The primary aspect that characterizes Indian rugs is their singular, intense palette, based on yellow, pink, light blue, and green and best displayed in the typical bluish red known as lac red, used only for the grounds of fields. The designs, although indebted to the Persian style, are distinguished by their asymmetry and strong sense of the pictorial, with close attention to reality and detail. The decoration shows a preference for naturalistic floral designs and figural scenes arranged on directional layouts, and the compositions are not elaborate; the most common layouts involve full-field distributions using rows or grids, in-and-out palmettes, and prayer rugs. Because of this naturalistic taste, Indian rugs lack characteristic decorative motifs, aside from those few borrowed from Persia or other production areas, such as Herat botch, and cloudbands. The general character that informs these carpets is thus very rich, aristocratic, and refined, though without the ideal or abstract elegance common to the Persian manner, and seeming instead concrete and exuberant, with a sensibility that verges on the carnal. All Indian oriental rugs are made using the asymmetrical knot and stand apart technically because of their particularly dense knotting, well suited to rendering realistic figural details. The foundation is usually of cotton and the pile wool; in northern regions the soft and shiny wool of Kashmir is used. Sometimes silk is used both in the foundation and for the pile. The pile is usually trimmed low. The carpets are usually medium or large in size, reaching as much as 150 x 240 “.
Birth of the Indian Rug
Probably because of the region’s warm climate, which does not require protection from cold, the knotted carpet was unknown in India until the 16th century. Indeed, the knotted carpet exists in India not because of an age-old tradition but because of an act of importation, carried out by the emperor Akbar (reigned 1556-1605).
Akbar, the greatest ruler of the Mogul dynasty (1526/27-1858), was an admirer of Safavid art and had artists and artisans sent from the Persian court to set up specialized workshops in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, the two capitals of his empire, as well as in Lahore, in modern-day Pakistan. Therefore in India the knotted carpet originated as a product made exclusively for the court and conceived of as a precious object of furnishing designed to beautify the palaces of the Mogul court. Because of this close connection to the Mogul court, the knotted carpet was inevitably destined to decline when that court declined, which it began to do toward the end of the 18th century.
The Indian rug came into being to serve the same purposes as the “classic” Persian carpet and, in fact, imitated both Persian technique and style: asymmetrical knots with fine knotting; use of precious materials, such as the highest-quality wool from Kashmir and sometimes even silk and gold and silver threads; production based on cartoons furnished by court miniaturists; curvilinear style; and designs of the floral and figural character. Given the lack of intact examples from the 16th century, the most important existing records of this direct dependence on the art of Persia is offered by the so-called Indo-Isfahan or Indo-Persian carpets, datable to the 17th and 18th centuries and characterized by Safavid designs composed of in-and-out palmettes, herati, and sometimes cloudbands in orderly full-field arrangements. Initially attributed to Persia, and more precisely to Herat, these carpets were later divided into two groups based on their palettes and levels of calligraphic sense: those with the most intense colours, with lac-red grounds and designs with pale outlines or no outlines at all, were taken to show Indian sensibility, and the others were said to show Persian taste. Since these are such minor differences, the recent tendency has been to leave provenance undecided and to see these carpets as proof of the close relationship between the Safavid and Mogul courts and attribute them to a common Indo-Persian style.
The Mogul style
Over the course of the 17th century, as local miniaturists and artists slowly replaced the Persian artists and artisans in the great workshops, a more specifically Indian character began to develop in the Indian rug, rendering it less dependent on Persia and better suited to representing the taste and needs of the region. The Mogul style was influenced by the passion for botany of Akbar’s son, the emperor Jahangir (reigned 1605-1627). Under his rule all the arts tended toward representations of a floral character, which were rendered with such naturalism and presented such a variety of species that they competed with Western herbals. Under the reign of Jahangirs son and successor, Shah Jahan (reigned 1628-1658), this style reached full expressive maturity, evident in the perfect realism of its renderings and close attention to detail.
Indian dyers, who were capable of obtaining, usually by means of repeated dyeings, singular shades and colours so intense they seem enameled. Typical rugs from India is lac red, with its characteristic bluish reflections, obtained from an insect of the cochineal family known as lac and used in grounds; against this colour stand out designs coloured light yellow, mustard yellow, light led, pink, light blue, midnight blue, light green, emerald green, orange, black, and brown.
