Circuits of Exchange: Albums and the Art Market in 18th-Century Avadh – by Natalia Di Pietrantonio

The nawabs (governors) of Avadh ruled the Gangetic plain of northern India from 1724 to 1856, a period that saw the collapse of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the British East India Company (EIC). The nawabs negotiated these rival imperial relationships by cultivating a courtly culture that was dependent on sponsoring and collecting muraqqas (“album” in Arabic) and painting folios. Thanks to their distinctive form, the muraqqa allowed for a continuous aggregation and disaggregation of visual material. As such, the nawabs of Avadh were able to procure calligraphic specimens and paintings from local dealers and courtiers, who pilfered them from the libraries of the Mughals and reconfigured them into new albums. They also relied on EIC colonial officers to acquire single sheet works. The nawabs navigated this complex circuit of collecting albums and folios by mobilizing locals and Europeans to engage in performative exchanges of gift-giving within courtly spaces.

A wide range of Persian and English textual sources from Persian treatises, to South Asian akhbarats (news bulletins or gazettes), to European letters and travel accounts exist for the study of the art market for albums in Avadh. However, scholars have tended to treat them in isolation rather than in conversation with one another. By contrast, this short essay offers a connected reading of these sources to shed further light on the Avadhi circuit of exchanges in images.

Among the untapped sources for studying muraqqa collecting practices in Avadh and greater north India is Bahādur Singh Nāmī’s impressions of Avadhi politics and aesthetics, a rare nineteenth-century Persian treatise or a “memorial” (yādgar). Bahādur belonged to the Bhatnagar Kayastha caste, and wrote the treatise soon after he moved from Shahjahanabad (Delhi) to Lucknow (Avadh) in 1817. The treatise is not merely a first-hand account of his experiences but a compilation of histories and testimonies about Lucknow and South Asia from Hindi and Persian texts to which the author had access.[1]

Akhbarats (news bulletins or gazettes) from eighteenth-century South Asia have also evaded much art historical analysis. While akhbarats are akin to contemporary newspapers, they differ in significant ways. Most importantly, scribes recorded the day-to-day affairs of only one patron who was usually an imperial or courtly figure. Their descriptions included lists of gifts and tributaries given to that figure as well as other economic transactions such as salary allocations to specific courtiers. Since many akhbarats remain untranslated from their original Persian and were commonly written in the hasty shikasta script, they are laborious to read. Likewise, akhbarats are scattered across various depositories and libraries around the world, which prevent scholars from studying a court’s complete textual output.[2]

Akhbarats were popularized under the reign of Mughal ruler Akbar (r. 1556–1605) and continued to be distributed throughout regional and imperial cities during the nineteenth century.[3] These texts travelled to cities across South Asia, reaching courtiers and other middling groups through a designated orator who read the gazettes to those who were illiterate. Thus, akhbarats had a large audience, which, as Margrit Pernau has argued, constituted an early modern “public sphere.”[4] They are particularly useful sources for studying muraqqas because they reveal the ways in which albums were part of kingship ceremonial practices. Although only a handful of translations are offered here, my aim is to show that, even with a small sample size, akhbarats can provide a snapshot of the usage and value of muraqqas in the Avadhi court.[5]

European letters and travel accounts are equally crucial sources for the study of the albums because European entrepreneurs were an important fixture of the art economy in Avadh. For instance the British collector of Avadi art Major Gore Ouseley arrived in Lucknow in 1795-1796 to pursue commercial interests. Likewise, Claude Martin, a French-born entrepreneur who landed in Lucknow in 1776 as part of the EIC, held close ties to the Avadhi court.[6] The examples of Ouseley and Martin show how Europeans were able to insert themselves in the existing networks of Avadhi art circulation, while also helping to re-shape those networks. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, inter-regional exchange of album folios was used to create bonds of affiliation and patronage amongst members of the Avadhi royal court. Through the influx of Europeans, albums began to acquire a new significance, particularly as the traffic in individual sheets, rather than in complete albums, increased. In their dual role as both suppliers and collectors of Avadhi art, European patrons often competed with locals while at other times also relying on them. The history of albums, therefore, provides an opportunity to observe a changing historical moment in which the dynamics of cooperation and competition were closely intertwined.

