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Art of India

The Ancient Period
The Middle Ages 
The Islamic Period
The colonial and modern periods


The Islamic Period

Islamic architecture. In 1191, the first of many dynasties ruled by Islamic sultans captured Delhi and made it a power base for governing northern India. To celebrate the triumph of Islam, these sultans created an impressive complex of buildings outside Delhi, including a mosque with a very tall minaret (tower). Minarets, which are used by an official of the mosque to call the faithful to prayer, are usually built in pairs, one at either end of the mosque. But this minaret, known as the Qutb Minar and begun in 1193 by the Sultan Qutb-ud-din, stands by itself away from the rest of the mosque. It is 73 metres high and tapers from 15 metres in diameter at the base to only 21/2 metres at the top. It is a miracle of engineering, and its clever construction in red sandstone makes it one of the great architectural marvels of the world. The Qutb Minar consists of five storeys separated by elaborately carved balconies. The present top storey, completed in the 1800's, replaced the original one, which was destroyed by an earthquake. The storeys themselves are decorated by bands of calligraphy, one of the main types of ornamentation in Islamic art.

The Qutb Minar symbolized Islamic victory rather than religious piety and marked a new era of sophistication in Indian art. Hindu buildings reflected nature in both their shapes and decorations, but Islamic artists and architects were prohibited from using images, even though floral decoration was sometimes allowed. Instead they worked in pure geometric designs, reflecting the abstract definition of Allah. The purity of the decoration on the Qutb Minar is a fine example of this art. 

Unlike the Hindus, the Muslims were city-dwellers and city-builders. Most Islamic rulers in Delhi constructed urban areas in their favourite style, but these styles did not always please their successors. For example, the walled town of Tughluqabad was occupied by one dynasty, but then deserted by later Delhi rulers. Ruins of tombs, city walls, colleges, and mosques bear witness to more than 300 years of Muslim rule in Delhi. Islamic rulers in Gujarat, Bengal, and the southern Deccan constructed buildings and cities in local styles. 

From the 1500's, the Mughal emperors continued to build, not only in Delhi but also in other capitals such as Agra and Lahore. In 1571, the emperor Akbar ordered the building of a completely new city called Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra. This city, an offering of thanksgiving by Akbar for the gift of sons who would carry on his line, was abandoned soon after it was built. It remains a perfect example of a Mughal city. It contains buildings constructed, like the Qutb Minar, of red sandstone. Because Akbar was anxious to promote cooperation between Muslims and Hindus, he allowed his Hindu stonemasons to embellish the buildings at Fatehpur Sikri with decorations that might have graced a Hindu palace. 

Akbar ordered the building of several forts in defence of his major cities. His builders again used red sandstone for these stout buildings. The red forts, like other buildings completed at the same time and made of the same material, have a heavy appearance. They take their colour from the Indian countryside and rise from the landscape like rocks and hills. 

India's hot climate often influenced its architectural planning. The best-known building in Fatehpur Sikri is a five-storey pavilion with no walls. Only rows of pillars hold up the roof of one storey which becomes the floor of the one above. On the terraces of this pavilion, the emperor and his ladies could enjoy the views, shelter from the sun, and take advantage of cooling breezes. 

Garden design also owed much to the Indian climate. The emperor and his court spent much of the year in Kashmir, where people lived outdoors. The gardens of the emperor and his nobles had terraces and stairways with streams running alongside them carrying cool water down from the mountains to nearby lakes. There was also a complex system of fountains and cascades. At Delhi and Agra, special channels carried cooling water through the interiors of buildings. 

In the 1600's, Akbar's grandson, the emperor Shah Jahan, built mosques and other buildings within the Red Forts of Delhi and Agra. These buildings were made of glistening white marble. So too was the magnificent Taj Mahal, the tomb that Shah Jahan ordered for his wife beside the Jumna River, at Agra

Mughal painting. Almost all the Mughal emperors of India between about 1570 and 1750 employed large numbers of Hindu and Muslim painters. These artists at first produced miniatures that were illustrations for the emperor's books. More than 100 painters worked in the palace studio at any given time on scenes for histories, poetry books, books of fables, or biographies of the emperor. The most experienced artists did the line drawings for the illustrations, while the less experienced or less talented artists ground the colours and painted in the scenes. The Muslim artists used bright colours made from powdered minerals. Hindu painters used colours derived from vegetable or animal products. Mughal artists loved naturalism in these miniatures and tried to make their pictures as realistic as possible. Human and animal portraits became a speciality. But the artists also loved depicting scenes from daily life. After European prints began to arrive in India by ship from the West, Indian painters learned about perspective and three-dimensional effects. 

From the start of the 1600's, miniatures by single, named artists became usual, and book illustrations produced by a group of painters working together began to decline. Artists won fame for their specialities. For example, the painter Mansur received an imperial title for his depictions of animals and flowers. Others were known for their portrait work, allegorical pictures (pictures that symbolized a deeper moral meaning), or beautiful illuminated borders. In the 1700's, scenes featuring pretty women at various activities, became fashionable. 

Hindu rajahs, who were local rulers under the Mughal emperors, followed the example of the imperial court and commissioned their own miniatures from artists. Many Hindu artists worked at the Mughal courts but also carried new ideas into the provinces under the patronage of the rajahs. Many rajahs commissioned artists to paint portraits of them and pictures of their favourite horses or elephants. Artists also painted hunting scenes--large, lively pictures that sometimes included a hundred or more servants acting as beaters to drive game. Other popular subjects for Hindu pictures were illustrations of literary works. Many featured the god Krishna depicted as a romantic ideal.