From Delhi to Deccan to Mewar — An Exquisite Style used by Indian Master Miniature Painters

Late in the sixteenth century, a master artist from the Mughal emperor Akbar’s atelier adopted the technique of using monochromatic tones with highlights of colour or gold. Known as ‘nim qalam,’ Persian for ‘half pen,’ or ‘siyah qalam’ for ‘black pen’, this technique was eventually adopted by artists in the Deccan, and later the Rajput courts. Although its precise origins remain uncertain, nim qalam continues to be used by contemporary South Asian artists working on manuscript painting.

Buffaloes in Combat, Miskin, India, c. late 16th century, Ink, watercolour, and gold on paper, 17.5 x 24.1 cm.

Also known as qalam-i-siyah, and siyah qalam, Persian for ‘black pen’, nim qalam is a drawing technique utilising monochromatic tones with highlights of colour or gold. It is similar to the grisaille technique of line drawing. The name is derived from the Persian nim, meaning ‘half’ and qalam, meaning ‘pen’.

(Left to right) The Virgin and Child Attended by Angels, Attributed to Manohar, c. 1600, Brown and blue ink with gold on paper, 32.1 x 23.3 cm; Akbar Mounting his Horse, page from the Chester Beatty Akbar Nama, Attributed to Sur Das Gujarati, Mughal, India, 1605–1607, Gum tempera and ink on paper, Nim Qalam drawing, 23 x 12.4 cm.

The origins of the term and technique are not precisely known. Scholars speculate that it developed in sixteenth and seventeenth-century South Asia as court artists were introduced to European prints. The artists may have attempted to replicate the hatching, lack of colour and subdued shades in the prints by creating line drawings with tonal washes, adding highlights and shading for emphasis and depth respectively.

Portrait of the Aged Akbar, Attributed to Govardhan, Mughal, India, c. 1640–1650, Gum tempera and gold on paper, 25.2 x 16.8 cm.

The technique may have been first used by Basawan — a master artist in the court of Akbar — in the latter half of the sixteenth century, and is believed to have been his specialty. His execution of the technique is best seen in a series of European-style images based on the Polyglot Bible. Akbar commissioned many such works during his reign in the early seventeenth century. A number of court artists employed by Jahangir, used the nim qalam technique to create paintings, as well as to decorate the margins of their paintings.

The technique began to be used in the Deccan in the latter half of the seventeenth century, possibly due to an influx of European engravings from the port in Goa. By the end of the century, it had spread to present-day Rajasthan, as exemplified by the work of the Stipple Master of Mewar.

Apparatus of Power, Shahzia Sikander, 2013–2015.

Some scholars have argued that nim qalam may have had precedents in Persian painting. In Ilkhanid courts in the thirteenth century, line drawings were used to imitate Chinese woodblock prints. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Persian artists had begun to produce line drawings in European styles — a phenomenon that the Mughals and the Deccan sultans would have been aware of even before the arrival of printed European manuscripts in their courts. 

The nim qalam technique continues to be used by contemporary South Asian artists working on manuscript paintings, such as Shahzia Sikander.



This article first appeared in the MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Art. 

The MAP Academy is a non-profit online platform consisting of an Encyclopedia of ArtCourses and Stories, that encourages knowledge building and engagement with the visual arts and histories of South Asia. Our team of researchers, editors, writers and creatives are united by a shared goal of creating more equitable resources for the study of art histories from the region.

Published: 13 May 2024


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