Nawab Āṣaf al-Daula (r. 1775–1797) was the first nawab to leave behind extensive Persian documents detailing how he used local networks within north India to collect and buy single folios and muraqqas. An extensive account of how Āṣaf al-Daula and other nawabs trafficked in albums is provided by Bahādur Singh in his treatise Yādgar-i Bahādurī of 1833.[7] We learn that the nawabs were able to acquire large numbers of paintings after the Rohilla commander Ghulām Qādir Khān sacked the treasury of Mughal ruler Shāh ‘Ālam II (r. 1759–1806) in Delhi in 1788. Bahādur Singh claims that Ghulām Qādir Khān’s relatives (aqwām) sold Shāh ‘Ālam II’s “paintings (taṣāvīr) and books (kitābhā) like they were vegetables (ghalla) and crops (gīyāh).”[8] During this same period, when the Delhi capital was periodically looted, Āṣaf al-Daula acquired a muraqqa that has remained untitled; for the purposes of clarity it will be referred to here as the Āṣaf al-Daula Album.[9]

The Āṣaf al-Daula Album was first completed around 1750 in Mughal Delhi. Shāh ‘Ālam II reworked the album in 1775 and, following this, Āṣaf al-Daula bought the album and retained it in his treasury until 1785. Bahādur Singh confirms that the nawabs and other local rulers, such as the Maratha leader Mahadaji Shinde, regularly bought single folios and muraqqas similar to the Āṣaf al-Daula Album from the dispersed Mughal library. According to Bahādur Singh, such exchanges allowed the precious value of painting as an art form to be restored.[10] Thus, he argues that the nawabs were able to protect early Mughal paintings and albums like the Āṣaf al-Daula Album from further degradation in the open market, a space that he compares to the sorrow and pain one feels in remembering the death of Hussain (mars̤iya, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad). When dealers allowed folios and albums to travel within non-royal circles, as in the case of Ghulām Qādir Khān’s relatives, Bahādur Singh states that albums lost some of their intrinsic value.

In addition to collecting muraqqas, Āṣaf al-Daula purchased individual folios and historical manuscripts to promote a wider book culture at his court. Chroniclers state that Āṣaf al-Daula purchased a variety of genres of paintings, and in some instances noted what the ruler paid for individual works. Two examples from his diverse collecting practices include oil paintings from Europe (ahl farang) and completed manuscripts such as the Emperor Shah Jahan’s famed autobiography, the Padshahnama manuscript. For the high cost of “12,000 rupees,” Āṣaf al-Daula purchased the Padshahnama and kept it in his treasury until he gifted it to the British in 1799.[11] Major Gore Ouseley, who was in Lucknow at the time, observed that Āṣaf al-Daula “collect[ed] an immense number of books and pictures.”[12] While Ouseley does not specify whether these books were muraqqas, he states that Āṣaf al-Daula had “many persons employed in collecting and copying books” and was “fond of science.”[13] Bahādur Singh further states that Āṣaf bought a sheet (ṣafḥa) of paper (waraq) which depicted Jahangir as an elephant driver (fīlbān),” for which he paid “3,000 rupees.”[14] These descriptions from both European and Indian sources show that Āṣaf al-Daula was invested in collecting a diverse array of materials, from albums and historical manuscripts to individual folios.

Persian newspapers (akhbarats) further discuss how courtiers and visiting dignitaries offered Nawāb Āṣaf al-Daula albums, which were given in the gift giving process known as nazr within courtly settings. Since the akhbarats I examine have not been previously translated, it is imperative that I first provide a brief explanation of a few elite exchanges within Āṣaf al-Daula’s court so that a greater sense of the art market can be gleaned before delving into an analysis of this primary source material.

