Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 30-31 (Dec 1997) p. 7.

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The Making of a Visual Language:

Thoughts on Mughal Painting

D Gulammohammed Sheikh

It is difficult to approach Mughal painting without taking account of the contemporary visual culture in which it was born. Most crucial is the role of the regional paramparas which continually provided the Mughal atelier with a major core of its artists. The artists who conceptualized, formed, shaped and reared the emergent qalam, along with the three or more Iranian ustads1—whose role remained somewhat partial on account of their exit before the completion of the Hamzanama—presumably hailed from these existing paramparas. These would include the painted traditions of the sacred texts, the quasi-religious narratives or an equally vast body of secular literatures, as well as a recipe book to name only the known and prominent genres.2 There is no doubt however that these surviving examples formed part of a much larger corpus of manuscripts—not to mention variants like scrolls, banners and murals, made for miscellaneous ritual and performative purposes.

Although 'historical' examples of many of these are missing, those that have 'survived' (albeit in a mediated form) through the transmitted traditions of today suggest that they were seen to be 'living' while in usage: hence periodic repainting or remaking formed part of their basic raison d'etre. Floor painting at the doorstep or murals on cowdung walls meant continual effacement and ritual repainting, daily or seasonally. A Pabu]ip^ad(pafa) when worn out is given a ritual funerary immersion in a river or lake. An overused manuscript would make room for replacement by another of its kind. So the survival of originals is often out of accident rather than an intent to conserve them for posterity, except, of course, the ritual conservation of sacred manuscripts as in the Jaina tradition. The visual culture the artists grew up in was presumably as ephemeral and regenerative as the painted pictures. These would include traditions of body culture:

garments and textiles, painted or printed, woven and stitched, food and cuisine, herbal and medicinal practices that used some ingredients and chemistry common to the techniques of painting3 and left their impact on visual sensibility.


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