The Legends, Luxuries, and Dreams of Imperial Mughal Ateliers

Burnished paper and bright pigments, tea washes and delicate wasli, colorists and calligraphers: Welcome to the imperial Mughal ateliers. In these synergetic spaces, I imagine generations of artists creating elevated images of legends, triumphant battles, spiritual realms, luxurious exchanges, and the bodies of the emperors. 

In her remarkably researched book, The Brush of Insight: Artists and Agency at the Mughal Court (2023), Yael Rice charts a Mughal “visual economy” — nothing short of an astounding early modern art enterprise — thriving between the 16th and early 17th centuries in India. Rice shows that during the reigns of father and son emperors (Akbar and Jahangir, respectively), Mughal artists and courts facilitated visuals of the highest aesthetic and intellectual caliber, challenging the status of writing as the only medium capable of transmitting and recording knowledge. 

Cover The Brush of Insight
Cover of Yael Rice, The Brush of Insight: Artists and Agency at the Mughal Court (2023) (image courtesy University of Washington Press)

The most exciting section of the book encircles the Mughal workshop, an outstanding part of a network comprising, as Rice writes in the introduction, “agents and institutions that shaped the perception of the Mughal emperors’ preeminence in all spheres of dominion, temporal and sacred.” Specific roles — designer, calligrapher, colorist, master artist, etc.  — were assigned to those individuals who proved preeminent skills in craftsmanship and familiarity with pictorial compositions of imperial albums. 

Rice presents a different way of thinking about Mughal image-making practices, suggesting that workshop artists were mediators balancing their own creative license and emperors’ spiritual and cosmopolitan ambitions. In the meticulously painted “Jahangir’s Dream” (c. 1618), attributed to Abu’l Hasan and held at the National Museum of Asian Art, for instance, the visually larger Indian emperor stands atop a lion, locked in an embrace with his Persian rival, Shah Abbas I, who is supported by a lamb. The hierarchy of scale between the figures and the choice of animals — powerful lions vs timid lambs — represents Jahangir’s aim of politically influencing his contemporaries. 

Abu’l Hasan and Muhammad Sadiq, “Jahangir’s Dream” (c. 1618, margins c. 1747–48), opaque watercolor, ink, silver and gold on paper, 9 3/8 x 6 1/16 inches, held at the National Museum of Asian Art, Washington, DC (image courtesy Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C)

The succeeding British colonization of India between the mid-19th and 20th centuries led to the leaf-by-leaf dispersal of countless Mughal manuscripts into global institutions. We are left, as a result, with a sparse trail of primary written records: Precise locations of workshops, methods, and personal and professional connections between artists consequently remain an enigma.

Here, Rice demonstrates how computational analysis may enable scholars to mitigate this loss of knowledge by identifying linkages between different occupations like designers, colorists, and calligraphers. Building from her previous scholarship, she uses Social Network Analysis and Gephi, an open-source network visualization program, to identify collaborative modes of production and connections between artists,presented  as network graphs in the book. In this case, digital humanities is encouraging in analyses of Indo-Persian image-making practices — indeed, AI sorting technologies seem to me like a plausible next step —  though we need many more case studies to cement this line of inquiry in contemporary art history scholarship.

Despite the text’s erudite setting, The Brush of Insight is an immersive experience; I found myself musing over Jahangir’s dream after I finished reading the book. Rice’s in-depth and digital perusal of these enthralling visuals compels us to rethink the nature of relationships between the court artists’ styles, the spiritual vision of their patrons, and the realities of the material world of Mughal South Asia. 

Fig. 2.1 The Brush of Insight
Graph of Frequency of appearance of individual artists’ names in the Jaipur Razmnama, from Yael Rice’s The Brush of Insight: Artists and Agency at the Mughal Court (2023)
Jahangir holding a portrait of his father (c. 1600s), held at Musee Guimet, Paris (photo by Christophel Fine Art/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
4.11 1
Page from “Jahangir’s Album” (c. 1608–18), held at the Staatabibliothek, Berlin (image courtesy © STAATSBIBLIOTHEK ZU BERLIN)
Manohar, album page of Jahangir receiving Prince Parviz in a garden (c. 1610–15). Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (image courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
“Portrait of Kishn Das Tunwar” (miniature c. 1590, borders c. 1600–05), opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper 9 1/4 x 6 inches (courtesy © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

The Brush of Insight: Artists and Agency at the Mughal Court (2023) by Yael Rice, published by University of Washington Press, is available for purchase online and in bookstores.  

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