To begin, on August 28, 1794, Afrīn Ali Khān, who was a eunuch in the Avadhi court, presented Āṣaf al-Daula with a muraqqa of pictures (tavīrāt). Āṣaf al-Daula greatly admired it and bought the album for 2,000 rupees.[15] On October 2, 1794, a muraqqa of pictures (tavīr) was offered to Āṣaf al-Daula as a gift (tawāẓu‘), along with two shawls (shālī), one scarf (dupatta) from Benares, one belt (kamarband) from Gujarat, two cloths (thān) worked with silk and satin (kam-ḵẖāb), two praiseworthy (maḥmūdī) cloths (thān), and one quilted (raẓā’ī) shawl.[16] On September 26, 1795, a Brahmin from the Himachal Pradesh region (Parog) presented Raja Charāj and Raja Jhāo Lal, who were Āṣaf al-Daula’s courtiers, with paintings (tavīrāt) that they completed through magic (jādū).[17] Quickly thereafter on October 2, 1795, a Brahmin presented six pictures (tavīr) to the court that appeared (z̤uhūr) to be very important (ahamm).[18] A few days later on October 12th, Shāh Niz̤ām Aladīn came to court and presented a muraqqa of pictures (tasvīrāt) along with an Indo-Persianate knife (pesh-kabz).[19] On April 3, 1795, a painter (muawwir) arrived at the court, and once again through the intercession of Afrīn Ali Khān, Āṣaf al-Daula was able to buy three paintings (naqsha tavīr).[20] In return, Āṣaf al-Daula gave the painter 300 rupees and two shawls as compensation.[21] On January 11, 1796, the chief revenue officer of Avadh, Raja Tikait Rai, offered Āṣaf al-Daula another muraqqa of pictures (tavīr).[22] On March 18, 1796, Āṣaf al-Daula bought an album of pictures (tasvīrāt) worth 355 rupees from a painter, to whom he offered a payment of two shawls and a tear-shaped jewel (gushwara).[23] This abbreviated list of exchanges and transactions tells us that a monetary evaluation of an individual folio ranged from 300 to 3,000 rupees, and the price of a complete muraqqa or manuscript ranged from 2,000 to 12,000 rupees.

In this circuit of exchanges, money was not the only means of compensating painters and courtiers. Luxury objects and animals were part and parcel of this gifting process. Bernard Cohn has argued that Mughal political authority was enacted through nazr and the distribution of “khilat (clothes, weapons, horses, and elephants),” which served to incorporate the individual into the court’s culture and to the body of the ruler.[24] Cohn’s argument resonates in the Avadhi case as well: records from Āṣaf al-Daula’s court show that scribes recorded the receipt of gifts such as swords (shamsher)[25] and guns, as well as animals such as parrots, horses, deer (ahu), and pigeons (kabūtar).[26] Albums and individual paintings (naqsha tavīr) were a component of this larger gift-giving policy, which allowed artists and courtiers to bind themselves closer to Āṣaf al-Daula. In other words, intimate objects like cloths, robes, and jewelry that were associated with the Avadhi court and the body of Āṣaf al-Daula were exchanged because they bestowed honor on the receiver. The status of a gift ranged in value. Artifacts related to personal adornment or enjoyment, including albums, were prized because they displayed a courtier’s or an artist’s close affiliation with the court. As Persian akhbarats show, outsiders relied on high-ranking courtiers like Afrīn Ali Khān to serve as intermediary figures since only they could physically hand off objects to the nawabs. Thus, for the receiver, the gift and counter-gift had greater resonance because of the proximity they established with the nawab: their personal object would be used by the nawab, and in turn, the nawab’s gift of a personal object became a material stand-in for the close physical proximity to the nawab that would never have been permitted at court.

Besides the nawabs, European entrepreneurs also participated in the art market in Avadh. Claude Martin was a well-known collector and trafficker of art objects, especially European sculptures and paintings in India.[27] He amassed such capital from his art trade that he was able to build his own estate, Farhat Bakhsh, which he decorated with many goods including those of Indic and Chinese origin. Bahādur Singh corroborates this information stating that Martin built a kothi (structure) which was furnished (nasb jard) with wondrous (‘ajīb o garīb) paintings (taāvīr). After Martin’s death (wafāt) in 1800, his collection of paintings was dispersed (munfariq).[28] Martin’s estate sale occurred in 1801, which resulted in an inventory of his possessions.[29] The inventory shows that in the sale of 1801, manuscripts, colors, and minerals were sold alongside miniature paintings. In particular, there was “1 box of unfinished pictures,” “5 parcels of Indian ink,” “2 seals of General Martin in Persian,” “3 miniature pictures,” “5 glasses for miniature pictures,” “18 pictures of different people in miniature,” “4 miniatures of General Martin and of General Stuart,” “285 prints and drawings,” and “46 Hindustani drawings.”[30] The nawabs would later acquire some of these items.

