Co-founders of the TAPI Collection (Textile and Art of the People of India) Praful and Shipla Shah, although primarily concerned with Indian textiles, also boast a formidable collection of Indian miniature paintings, art they've picked up over the past four decades. 

In Court & Courtship: Indian Miniatures in the TAPI Collection by JP Losty and published by Niyogi Books, art historian and former curator of Indian manuscripts and paintings at the British Museum and British Library, Losty catalogues the collection, taking a largely chronological approach.

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(Above image: Book cover of Court & Courtship: Indian Miniatures in the TAPI Collection by JP Losty)

The 90 paintings in this collection span 16th century portraits of emperors, courtiers, animals, and more, and courtly pictures from the Deccan, Rajasthan, and Central India, among others; 17th century representations of classic texts like the Gita Govinda, Harivamsha, and Rasikapriya, among others; and 18th and 19th century paintings of ladies resplendent in varying textiles and costumes.

In the following excerpt, reproduced here with due permission from the publisher, images of four of these paintings have been reproduced along with the supporting text Losty provides for each painting.

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Plate 9

Shah Jahan at the age of about 40

Mughal, 1690−1700 | Opaque pigments and gold on paper | Painting 17 x 9.2 cm, within a wide gold margin and cream border with blue and gold rules and splashed with gold | Folio 34.8 x 23.8 cm

Inscribed on the reverse in Devanagari: 308. Mhaimad Mir Khan beta Jafar Jang ra ki sibi hai (‘This is a portrait of Muhammad Mir Khan, son of Jafar Jang’) and with a modern impressed seal below.

Provenance: Cowasji Jehangir collection, Mumbai

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The portrait subject is richly dressed in a lilac jama and gold brocade coat decorated with narcissi in a diaper patter over brocade paijama and red shoes. He wears two patkas, one of brocade and the other of thin muslin, a red turban with a gold band and featuer, pearl necklaces, and other jewels. A sword hangs at his side. He has a pointed beard and a single kiss-curl in his sideburn. The background is a plain green, turning to streaks of brilliant orange, purple, and gold at the top in the manner of the late 17th century.

Despite the inscription identifying the subject as a certain Muhammad Mir Khan, son of Jafar Jang, he is far too grandly dressed for him to be anyone other than a Mughal prince or emperor in the 17th century. The two princes who did arrange their sideburns into one or two kiss-curls were Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh. Even though his beard is a little too long for the emperor Shah Jahan, the features of our portrait subject mostly resemble his in the 1630s and 1640s before his hair and beard showed any hint of grey. The page found its way into a Rajasthani collection, with an inscription written in a sprawling hand.

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Plate 30

The adoration of the Jina Parshvanatha

Western Rajasthan, 1750−75 | Opaque watercolour heightened with gold on paper
Painting 12.8 x 18.2 cm, within a rose margin with a polychrome and gold floral scroll | Folio 15.7 x 21.1 cm

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The Jina Parshvanatha, Mahavira’s immediate predecessor as Tirthankara, green in colour, is seated on a throne under a tree protected by the hoods of the serpent king Dharana. A yaksha Dharanendra and a yakshi Padmavati wave chowries over him in addition to the other homage-payers. The base of the throne shows the symbol intimately connected with him, the cobra, recalling his being protected by the serpent king from a deluge when he was seeking enlightenment.

Each of the Jinas has a tree uniquely associated with him and under which he was supposed to have attained enlightenment. That associated with Parshvanatha is the dhataki tree (Woodfordia fruticosa), but the artist has made it look more like the nyagrodha or banyan tree of Rishabhanatha.

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Plate 34

Women of the zenana playing Holi

Lucknow or Faizabad, 1760−70 | Opaque pigments and gold on paper | Painting 17.5 x 22.8 cm, within a margin of blue and gold rules, cut down at top
Folio 18 x 23.6 cm

Inscribed on the reverse with a calligraphic specimen, part of a ghazal of Hafiz, signed in lower left: ‘Nasiri-Khani Madhuram, year a thousand and ninety-one (AD 1777−8)’ suggesting that the scribe Madhuram was in the service of a ruler called Nasir Khan.

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This lively scene is set in a zenana where women are enjoying playing Holi. Most of them are in pairs, and some are wearing male costume or at least male turbans. Some are filling syringes, but most of the pairs are trying to empty the contents of various flasks over each other. One woman has the traditional large syringe, which she is filling from a large pot on the right, while another is aiming her syringe at a pair who seem more interested in embracing rather than drenching each other with colour. Other pairs too are taking the opportunity for some more erotic foreplay with loving embraces.

Women on both sides play a variety of different instruments — veena, sarod, shehnai, clappers, tambourine, and different sorts of drums — while some must be singing. We are in a courtyard, coloured a rather dramatic mauve below an unpainted terrace with stairs leading to it, but the upper part of the painting was obviously not finished and has disappeared, with only the steps outlined. A calligraphic specimen in nasta’liq on the back is also seen, minus its upper part.

Before the general Mughal style in Awadh became harder and crisper, there was a brief period when the gentler Mughal style at Delhi from 1740-60 held sway, exemplified by artists such [as] Fath Chand, Faqirallah, and Faizallah, the latter two in their Mughal phase. In Faizabad, the work of Mul Chand, Ram Sahai, and (initially) Bahadur Singh and Faizallah continued in this same style in which the women here are also painted.

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Plate 66

Krishna watching the Goddess bestride Shiva

Kangra or Chamba, 1830−50 | Opaque pigments on paper | Painting 21 x 16.8 cm (including border), oval with polychrome flowers in the spandrels, within blue and yellow margins and a buff border with red rules. | Folio 28.3 x 24.2 cm

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The three-eyed devi, black bodied, entwined with snakes, and also four-armed, brandishes a sword and a severed male head in her right hands and holds her two left hands in more peaceful gestures. She wears a gold crown, a necklace of skulls, earrings formed of a miniature human body piercing her earlobe, and what seems to be a brief tiger-skin skirt. She stands in a funeral pyre, treading on a white erect male body, in fact the body of Shiva, identifiable by his third eye and the snakes wreathed round his neck. What seems to be a fish-bone wand is in his right hand. Surrounding the pyre are further traces of the charnel ground; jackals and a crow devour the flesh stripped from the bones. Krishna stands alongside and observes the divine pair; he is wearing his usual saffron dhoti and dupatta, a peacock-feather crown, and holds a large lotus. Green hills punctuated by deep green trees form the background beneath a blue sky. The tantric diagram of Shri Yantra is drawn in the top border.

The goddess’s figure here resembles two other fierce representations, those of Ugratara and Bhadrakali. Ugratara is the goddess of the cremation grounds and treads on the burning corpse of Shiva, but should wear a tiger-skin skirt and carry scissors, lotus, and a bowl of blood in addition ot her sword. The famous Tantric Devi series of paintings from Basohli (1660-70) shows the fearsome four-armed Bhadrakali, the destroyer of the universe, treading on a corpse with a skirt of human hands, but carrying the severed head of Brahma in one of her four hands, the corpses of Vishnu ad Shiva in another, and devouring corpses with a third, in addition, of course, to her sword.

Whatever her precise designation, the purpose of the painting seems clear — the contrast between creation and destruction. The goddess is the agent of destruction just as Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu (or indeed Vishnu himself) is saviour of the world, in this case from the demons of Mathura. A similar painting shows Krishna in the Matsya avatar, holding a lotus beside the terrifying devi standing on Shiva in the burning grounds.

The background of round hills and dark green trees as well as the slightly squat figure of Krishna suggest that the painting could be from Chamba rather than Kangra.

— All photos courtesy Niyogi Books