The Intelligence of Tradition

Speakers: Molly Emma Aitken, Navina Najat Haidar, and William Dalrymple

The artistic traditions of Rajput and Mughal paintings were explored in the session called “The Intelligence of Tradition,” which featured esteemed art historians Navina Haidar and Molly Emma Aitken, in conversation with William Dalrymple.  The central question explored during the session was – “How much is the traditional Rajput practice of painting different from the Mughal tradition?  Both historians clearly asserted that no stark and defining contrasts exist between the paintings recognized to be by Rajput artists verse those of the Mughal artists, but that subtle differences help elucidate a stylistic set of preferences common among the two types.

Both speakers spoke highly of Ananda Coomaraswamy, an Indian art historian who studied symbolism and culture and largely introduced Indian art to the West.  In his 1916 volume on Rajput painting, Coomaraswamy explains the trajectory of Rajput painting in India and introduces the concept of a Rajput sensibility, verses a traditional Mughal one.  Where Mughal art is largely seen as being more realistic and living up to Western aesthetic, Rajput painting is seen to be more fantastical, pleasurable, nature-oriented and celebratory of Indian love and devotion.  “Rajput paintings invite the viewer into a magical world,” Haidar states, “where the warriors are heroic, and the women are fertile and shy.”

Coomaraswamy’s central distinction in his book states that Rajput paintings are more visionary, imaginative and deferential to the sacred whereas Mughal paintings are preoccupied with a more materialistic world where rulers, kings and queens are adorned with gems, jewelry and other items of status.  While both Haidar and Aitken took some offense with this distinction, they both praised Coomaraswamy’s detailed taxonomy and his attempts at methodical classification of the artists.

The session ended with a further rooting of the Rajput and Mughal painters, and paintings, into a historical context.  The idea of an artist patronage, and commissioned works of art, further blurs any obvious distinctions between the two styles of paintings.  For example, Haidar points out that Mughal Emperor Jahangir commissioned paintings that also focused on the natural world, showcasing ornate plants and animals, but that this style would’ve been most attributed to the Rajput tradition.  Here, both speakers agree – the boundaries separating the two houses of style are permeable.  Both Rajput and Mughal artists made a great contribution to the treasury of Indian art, and they shared subjects and themes freely between each other to capture love, emotion, and world around them.

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