Fig. 1. Tilly Kettle, Portrait of Nawab Shujā‘ ud-Daula, 1772. Oil on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven. Image in the public domain. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art.

According to Bahādur Singh, the nawabs relied both on local intermediaries and on Europeans like Martin to acquire albums and pictures. Nawab Ghāzī al-dīn Ḥaidar (r. 1814–18279) bought many of Martin’s European and local belongings. Nawab Nāṣir al-dīn Ḥaidar (r. 1827–1837) continued Ghāzī al-dīn Ḥaidar’s practice and bought paintings from “farangs.”[31] Bahādur Singh does not directly mention Nawab Sa’ādat ‘Alī Khān II (r. 1798–1814), who most likely bought the largest amount from Martin’s estate following his death in 1800, well into Sa’ādat’s reign as nawab. All three nawabs thus potentially bought paintings from Martin’s collection that were either locally made (“Hindustani”) or of European provenance. Moreover, European drawings were not always separated from local miniature paintings. For instance, the British artist Tilly Kettle (w. 1769–1776) famously portrayed Nawab Shujā‘ al-Daula (r. 1754–1775) in an oil painting (Fig. 1). Either Shujā‘ al-Daula or a European patron then requested artisans to translate the oil painting into a miniature format, which was later bound into a muraqqa (Fig. 2).[32] These instances show that nawabi collecting moved fluidly between various genres, which in turn influenced the imagery of the muraqqas. These changes reflected the nawabs’ growing engagement with Europeans and European aesthetics.

Fig. 2. Mihr Chand, Portrait of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula (after a portrait by Tilly Kettle) and Two Pictures of Beauty, c. 1780. Page from the Lady Coote Album. Ink, Transparent and Opaque Watercolor, and Gold on Paper Mounted on an Album Page with Elaborately Ornamented Borders in Ink, Transparent and Opaque Watercolor, and Gold, 45 x 61.3 cm. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund, 1982.

Local actors such as high-ranking courtiers and Brahmins, as well as foreigners, were instrumental in the nawabs’ quest for albums and paintings. Paintings, in other words, were mobile. They were stolen and re-gifted numerous times. As David Roxburgh argues, the internal mechanics of an album act as “cultural depositor[ies]” presenting genealogies of repurposed paintings and calligraphies.[33] In the case of Avadh, many of the nawabs possessed muraqqas that were visual inventories of folios dispossessed from Mughal Delhi. The nawabs thrived on creating new visual genealogies by weaving single sheets of Mughal images together with those influenced by European painting. As a case study, the Avadhi local economy highlights the versatility of the muraqqa form to house not only Mughal historical specimens but also diverse paintings of different provenance. One thing seems clear enough: linking together a variety of Persian historical sources with Avadhi visual material, we can understand that the nawabs prized muraqqas because they were able to procure older folios and combine them into newer ones. Ideologically, these albums afforded them the opportunity to solidify social relationships through the courtly practice of nazr. Within the nawabi court, Mughal albums and paintings gained a new afterlife in which they became intercultural repositories of Mughal, Avadh, and European social and political exchanges.

Natalia Di Pietrantonio is a CFD Postdoctoral Fellow of Art History at Scripps College, CA


[1] British Library Ms. Add. 30786, Yādgar-i Bahādurī, 1v–2r.

[2] For instance, Michael Fisher, who has extensively studied akhbarats, read an impressive 943 akhbarat manuscripts. Michael H. Fisher, “The Office of Akhbar Nawis: The Transition from Mughal to British Forms,” Modern Asian Studies 27:1 (1993), 82n108.

[3] Fisher, “The Office of Akhbar Nawis.”

[4] Margrit Pernau, “The Delhi Urdu Akhbar: Between Persian Akhbarat and English Newspapers,” Annual of Urdu Studies 18 (2003), 108.

[5] As my initial findings suggest, translations of an even larger corpus of akhbarats would provide valuable sources for further research in this area.

