2/19/21 - 6/30/21

Murad Khan Mumtaz
Assistant Professor, Department of Art

Tasvir Khana, a workshop model established in the Mughal court in the late 16th century, spread throughout northern India and continues to be relevant in India and Pakistan to this day. This exhibition supports Art Studio 344, a course in which participants learn to use materials and techniques of the traditional tasvir khana. The gallery serves as the main classroom and active studio space for the course.

Throughout the semester, students will learn from the variety of forms and techniques expressed in these eleven original artworks, which represent an area of strength from the museum’s collection. This type of deep engagement connects to the ethos of Object Lab in the adjacent gallery—a hybrid gallery-classroom that displays selections from the collection, connecting them to class concepts.

Each student selects a painting in this gallery and, over the course of the semester, creates a master copy. The class follows the traditional practice of sitting on the floor, using the cushions provided as well as boards for back support. The paintings on view are also hung lower than usual so they are more visible to the seated artists. In addition to honing technical skills, students also learn how to prepare natural pigments, paper, and brushes.

The class and exhibition delve into a range of topics, including botanical studies as an introduction to workshop practice, blending artistic styles from the Mughal court in northern Indian with local traditions, and the use of preparatory drawings to hone practice.

Botanical Studies

In traditional Indian painting workshops, students begin by making studies of plants and flowers, before moving to more complex subjects such as human and animal studies. In this particular flower study, A Tall Flower with Pink Blossoms, the arching of the petals forces an artist to move their wrist in different directions—an excellent way to stretch and develop muscles. 

This course follows the traditional workshop trajectory by beginning with botanical studies. An early assignment is to select one flower from this painting and make a copy of it in graphite. The goal is to train students to look closely, develop their hand-eye coordination, and learn new techniques. In this painting, contour lines help shape the petals, and tiny brushstrokes called pardakht (stippling) are used to build up the darker areas of the petals.

Blending Artistic Styles

The Self-portrait of Keshav Das and Captive Elephant represent a level of artistic skill and refinement highly valued in courtly Mughal patronage, from a period when Indian painting was opening up to influences from other cultures. In these paintings we see a combination of Indian taste for bold colors, Persian elements such as the pastel color palette of the landscape and three-quarter profiles, and European naturalism. Using the opaque watercolor technique, the artist first applied flat washes of color, followed by detailed rendering and elegant linework.

Both Ragini, possibly Kakubha, Page from a Dispersed Ragamala Set and Raja with Attendant show how the courtly style established in major political centers—such as Delhi, Lahore, and the Deccan—spread to regional workshops and merged with local styles and iconography. In Raja with Attendant, for example, the finely rendered faces and hazy background recall Mughal artistic practices. The strict profiles of the figures and the complete flattening of the foreground are uniquely Indian elements, common in most local schools of northern Indian painting.

Preparatory Drawings

The equestrian portrait is a favorite theme in Indian painting and combines two key subjects—the human figure and the animal study. In Equestrian Portrait of Bhatisaheb Khanji of Laberi, the only preparatory drawing in the exhibition, we see the artist’s mastery of line. Quick, confident brushstrokes define the form of the horse. The preparatory drawing is also the place to make corrections, finalize the color palette, and experiment with the composition. Opaque white strokes along the outline of the subject’s nose and forehead show corrections to the profile portrait.

Since the portrait is the central feature of the artwork, the artist tried out appropriate colors before transferring the drawing for the final painting. It is important to note that the horse was not drawn from life, but instead represents an idealization based on established forms.

See the other works included in the exhibition:

Watch these accompanying videos:

• Professor of Art Murad Khan Mumtaz and Curator of Mellon Academic Programs Elizabeth E. Gallerani discuss the exhibition Tasvir Khana: Practicing Indian Painting and Drawing at the Williams College Museum of Art.

• Follow along with the class assignments by watching this series of lesson videos. Find the full series here on YouTube.

Assignment 1: Lines

Overview: In this lesson, you will learn how to shape and sharpen a graphite pencil; prepare a grid; and make four types of marks.

Materials: 5H + 4H pencils, triangle, ruler, eraser, cutter, fine grain sandpaper, calligraphy paper

Continue to follow along with the class by watching assignment and workshop videos on YouTube. New videos will be added throughout the Spring 2021 semester.

Browse the installation: