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At the peak of their power, from the mid-16th century through 1857, the Mughals ruled over some 100 million subjects — five times the number ruled by their only rivals, the Ottomans. From the ramparts of the Delhi Red Fort, the seat of power, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan — who commissioned the Taj Mahal — controlled almost all of India, what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, and much of Afghanistan. For their impoverished contemporaries in the west, the Mughals became symbols of luxury and might — attributes with which the word “mogul” is still loaded. This exhibition, the first ever to focus on the art of the later Mughals, aims to showcase the neglected masterpieces of this period and to provide a taste of the extraordinary strength, color, and vivacity of the work produced in the Mughal capital at this time.

All empires fall, and by the beginning of the 18th century, the political power of the Mughals had begun to crumble. But for the following 150 years, Delhi remained a major artistic and cultural center, and despite diminished resources, the later Emperors continued to patronize remarkable artists and poets with great discrimination. Scholars are only now coming to recognize that the work of this period is every bit as interesting and innovative as the art produced under their better-known predecessors.

In the course of the 18th century, the British East India Company was transforming itself from a coastal trading organization into an aggressive colonial government, filling the power vacuum left by the implosion of the Mughal Empire. Yet initial contact between these two empires was surprisingly positive: the first Company “Residents,” or ambassadors to the Mughal court, immersed themselves in its court culture, wore Mughal dress, took Mughal wives, and became important patrons of Mughal painting, transforming the art of the capital in the process. The best works produced under Company patronage are unparalleled in Indian art and show a sympathy with the Mughal world quite at odds with stereotypes of colonial philistinism and insensitivity.

 As British power and arrogance increased in the early 19th century, this brief dialogue of civilizations ended; mutual respect was replaced by mutual suspicion. On a May morning in 1857, an uprising began — 300 of the Company’s Indian troops mutinied, rode to Delhi, massacred the British residents, and declared the Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to be their leader. During the four hottest months of the Indian summer, the Mughal capital was besieged and bombarded. Finally, on September 14, 1857, the British assaulted the city, massacring and looting as they went. Anyone who survived was driven into the countryside. Delhi was left an empty ruin.

William Dalrymple and Yuthika Sharma

Exhibition catalogue