The city of Bijapur is famous for the Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of Mohammed Adil Shah, one of the most famous Sultans of Bijapur. A tourist hot-spot in present-day Karnataka, it is hard to imagine that this city, now called Vijayapura, was once a melting pot of high culture and the capital of the Bijapur Sultanate.
In medieval times, people came from all over – Africa, Persia, Central Asia and Europe – and brought with them a medley of languages, beliefs and arts. While there is precious little to mark this cultural exuberance in Bijapur itself, you can catch a glimpse of it in its art. The famous Bijapur school of painting is known for its ornate imagery, liberal use of gold and unique textured and marbled backdrops.
The Sultanate of Bijapur was a successor state to the Bahmani Empire and lasted from 1489 to 1686 when Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb finally took it over. The Adil Shahs of Bijapur claimed blood links with the Ottoman Turks although most historians believe the founder of the dynasty, Yusuf Adil Shah, was a slave of Georgian origin.
Interestingly, the Deccan kingdoms were better connected with the Middle East, Central Asia and Persia than the Delhi Sultanate or even the Mughals were. For a large part of its existence, these relations acted as a counter to Delhi’s influence, and Bijapur attracted scholars, artists, poets and saints from Safavid Persia and Ottoman Turkey.
Bijapur was one of the most influential of the Deccani Sultanates, and it spawned its own unique form of art, which reflected the cosmopolitan nature of the state.
During the course of its existence, you can see the stylistic influences change. While the early paintings reflect the influence of Vijayanagara paintings, especially in the way the human form is depicted, later paintings show a marked Persian influence, with extensive use of gold and white, floral motifs, idealised human forms and stylised rocks and mountains, often painted in shades of pink or mauve. Towards the end of the Sultanate, Mughal influences started filtering in. A distinct technique used by the artists of Bijapur was marbling, to create patterns in the painting.
Let us look at some of the most exquisite paintings that came from this kingdom.
The Nujum-al-’Ulum is an encyclopedic survey of astrology and astral magic and is believed to have been composed by Sultan Ali Adil Shah himself. The text is a great example of the syncretic culture of Bijapur; it weaves together many different astrological and cosmological accounts of the heavens and the earth including ones from Islamic and Hindu traditions. There are almost 400 paintings, charts and diagrams, of constellations, planets, angels, talismans and other cosmic and earthly forces in the manuscript.
It is one of the earliest texts from the Bijapur court, dating to the 1570s, and one can see distinct influences of Vijayanagara art, especially in the features of the human figures.
The foremost connoisseur of the arts in Bijapur was Ibrahim Adil Shah II (1580-1627). He was a renaissance man. Besides being an able ruler, he was a poet, calligrapher and musician. He was also a great patron of the arts and attracted artisans, writers and thinkers from all over the Islamic world to his court. During his reign, the city became the most important centre of painting in the Deccan.
In this portrait of Ibrahim Adil Shah II from 1615, now in the British Museum, you can see many interesting elements of Bijapur iconography. The Sultan is holding a handkerchief in his right hand, which is a symbol of kingship. He was a spiritual person, interested in both Hindu and Muslim mysticism, which is evident from the fact that he is wearing a rudraksha necklace considered very holy in the Hindu faith.
Here he is standing in a garden, with a walled white palace in the background. Most of the middle ground is painted black, which emphasises the pale white and gold of his costume against the darkness. This painting brilliantly showcases the extensive use of gold and white as well as the floral motifs of Bijapur art.
This unusual painting of an emaciated rider and horse has been linked to Sufi mysticism by many scholars. This painting is seen as a representation of the Nag, which is a metaphor in Sufism that embodies the body's gross desires and is therefore shown as starved and beaten.
This painting, dated to 1625, has been done using the technique of marbling, something mastered by the Bijapur artists, and the use of colours is superb. The horse is shown in shades of salmon and with details in gold, while the rider is depicted in subtle shades of grey and black. In the lines of the figures, there is an overall resemblance between the angular shapes of the horse and the rider.
The Futuh al-Haramayn is a guidebook to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and instructs Muslim pilgrims on the rituals of the Hajj and lists the religious sites they can visit. The book was popularly illustrated in Turkey, Iran and India.
The manuscript has been dated to 1678 and is believed to have been painted in the city of Kharepatan, a port on the west coast of the Sultanate. The port was a centre of trade and pilgrimage, which probably explains the manuscript’s origins.
In this folio from the manuscript created in Bijapur, the artist has gone beyond the regular formula and has depicted the land with a bird’s-eye view of courtyards, buildings and sites. The artist has also added many flourishes by including the curving orange lines of the trees and a bright palette, making this pious route look cheerful and lush. The presence of pink-purple rocks is an example of the distinct Persian influence on Bijapur’s art.
This painting, from 1683, was created shortly before the fall of the kingdom to Mughal conquerors in 1686. It depicts all nine Adil Shahi Sultans and was made for its last ruler, Sikandar, who is shown here as a young boy. The representation of the Adil Shahi Sultans in a dynastic assembly was probably inspired by Mughal paintings illustrating the same idea.
One can see a distant view of the water in the image, which probably hints at the Sultanate’s former vastness. It is a very symbolic painting and one can see the key of legitimacy being handed over by Isma’il, founder of the Safavid Dynasty of Iran, to Yusuf, founder of the Bijapur Dynasty, symbolizing the allegiance of the Adil Shahi family to Shiaism. The distinctive rocks, use of gold and floral motifs show a Persian influence.
Chand Bibi (1550-1599) was a fascinating woman who broke many barriers during the medieval Deccan Sultanates. Born to the ruler of the Ahmednagar Sultanate, she was married to Ali Adil Shah I of Bijapur. She served as regent in two Sultanates – first Bijapur, where she worked on restoring order on the passing of her husband and dealt with the machinations of nobles, and later in Ahmednagar, which she defended from Emperor Akbar.
This portrait of her riding a horse with a hawk on her wrist is one of the most popular images from the Deccan Sultanates, even though it has been dated to 1750, a century and a half after her passing and decades after the fall of Bijapur to the Mughals. The appeal of this strong warrior queen who defied convention is unquestionable. The pink rocks in the background show the Persian influence whereas the way the figure of Chand Bibi is depicted shows a distinct Mughal influence that had crept in towards the last decades of the Sultanate.
One can see influences from places as distinct as the Vijayanagara Empire, Central Asia, China as well as Europe in the paintings from Bijapur along with its own unique idiom.
At the same time that these political and artistic developments were taking place in Bijapur, artistic schools were flourishing in the courts of Rajasthan and the Mughals, and one can see their influence in the later paintings from the state. The art of Bijapur is exquisite and these are just a small sampling of it.
After the fall of the Deccan Sultanates, their art disappeared from public consciousness and was considered as inferior to the Rajasthan and Mughal schools. However, in recent years, the art of the Deccan has seen renewed interest and is being acknowledged for its merit by scholars, collectors and museums.