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The Passing of Shah Jahan: A Tale of the Misery of Mughal Royals through Art

Mughal history has always been a popular subject amongst Indian artists. The miniature painting - “The Passing of Shah Jahan” is however different from all its predecessors.

The Passing of Shah Jahan Painting (1902) by Abanindranath Tagore

Miniature artists during the Mughal Era flourished as the Mughal rulers extended heavy patronage to them. If you have ever got the opportunity to see a miniature painting from the medieval times, you will find that most paintings revolved around royal affairs. Portraits of rulers, royal women, birds and animals are available in large numbers from this era. You can also find paintings showcasing royal processions, scenes from wars, regular court meetings and so on. The one thing that is common in most of the miniature paintings during the Mughal times is the utter lack of emotion expressed by the artist. There is extensive detailing and intricate work but the sense of ‘feeling’ remains missing. Through his painting, the Passing of Shah Jahan, Abanindranath Tagore filled the emotional void in a beautiful manner.


This painting takes us back to the time when an old, weak, and powerless Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the Red Fort by his own son, Aurangzeb. Although the confinement was directed towards Shah Jahan only, his eldest child Jahanara accompanied him into captivity as a dutiful daughter.

The passing of Shah Jahan depicts a night scene where a sick Shah Jahan is resting on a bed with his eyes gazing at Taj Mahal, the monument he had literally dedicated his life to. On his feet, Princess Jahanara is sitting, weeping with her hand on her head. She is not adorned with any precious jewellery or extravagant clothes befitting a princess. There are also no servants around to take care of the former emperor or the princess.

The white pillars with Mughal motifs and the balcony railing at the back indicates that this is a room in one of the Mughal palaces. There is only a bed and a small table in terms of furniture that rests on a yellow carpet. The bed and the table are also quite simple with minimal ornamentation. In the background, we can see the moon mostly covered with dark clouds. In the night, the most striking element that shines brightly, is the Taj Mahal on the banks of the river Yamuna.


As mentioned earlier, miniature paintings in the Mughal School of Art were largely devoid of emotions. However, in the passing of Shah Jahan, Abandindranath Tagore brought life to the characters in the painting by incorporating the traditional Indian artistic concept of ‘Bhava’ or emotion.

A glance at the painting is enough to sense the feeling of loneliness that this piece of art emanates. The night scene with a covered moon creates a gloomy atmosphere that also reflects the mood of the figures in focus. The way the once powerful and mighty emperor Shah Jahan lies on the bed with his eyes stuck on Taj Mahal, indicates how helpless and tired the emperor is. The very posture of Shah Jahan with his upper half turned towards the monument signifies that even in his last moments and the terrible times he was going through, he only longed for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Jahanara, on the other hand, weeps on the floor. Her father, one of the richest and the mightiest emperors of that time was house-arrested by his own son after a bloody war of succession among all his sons. In moments, Jahanara’s world had crashed. She had lost her brothers, and her kingdom, and in some time, she would lose her father too.

The romantic ideas of loss, separation, and longing hang so strongly throughout the painting that one cannot help but feel sympathy toward the characters. Through this miniature painting, Abanindranath Tagore lent a poetic flow to the theme which was never observed before.


"The Passing of Shah Jahan" was made under the British Raj when various people such as Abanindranath Tagore and E.B Havell were working towards reviving the Indian art forms. This painting is mainly inspired by the realism of Mughal miniatures and the Bhava concept of ancient Indian art forms. Here, Abanindranath Tagore used a fusion of three types of painting- British watercolor painting, Mughal Miniatures, and the Japanese Wash technique.

Through this painting, Abanindranath Tagore attempted to connect Indians with their culture and heritage. The miniature artwork was considered a masterpiece in Indian art history and received numerous awards. It can also be said that the passing of Shah Jahan made Abanindaranth Tagore a celebrated artist not just in his hometown- Bengal, but all over the country. It remains one of the best works of the Bengal School of Art, a distinct style of painting founded by E.B. Havell and Abanindranath Tagore.

Akshita Rana Pratha


Akshita Rana

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