Mughal Prints : The Architectural Motifation

The era of Mughal political regime from the standpoint of sociological dynamism is a cultural feast that shall never satiate the intellectual thirst of an Indian heritage aficionado because of its endlessly enchanting self and the connected history bound with diverse regions, cuisines, paintings, textiles, communities etc.

As we delve into the theme of how the Mughal architecture influenced the motifs and the overall design of the Mughal textiles, what is noteworthy herein is the underpinning political relations of the Mughals with Rajputs and other princely states, the already thriving communities of hand block printers in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Sindh etc who were historically equipped with the technical knowhow of handblock printing, the widely prevalent use of natural dyes from sources like madder root, pomegranate peels, iron, indigo; the booming production of majestic textiles like cotton muslin, Indian silks, Pashmina Shawls to velvets and brocad, the sudden shifts of population from region to region as the Mughal armies conquered new lands amongst other socio-economic and political factors that coalesced to result into the bitter-sweet historic tales that we ponder upon till today.

The motifs employed by the Mughal textile and architectural visionaries can be broadly distinguished as the Islamic Geometrical motifs, Botanical or naturalistic floral motifs and the intricately complicated floral & abstract motifs.

The motifs employed in textiles and monuments alike featured a strong presence of geometry themed figures like squares, rectangles, triangles. But later a shift to curvier shapes was pursued in the craftsmanship of architectural monuments.

Mughal court costumes under Akbar’s reign (1556- 1605) reflected a sartorial preference towards geometrical patterns which were found dominant in his architectural design of the mausoleum of Humayun(1556–1566 CE) in Delhi and the Buland Darwaja in Uttar Pradesh.

Textiles of Akbar’s sovereignty also witnessed the use of motifs like  flower buds with straight leaves and stems. This is seen in contrast with  Jahangir’s rule documenting a more popular use of motifs like bloomed flowers with flexible stems and curved, twisted leaves.

Mughal textile motifs under Jehangir’s kingship (1605-1627) showed a naturalistic bent as evidenced by the books of botanical knowledge enriched by highly intricate block-printed pictures of plants.

Realistic images of plants and flowers (botanical images) were vigorously envisioned by the noteworthy artist Ustad Mansur Mansur, the testimony of whose genius we learn from his painting of the Dodo and the Siberian Crane, one of the earliest at that time. His artistic splendour was also honored with the state supported translation into textile designing.

The empress Nur Jahan is also known to have patronised the craft of ‘Chikankari’, a delicate embroidery based textile craftsmanship.

Mughal motifs that were most commonly entailed in textile printing were the iris and the narcissus flowers; used in the borders with lillies,  tulips, red roses. We find relics of Kashmir Shawls being a potent garment that featured such majestic floral prints of the time.

Plants, flowers, vines, creepers, curves and other such vegetal patterns, reflect a strong similarity with the images in Persian art and miniature painting of the time.

Borders with birds, butterflies and flowers became a distinguished feature of the Mughal architecture like the Tomb of Akbar at Sikandra, in the suburbs of Agra and the Mausoleum of Itimad-ud-Daulah that features such botanically nuanced motifs which are imbued with a rich Persian creative link that gradually saw a textile rendition in the Mughal costumes too, as opined by many Mughal art historians.

Jehangir’s reign saw a profound fondness towards the prospects of miniature painting than of architecture. The patterns of the Mughal textiles were nourished by the ingenuity of the Mughal court paintings. The geometrical & the floral motifs of the Hashiya (border or margin) of these paintings are known to have inspired the creative vision of these textiles.

Shah Jahan’s reign (1628–1658) is considered to be the zenith of Mughal architecture wherein the global wonderment of Taj Mahal needs no introduction. Stylised motifs with curves and unique intricacies are understood to be distanced from their natural form, rendering them a complicated appeal.

An assortment of motifs of varying nature, be it calligraphic, abstract or stylized floral motifs are commonly seen herein.

Going beyond just Mughal clothing, even the home decor relics feature the use of narcissus, rose, poppy, tulip, marigold, jasmine, lotus and champa flowers on the Mughal carpets of the time.

Some amongst these flowers like the irises and tulips are also seen on the walls of the Taj Mahal, indicating potent clarity and coherence in the larger Mughal motif-making program.

Premium floral decoration along with the  gold and silver work was also incorporated in the Mughal craftsmanship as motifs used during the reign of Shah Jahan saw an actively continued use even during the reign of Aurangzeb.

Badshahi Mosque, in Lahore which is bedecked with floral ornamentation and has a relief inlay of white marble on red sandstone is debated to show creative congruence with the floral designs of garments from Aurangzeb’s court and those worn by Aurangzeb signifying the overarching imaginative tandem between that which was constructed and that which was handblock printed on textiles.

Our curiosity about the motifs that adorned the fabrics of costumes and the monuments of the most prosperous of Mughal reigns reflect the cultural heritage and tradition as a concept which evolved dynamically with each Mughal rulership’s succession. It continues to be cherished as a professional discipline by the handblock printing communities across Rajasthan and India’s length and breadth which mightily reflects the bustling cultural potpourri of our motherland that blends and melts every distinctive heritage ripe in its historic lap.

(Authored by – Vandana Bhatia )

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