[6] For more general information on the role of Europeans in Avadh, see Natasha Eaton, Mimesis across Empires: Artworks and Networks in India, 17651860 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). For biographical information on Ouseley, see Gore Ouseley and James Reynolds, Biographical Notices of Persian Poets: with Critical and Explanatory Remarks (London: Printed for the Oriental translation fund of Great Britain and Ireland; sold by W.H. Allen & company, 1846), v–xxxiii.

[7] For an overview of the Yādgar-i Bahādurī see H. M. Elliot and John Dowson, The History of India as told by its own Historians: The Posthumous Papers of the Late Sir H.M. Elliot Vol. VIII (London: Trübner and Company, 1877), 417–425.

[8] My translation is an amalgamation of two copies of the Yādgar-i Bahādurī, one of which is in Allahabad and the other in the British Library. British Library Ms. Add. 30786, Yādgar-i Bahādurī, 369 verso. Central Records Office at Allahabad Persian Ms. 255, Yādgar-i Bahādurī, 663 recto.

[9] This album is currently held in Windsor Castle, UK.

[10] British Library Ms. Add. 30786, Yādgar-i Bahādurī, 369 verso.

[11] Milo Cleveland Beach, Ebba Koch, and W. M. Thackston, King of the World: the Padshahnama, an Imperial Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle (London: Azimuth Editions, 1997), 13.

[12] Major Ouseley, “State Papers: Major Ouseley Called in and Examined,” Asiatic Annual Register, vol. 9 for the year 1807 (London: Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1809), 175.

[13] Ouseley, “State Papers: Major Ouseley Called in and Examined,” 175.

[14] Central Records Office at Allahabad Persian MS. 255, Yādgar-i Bahādurī, 663 recto. This information is found only in the Allahabad manuscript and not in the British Library copy.

[15] Royal Asiatic Society 92, 57r. More information on Afrīn can be found in Muhammad Faiz Bakhsh, William Hoey, and H. A. Qureshi, Memoirs of Faizabad, Being a Translation of the ‘Tarikh-i Farahbakhsh’ of Muhammad Faiz Bakhsh (Lucknow: New Royal Book Co., 2004), 120, 129, 130, 131, 141, 210, 300.

[16] Royal Asiatic Society 92, 169r.

[17] British Library Ms. Or.4609, 76r and 82r.

[18] British Library Ms. Or.4609, 117v–118r.

[19] British Library Ms. Or.4609, 114v.

[20] Royal Asiatic Society 93, 137v.

[21] Royal Asiatic Society 93, 137v.

[22] British Library Ms. Or.4308, 148r.

[23] British Library OMS Add. 16721, 148v.

[24] Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), 114.

[25] Royal Asiatic Society 93, 307r.

[26] Royal Asiatic Society 93, 24r.

[27] Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, A Very Ingenious Man: Claude Martin in Early Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), 316.

[28] Central Records Office at Allahabad Persian MS. 255, Yādgar-i Bahādurī, 663 recto.

[29] Llewellyn-Jones, A Very Ingenious Man, 316.

[30] British Library IOR/L/AG/34/27/24, 1801.

[31] Central Records Office at Allahabad Persian MS. 255, Yādgar-i Bahādurī, 663 recto.

[32] Portrait of Nawāb Shujā‘ al-Daula after a portrait by Tilly Kettle and Two Pictures of Beauty, a page from the Lady Coote Album. This folio is currently held at the De Young Museum, acc. no. 1982.2.70.1. Colonel Polier gave this particular folio and album to Lady Coote. It is unclear which painting folios from this album were completed under Polier’s direction and which ones he bought from the open market. From Polier’s Persian letters, it is clear that he directed local artisans to complete “paintings on paper” of Shujā‘ al-Daula’s portrait. BnF Sup Pers. 479, 37r. Whether Portrait of Nawāb Shujā‘ al-Daula is one of these images is unknown.

[33] David J. Roxburgh, The Persian Album, 1400-1600: from Dispersal to Collection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 32.


Cite this note as: Natalia Di Pietrantonio, “Circuits of Exchange: Albums and the Art Market in 18th-Century Avadh,” Journal18 (October 2018),

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