At the start of this period, the Mughal dynasty is at the height of its power, having been secured and consolidated by Akbar (d. 1605). Under his successors in the seventeenth century, more of the subcontinent is incorporated into the Mughal empire as the rulers of the Deccan are finally conquered and become Delhi’s feudatories. Rajput princes continue to be enlisted as generals in the imperial army, aiding the spread of Mughal ideas on art and architecture to the peripheral courts and also in the absorption of Rajput and other traditions into the Mughal world. After the death of the emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal court declines in power and glory and many of its feudatory states have an artistic florescence. Southern India remains independent of the Mughals. After the fall of the Vijayanagar dynasty in 1565, their former governors—the Nayakas, the Wodeyars, the Gowdas, and the Rayas—establish their own dynasties in the provinces they administered. They clash with the Deccani sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda, and are later subjected to Mughal and Maratha raids, but continue to rule throughout this period. The presence of the British is initiated innocuously in 1600 with the chartering of the East India Company, but by the end of this period the company has established a military presence and England will soon claim India as its colony.
Queen Elizabeth grants a charter to the British East India Company authorizing it to conduct trade with India and the Far East.
At Akbar’s death, Jahangir (r. 1605–27) assumes the throne. From the capital at Agra, he and his wife Nur Jahan set a tone of courtly elegance combining Indian and Persian culture, and they continue an active patronage of the arts. Artists in the royal workshop include Balchand, Govardhan, Bichitr, Abu’l-Hasan, Mansur, Farukh Beg, Aqa Riza, and Muhammad Ali. This mix of Muslims and Hindus, Persians and Indians makes for a distinctive Mughal idiom, first seen in the Akbar period. Among the manuscripts completed at this time are Jahangir’s memoirs, the Tuzuk-i Jahangiri, written by the emperor himself and then illustrated.
Shah Jahan (r. 1627–58) succeeds Jahangir. He has a special interest in architecture and is a lavish spender—the Taj Mahal and the Peacock Throne encrusted with diamonds, rubies, pearls, and sapphires are among his most famous commissions. His military campaigns are also costly but ultimately unsuccessful. The conquest of the Deccan is left to later emperors, and the dream of retaking Mughal ancestral lands in Central Asia proves elusive.
Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s beloved queen, dies in Burhanpur while giving birth to her fourteenth child. Shah Jahan begins construction of the Taj Mahal, a tomb in tribute to her.
The East India Company sets up factories at Madras.
Shah Jahan moves his capital from Agra to Delhi and establishes a new fort called Shahjahanabad. This palace city, measuring 5 million square feet, contains royal apartments, harems, a secretariat, military barracks, a treasury, a mint, and housing for thousands of slaves, servants, and courtiers.
Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707), third son of Shah Jahan, usurps the throne and imprisons his father in Agra Fort, where he dies in 1666. An orthodox Sunni, Aurangzeb reverses many of his predecessors’ conciliatory moves toward the Hindu population, reinstating the tax on non-Muslims and forbidding the construction of temples. He also ends the era of courtly extravagance; monumental construction comes to an end, celebrations and festivals are suspended, and artists begin to disperse as imperial patronage declines. Aurangzeb faces rebellion in many parts of his empire and spends the last twenty years of his life trying to subjugate the Deccan.
The Maratha leader Shivaji Bhonsle poses a serious threat to the Mughals during the reign of Aurangzeb, and for much of the eighteenth century the Maratha Confederacy is an important military force in both North and South India. Their 1761 defeat by an invading Afghan army, however, ends the possibility of an empire.
With the dispersal of imperial artists to Rajasthani courts, Mughal aesthetics and themes are adapted by the workshops of Hindu rulers like Maharana Amar Singh II at Mewar (Udaipur, ca. 1700). At the same time, a new school of painting featuring traditional Rajput aesthetics develops in Basohli in the Punjab Hills, and the style spreads quickly to nearby Bahu (Jammu) and Mankot.
At a time of great persecution at the hands of the Mughals, Sikhism undergoes a series of changes under the leadership of the tenth guru Gobind Singh. In 1699, Gobind Singh founds the Khalsa Brotherhood, which ritualizes membership in the Sikh community. In addition to pledging to not smoke tobacco or eat halal meat, Sikhs give up their caste names, adopting the name Singh (lion) for men and Kaur (princess) for women. They are also to never go without the five kakkars: kangah (wooden comb), kirpan (sword), kara (steel bracelet), kachch (shorts), andkesh (uncut hair).
The fall of Bijapur (and Golconda the following year) to Aurangzeb causes another wave of artistic influences to outlying courts. Deccani aesthetics are absorbed as Rajput painters travel through the region with their patrons who are serving as generals in the Mughal army, and as Deccani court artists are dispersed and hired by Rajput princes.
The rule of Muhammad Shah witnesses the collapse of central authority in the Mughal empire. Although an ineffectual ruler, he is viewed as an important patron of the arts and his reign is long enough to develop its own style, characterized by splashes of bright color against large areas of white architecture or clothing. Among the artists in his employ are Chitarman, Muhammad Afzal, Nidha Mal, Muhammad Faqirallah Khan, Biwani Das and his son Dalchand. The latter two leave the royal atelier and work for the Rajput courts of Kish and Marwar.
Asaf Jah Nizam al-Mulk, a Mughal governor of the Deccan, declares the independence of Hyderabad. The Nizams of Hyderabad rule India’s largest princely state until 1948.
Pahari princes continue to become patrons of painting, leading to important schools in Guler and Kangra that are influenced by Mughal art at the court of Muhammad Shah.
The Iranian ruler Nadir Shah invades India and sacks Delhi, taking with him the Peacock Throne, the Koh-i Nur diamond, and 300 artisans. This is a major blow to the regime, which never fully recovers.
The East India Company defeats Nawab Siraj ad-Daula at the Battle of Plassey, thereby gaining control of Bengal.
Sir William Jones founds the Asiatic Society of Bengal to promote and publish research in the history, arts, sciences, and literature of India.
“South Asia, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09®ion=ssa (October 2003)