The Mughal Empire: A Tale of Two Paintings
Two paintings created 200 years apart tell a story.
The Rake's Progress is a series of eight paintings by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth showing the rise, decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the son of a wealthy merchant who comes into money after the death of his father. Great Art Explained in its London episode has a short segment about these paintings which were created between 1732-34. It is a storyboard of eight frames in chronological order which shows Rakewell inheriting the money, spending it lavishly, splurging on prostitutes, getting arrested, unsuccessfully trying to salvage his fortune, gambling away what's left, and ultimately ending up in debtor's prison.
William Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress, The Gambling House (Frame 7), 1734
The Rake’s Progress is a depiction of the downturn in fortunes of a single man, but it reminded me of two other paintings created two hundred years apart, which depict the peak and downfall of the Mughal Empire. Whereas Hogarth’s work shows a gradual and staged decline, the two Mughal paintings reveal two moments where the balance of power has shifted to the opposite.
The Mughals ruled large parts of India between 1526-1707 during which India prospered culturally and economically, and became the wealthiest nation in the world with Delhi as the flourishing center. From Damascus to the east and Edo (Tokyo) to the west, Delhi reigned supreme in between.
Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, 1615-1618
The first painting is from the Mughal emperor Jahangir’s court and was painted by Bichitr somewhere between 1615-181. The image has a central message: the preference of the emperor to speak with scholars over kings and the lowly stature of the English. The painting’s characters have a hierarchical order of importance with the Emperor Jahangir (the largest figure) on the dais conversing with a Sufi scholar. After that is the Ottoman Sultan, and below that is King James I of England. The artists himself is at the bottom left. The English King is shown in a three-quarter profile which is an angle reserved for minor characters in Mughal miniature paintings. The look on the King’s face is one of disappointment and sullenness due to his low stature in the emperor’s court, and the lack of attention given to him. The painting firmly plants the King as the character the emperor cares the least about.
Around the time of Bichitr’s work, Thomas Roe, a British explorer was sent by the King to propose a trade treaty with the Mughals. Roe lived in Delhi between 1616-1619 and found it difficult to get audiences with Jahangir, and when he did, the emperor treated the Englishman as a foreign curiosity more than a potential partner. As noted by William Dalrymple2:
For all the reams written by Roe on Jahangir, the latter did not bother to mention Roe once in his voluminous diaries. These awkward, artless northern traders and supplicants would have to wait a century more before the Mughals deigned to take any real interest in them.
Roe eventually did make inroads with Jahangir and got permission for the colonialist East India Company to construct a factory at Surat on the western coast, which marked the first approach by the British to trade and eventually rule India. The painting is at the height of the Mughal empire and depicts how the Mughals and English saw each other.
The Mughal decline in earnest started with the death of the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 and was hastened by Nader Shah’s invasion of Delhi in 1738. The Persian had little desire to occupy Delhi and instead looted the Mughal treasury and elite to a degree which cannot be described without it being considered hyperbole. This emboldened the British who, sensing Delhi’s weakness, escalated their involvement in the subcontinent. Though the Mughals continued to rule until 1857, it was in name only with even provinces not sending the tax revenue to the center.
The second painting was created by Benjamin West in 1818 and depicts the events of August 1765 when Shah Alam II was the Mughal emperor3.
Benjamin West, Shah 'Alam, Conveying the Grant of the Diwani to Lord Clive, 1818
Shah Alam’s power was so weak that there was a Persian saying, “The empire of Shah Alam is from Delhi to Palam”4 (Palam being a suburb of Delhi). In the painting, Shah Alam hands a scroll to Robert Clive, the governor of Bengal, which transferred tax collecting rights in three major provinces to the East India Company. As described by Dalrymple again:
The painting shows a scene from August 1765, when the young Mughal emperor Shah Alam, exiled from Delhi and defeated by East India Company troops, was forced into what we would now call an act of involuntary privatisation. The scroll is an order to dismiss his own Mughal revenue officials in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and replace them with a set of English traders appointed by Robert Clive – the new governor of Bengal – and the directors of the Company, whom the document describes as ‘the high and mighty, the noblest of exalted nobles, the chief of illustrious warriors, our faithful servants and sincere well-wishers, worthy of our royal favours, the English Company’. The collecting of Mughal taxes was henceforth subcontracted to a powerful multinational corporation – whose revenue-collecting operations were protected by its own private army.
This is a humiliating circumstance for the Mughals who went from barely giving the British any notice to handing over an empire to them. Handing over tax-collecting rights also meant giving the East India Company the power to design laws which would be enforced by its military operations. There was the equivalent of a complete surrender and a reduction of the Mughal Empire to an administrative formality.
One can see the English on the left and the Mughals on the right, but of note is the sepoy (an Indian soldier fighting for the English) standing with the English, signifying the military transformation brought on by the East India Company.
Comparing an individual’s downfall to an empire’s is a tricky proposition, but further scrutiny suggests parallel reasons in both cases. Rakewell’s collapse was due to greed and profligacy. He inherited what he owned and lacked the capacity to hold it, let alone build on it. He preferred quick and risky fixes like gambling to turn his fortunes around rather than cohesive investments.
Though the Mughals were not expansionist by nature, Aurangzeb expanded the empire to such an extent that central rule became impossible. His successors, much like Rakewell, inherited their wealth and did not have have the military strength or the political will to keep it in their grasp. The Mughals, starting from Jahangir to Shah Alam, enjoyed the excesses of their wealth to outlandish degrees, further detaching themselves from the concerns of the empire’s management.
In the end, both suffered the same fate.