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Art and craft workshops under the Mughals

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The historical craftsman is often elusive. Many were illiterate, or too busy manufacturing to write about their businesses or their art. Even when workshop records were created, they were frequently lost, discarded, or destroyed. Thus, much academic research about crafts is from an art historical perspective because the objects they produced, signed or unsigned, are what remain to study. One exception to this documental wasteland is workshops with ties to royalty, which had a higher level of accountability. The imperial karkhanas of the Mughal Empire in Jaipur are an example of this type of rare document cache.
Karkhana is a word of Persian origin, widely used in South Asia. It is generally translated as ‘factory’ or ‘workshop’, but encompasses many other meanings. According to the nineteenth century Anglo-Indian dictionary Hobson-Jobson (spelled carcana or carconna) it also refers to “a departmental establishment such as that of the commissariat or the artillery park, in the field.” Those karkhana involved in production usually represented specialization of labor processes and output, and quality control through a master. The products they produced “lent pomp and prestige to the Mughal lifestyle” (105).
In the study under review here, Sumbul Halim Khan addresses imperial karkhanas located in the Rajasthan city of Jaipur with a sort of interdisciplinary approach. She deals with issues of labor, pricing, process and production based primarily on the Karkhanajat papers of the Amber state contained in the Rajasthan State archives, a unique source on karkhanas. The introduction gives a brief historiography, explains sources and gives an explanation of location, the social status of the artisans, and the structure, set-up and administration of karkhanas in general. The subsequent eight chapters deal with specific karkhanas, selected randomly from the many for which documentation exists, in order “to answer questions on their functioning (p. 15).” Chapter 2 looks at painting and cartography in the workshops known as Suratkhana and Chitragrah, respectively. Subject matter is analyzed with special attention to the ragmala paintings, which are based on northern ragas (a form of classical music). Extraordinary detail is provided on the materials used, both surfaces and paints.
The textile karkhana (Rangkhana) examined in Chapter 3 is unusual in that the large global demand for Jaipur textiles led to an expansion of the workshop beyond mere state demand into the independent sector. This chapter covers the types of textiles produced, their colors, the substance of the dyes and the techniques used to produce them, as well as common motifs. Chapter 4 focuses on the manufacture of books and manuscripts and the library. This important karkhana employed writers, poets, and calligraphers in addition to the many craftsmen who bound books, produced paper and other components essential for producing books and maps. Lists are provided of the important manuscripts, documents and maps from the collection. Additionally, bookbinding materials, techniques and costs are detailed. The arsenal (Silehkhana), Chapter 5, is an interesting application of material culture to study of empire. It was not mere storage, the arsenal manufactured and maintained a wide variety of weapons and thus included artisans such enamellers and those of damascene. In addition, the management of the workshop is discussed. The theme is continued in the following chapter on the gun foundry (Topkhana), which was established in 1584. It produced both light artillery, which was fired from camels and elephants, and heavy artillery. Khan provides a detailed look at the various armor, fittings carriages and ammunition produced there. In Chapter 7, the construction and design of the palanquins and carriages used by the elites are examined. A detailed table provides the varieties and prices of the textiles used. Chapter 8 is a study of the camel stables maintained in Amber. Their study presents an interesting picture of the relationship in between Delhi and Rajasthan and a sense of power of the Amber (also known as Amer) house. Camels were used for hunting, campaigns as well as for staging fights and as important as horses and elephants in Jaipur. Khan discusses the expenditures, breeds, care and trappings. The final content chapter covers the manufactory of harnesses and bridles (Zinkhana). This karkhana employed tailors, cobblers, blacksmiths and goldsmiths. Their output ranged from chair seats to animal trappings. The conclusion emphasizes the “distinct identity” (p. 104) of the productions of the workshops of Jaipur specifically for the consumption of the Mughal court.
This is primarily an empirical work and is neither deeply analytical nor theoretical. There is value in conciseness, but the close textual analysis would have benefited from augmentation through greater exposition, comparative examples or greater contextual content. Moreover, while Khan has made some attempt to define terms for the non-expert, this effort is somewhat uneven and those interested in the karkhana for comparative studies will be forced to refer frequently to dictionaries or the Internet. Nevertheless, those interested in craft production and the material cultural of the Mughal court will find much to explore in the rich empirical detail and numerous illustrations in this modest tome.

Martha Chaiklin, Zayed University (

Citation: Chaiklin, M. 2016. A review of Khan, S.H. 2015. Art and Craft Workshops under the Mughals: A Study of Jaipur Karkhanas, posted on New Asia Books on 15 February 2016;

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