Another particularity of these carpets is the way colours are combined, for this is done without outlines, even when two different tones of the same tint are used side by side, such as red and pink or blue and light blue. The borders are characterized by a dark ground, rendered using a strong green-blue, suitable for making contrasts with the lac red of the field.
Antique Indian Rugs
Almost all existing antique Indian rugs are held in major collections or museums; datable to the 16th to 17th centuries, they can be grouped into decorative types that show varying degrees of debt to central or eastern Persia. Given their stylistic uniformity, the areas where they were made cannot be established with certainty.
Floral carpets are the most common type, and most are attributed to Lahore. The flowering plants, often of many different species, are arranged full field within a grid, the shape of which varies, or are arranged in the more typically Mogul style of horizontal rows. In one 18th-century layout, the flowers are made small and presented in dense arrangements, each flower joined to another by extensions of its stem, a scheme directly reminiscent of Persian floral carpets. Also included in this type are the Indo-Isfahan carpets and certain rare examples with trees, which are often presented with flowering foliage.
The subjects of figural carpets sometimes reproduce episodes from Indian epics but more often present hunting scenes. These carpets have greater vitality than Persian figural carpets in part because of the asymmetrical distribution of their elements but primarily because of the size and pictorial importance given the figures with respect to the floral ground. Furthermore, the figures are usually shown in movement. Typically Indian is the presence of an elephant, and characteristic of these carpets is the design of the border, often curiously enlivened by grotesque masks. Included within this group are examples decorated with the waqwaq tree.
The Mogul interpretation of the prayer rugs, a type foreign to Indian religious life, shows the traits characteristic of Mogul style. Although clearly influenced by Persia, Mogul prayer rugs are composed of a highly articulated mihrab, the interior field of which is coloured lac red and bears Mogul flowering plants, shown in large size to indicate the realistic transformation of the symbolic tree of life. In the so-called millefleurs prayer rugs, datable to the 18th century, the field is instead thickly covered by myriad tiny flowers of diverse species and always growing from a single plant; the niche of these prayer rugs is often flanked by two typical cypresses.
The so-called Portuguese carpets, discussed among the types of Persian carpets, are variously attributed to northern or southern Persia or to the Portuguese colony in Goa, India. Aside from the people in European dress that appear on these carpets, the Indian provenance hypothesis is supported by the particularly intense and brilliant colours. In the absence of certain proof, however, the production area for these carpets remains obscure.
The subjects of figural carpets sometimes reproduce episodes from Indian epics but more often present hunting scenes. These carpets have greater vitality than Persian figural carpets in part because of the asymmetrical distribution of their elements but primarily because of the size and pictoral importance given the figures with respect to the floral ground. Furthermore, the figures are usually shown in movement. Typically Indian is the presence of an elephant, and characteristic of these carpets is the design of the border, often curiously enlivened by grotesque masks. Included within this group are examples decorated with the waq-waq thee.
The 19th century
Having entered a crisis at the end of the 18th century, Indian oriental rugs making suffered during the 19th century from the usual changes involved in meeting market demands, which in India meant the tired repetition of Mogul models or their betrayal in favor of European subjects or, more often, the imitation of classic Persian motifs that had already become established on the Western market. In addition, during this same period the local carpet workshops were taken over and directed by English or European companies. Even so, Indian rugs maintained their high technical levels until 1860-1870, when the introduction of chemical dyes made even the renowned Indian colours begin to lose their intensity. Since the region does not have an ancient tradition of carpet making, and since carpets were not made at any level there until the 16th century, India can boast of no nomad or village carpets. All the “old” examples that have survived until today were made in city workshops, but given their general stylistic homogeneity, production areas cannot be established with any accuracy. Referred to commercially and conventionally as Agra carpets, from the name of the city, Indian rugs can be broadly divided into geographical regions on the basis of the quality of their wool: if it is soft and shiny, the carpet probably comes from a northern region; if the wool is rough and opaque, it probably comes from a southern region. The leading workshops of the many that were active during the 19th century include the northern ones of Lahore, Srinagar, and the regions of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, with Agra; the central ones of Poona; and finally the southern ones in the area of Masulipatam.