All of the contemporary depictions of artisans in the Mughal atelier show them sat on the floor working on boards or low tables. In the early periods, cotton cloth was sometimes used for large manuscripts and paintings, however from the mid-16th century strong, thin paper processed from cloth fibres was made, cut to size and burnished with a polished stone before being handed over to the calligraphers and artists.
For pages of text, paper was sometimes dusted with gold or given a colour wash before being burnished. The layout of the page was then impressed onto it by a gridded stencil - crucial in order to determine the placement, alignment, and proportions of the text, headings, and illuminations.
For pages of illustrations, artists would first lay out the composition on the page using thin black ink or charcoal. This drawing was then brushed with a light coat of white or slightly-tinted pigment to define the major areas of the composition. This was allowed to dry, and then the page was turned over and burnished again in order to provide a smooth surface. The colour and details were slowly built up layer by layer, sometimes with different artists working on different elements of the composition. Paintings show Mughal artists at work surrounded by shells of assorted pigments made from crushed minerals, brushes which were made of kitten or squirrel hairs tied to birds’ quills, pots of water to moisten the pigments and clean the brushes, and a jar of binding medium, usually gum arabic.
Towards the end of the painting process final outlines and details were completed and the painted side of the page might be burnished again using a small stone to provide a glossy sheen. