a good family in Narnaul, in modern day Haryana. His date of birth is tentatively placed in 1658. He put together his poetry and prose in perhaps 1685-6. Whatever he wrote later might not have been collected in his lifetime. The earliest known manuscript of his works dates from 1791/92.

Perhaps in his middle life, he was employed at the court of Kam Bakhsh, fourth son of Aurangzeb but was dismissed some time later when he composed a satire on the prince. Before this, he was employed at the court of Muhammad A’zam, Aurangzeb’s eldest son.

Zatalli died in 1713, most probably executed at the order of Farrukh Siyar (r. 1712-1719), the ruling Mughal king for whose coronation Zatalli had composed a scurrilous sikkah. It went as follows:

Sikka Zad Bar Gandam-Wa-Moth-Wa-Matar
Badshah Dazakasha Farrukh Siyar

He struck his coin on grains of wheat

And on coarse pulses, and peas:

Farrukh Siyar, that garrotter [grain gatherer] of a king.

This was a parody of a couplet written on a coin of Farrukh Siyar:

Sikka Zad Az Fazl-e-Haq Bar Sim Wa Zar
Badshah Bahr-Wa-Barr Farrukh Siyar

[Struck coin by the Grace of Truth, On Silver and Gold
Emperor or Sea and Land, Farrukh Siyar]


It must be remembered that the bulk of Zatalli’s admittedly small output is in Persian, or in Rekhtah. Rekhtah began as macaronic [Of or involving a mixture of two or more languages] verse in which Hindi/Hindavi (or Urdu, to give its modern name) and Persian were freely mixed in various proportions. There was no poetry or prose in main-line Hindi/Hindavi in Delhi before him. He also favoured the rekhtah mode oftener than the Hindi/Hindavi mode.

Literature in the rekhtah mode is regarded as Urdu literature because its impulse came from Hindi/Hindavi and it was written in the Perso-Arabic script and the conventions that it followed were largely Indo-Iranian.

There is not much to choose between Zatalli’s Persian, Rekhtah, and Urdu. He is equally inventive and equally vituperative and enthusiastically “wicked” in all the three.