When Humayun came to India, he brought with himself two painters – Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad. Aided by the emperor’s patronage, these two men began what was to be a long legacy of Mughal painting – an art form which came to be recognized world over in later years, with its beautiful natural colours, intricate details in gold paint and sometimes accompanied by ornamental nasta ‘liq script.
Emperor Humayun, as depicted in a Mughal painting (image courtesy Wikipedia)
Under the reign of Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan, Mughal painting flourished and grew into a large school of art. Several beautiful pieces of art were commissioned under these three rulers, who were all known for their love of different art forms.
The golden era of Mughal painting began fading out once Aurangzeb came to power, and this decline continued till the art form ceased to be associated with just royalty.
Ghulam Ali Khan is known as the last royal Mughal painter. He signed off his paintings as ‘His Majesty’s Painter’, and in one of his works, he defines himself as “the hereditary slave of the dynasty, Ghulam Ali Khan the portraitist, resident at Shahjahanabad.” He worked during the reign of the emperors Akbar II, who was emperor between 1806–37, and Bahadur Shah II (the last Mughal emperor) who reigned from 1837 to 1858.
Bahadur Shah II, enthroned, painted by Ghulam Ali Khan in 1838 (taken from here)
While Ghulam Ali Khan called himself a Mughal painter, in reality, the Mughal rulers could no longer afford to patronize painters fully, and so Khan too had to find patrons outside the palace to earn his living. Because of this reason, Khan ended up painting portraits and paintings for noblemen, rulers from neighbouring areas (such as a painting of the Nawab of Jhajjar sitting on top of his pet lion), and the newly arrived British officials. As a result, some of Ghulam Ali Khan’s most famous works were not only of Mughal royalty, but also of other Nawabs and of Britishers.
Two of Khan’s European patrons were William Fraser and Sir Thomas Metcalfe, for whom Khan painted parts of the Fraser Album and Delhi Book respectively.
The Fraser Album was commissioned by William Fraser and the works painted between 1815 to 1819. It included paintings of Mughal art at the time and was a vast collection of paintings looking at life in the Mughal empire of the time. It is seen as a masterpiece. With time, Fraser became Khan’s major patron.
William Fraser (image courtesy Wikipedia)
The Delhi Book (also known as ‘Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi’) was commissioned by Sir Thomas Metcalfe in 1844. It contained paintings of Delhi, its people and monuments. Khan was one of the few painters who painted for this book.
Thomas Metcalfe, seated on an elephant (image courtesy Wikipedia)
Another Britisher who employed the services of Ghulam Ali Khan was Colonel James Skinner. One of the paintings was of a durbar being held by Skinner, surrounded by his regiment. It is seen to be one of the most monumental works of Khan, for which he carried out individual studies of several of the noblemen and cavalrymen over a long period of time before putting those sketches together for this piece of work (picture below).
Colonel James Skinner holding a durbar, painted by Ghulam Ali Khan in 1827 (picture courtesy here)
Ghulam Ali Khan’s final patron is thought to be Bahadur Shah Zafar’s younger son, Mirza Fakhruddin. Though he wasn’t the eldest son, he was a favourite of Zafar’s, and this following painting is believed to be his, though the painting itself bears no inscription.
Mirza Fakhruddin, seated in the middle of entertainment, painted by Ghulam Ali Khan in 1852 (image courtesy Academia.edu)
With the decline of patrons who could afford to engage painters, the tradition of Mughal painting too suffered a demise. Ghulam Ali Khan’s name lives on as the last royal Mughal painter, and his paintings continue to awe us, reminding us of the grandeur and culture that those times held.
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Post written by Sanchari Banerjee: A twenty-something girl with a mind full of curiousity and a heart full of love. She has been a history buff ever since she can remember, and exploring old monuments is one of her favourite things to do, with a special love for all things Mughal.
Her personal blog is here.