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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Islamic Art of the Deccan

The “Deccan” (derived from Dakshina) is a geographical term that refers to the plateau in south central India still ruled by Hindu kings when the first Muslim sultanates of India were established in Delhi. The Khaljis (1290–1320) and the Tughluqs (1320–1414) after them both tried to conquer the Deccan but were ultimately unsuccessful. The officers of Muhammad ibn Tughluq rebelled against him and an independent sultanate was declared under the leadership of the general Zafar Khan. His descendants, known as the Bahmanids (1347–1528), ruled from a capital located first in Gulbarga and later in Bidar.

In the late fifteenth century, the provinces of the Bahmanid dynasty broke off into separate states, each with a vibrant and distinct culture flourishing mainly in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The art, poetry, and music of the Deccani courts were marked by an affinity for Persia; many rulers of this area were of Persian descent or were Shi‘i and thus felt stronger ties to the west than to the Sunni rulers in northern India. These courts, namely Bijapur, Golconda, Ahmadnagar, Bidar, and Berar, were known for their unique techniques of casting metal, carving stone, and painting. Each respective capital was developed with the addition of citadels and tombs and a distinctive style of architecture evolved as well.

Bijapur was ruled by the ‘Adil Shahis from 1489 to 1686. Sultan Ibrahim II ‘Adil Shah (r. 1579–1626), a poet, calligrapher, and musician himself, was the dynasty’s greatest patron of the arts. He attracted artisans, writers, and thinkers from all over the Islamic world to his court, and during his reign the city became the most important center of painting in the Deccan. Bijapur-style paintings are characterized by subject matter deriving largely from Mughal painting, but distinctively treated with a vivid palette and somewhat fantastic backgrounds. Rulers are portrayed in intimate moments, strolling through gardens or relaxing with a lover. Painting continued to flourish under Ibrahim’s successor Muhammad ‘Adil Shah (r. 1626–56), but this ruler’s greatest commission was architectural. Known as Gol Gumbad, his tomb has a dome 43.9 meters in diameter, at the time of its construction the largest space covered by a single dome.

The Qutb Shahis (1496–1687) of Golconda had very close ties to the Safavids of Iran, who exported many artists to this court. The close working relationship of the Persian and Indian artists can be seen in the unique painting style of such manuscripts as the Kulliyat, a collection of verses in Urdu penned by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (r. 1580–1612), a contemporary of Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah and, like him, a poet, statesman, and important patron of the arts.

The Nizam Shahis were based in Ahmadnagar from 1490 to 1636, but after 1600 ruled under the Mughals. Their brief moment of patronage produced an illustrated history, the Tarif-i Husain Shahi, celebrating the king who led the victory over the Hindu Vijayanagar state, and various royal portraits.

After the fall of the Bahmanids, their viziers the Barid Shahis (1504–1619) continued to rule in the city of Bidar, famed for a metalworking technique invented there. So-called bidri ware is cast from an alloy of zinc mixed with copper, tin, and lead and inlaid with silver or brass. It is then covered with a mud paste containing sal ammoniac, which turns the base metal black, highlighting the color and sheen of the inlaid metal.

It was only after a Mughal military presence was established in Ahmadnagar in 1600 that the imperial Mughal aesthetic exerted an influence on painting of the Deccan. After this time there grew a greater interest in accurate portraiture and hieratic court scenes, and colors became more restrained. The typical portraits of sultans and court members against plain backgrounds, durbar scenes, and wedding processions were all produced at workshops in the Deccan. Such changes were made by artists at Hindu courts under the aegis of the Mughals at this time as well.

The Mughals conquered the last of the Deccani sultanates in 1686, but were only able to control the area until 1724, when the Asaf Jahis asserted their independence. They continued to rule in the former Qutb Shahi capital of Hyderabad until India itself gained its independence, and their court carried Persianate culture of the Deccan well into the twentieth century.