India – History and Society – for those who wish to think and learn for themselves
The city of Delhi served as the first capital of the Mughal Emperors Babur and Humayun. Emperor Akbar however, preferred the city of Agra and shifted his capital there building a glorious new capital. After Akbar and his successor Jahangir, the new emperor Shah Jahan wished to return to Delhi. The new city of Shahjahanabad was commissioned. The new city was built fifteen miles north of the Qutb Minar complex and included the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in India) and several palaces and mansions of the royal family and nobles. The new city served as a centre of power until 1739, when Nadir Shah invaded India and ransacked Delhi. By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the kingdom of the Emperor of Delhi was confined to a small area around Delhi. The British appointed a regent to keep an eye on the emperor, with the other eye focussed on gradually taking over the city with a view to basing their northern forces there.
As the city declined, the British regent, Charles Metcalfe and a muslim scholar Sir Syed Ahmed Khan commissioned artists to make a record of the monuments and buildings of Delhi, partly under the guise of the Archaelogical Society of India. Amongst these artists was the studio of Mazhar Ali Khan, the most famous topographical artist of the Delhi court. Mazhar’s team of artists also illustrated Metcalfe’s book on Delhi published in 1844.
The most famous work of Mazhar Ali Khan is the Delhi Panorama, completed in 1846. This provided a 360 degrees view of Shahjahanabad from a high vantage point. The panorama provides in great detail a very good idea of how the city looked like. The timing was also fortunate. In 1857, following the First War of Indian Independence, the British forces took over Delhi deposing the last Mughal, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. In part revenge and in part of the skirmishes that took place, many of the buildings were destroyed. The only record left of them is in the works commissioned by Metcalfe and Khan.
Not much is actually known about the artist himself. He perhaps belonged to the family of the more famous artist Ghulam Ali Khan and was perhaps trained by Ghulam Ali Khan in the 1820s. It is believed that Mazhar Ali Khan also painted a panoramic view of the Dargah shrine in the city of Ajmer in 1850. Following this it is believed he made his way to Arabia to depict the holy shrines of Arabia. This possibly predated the fall of Delhi in 1857.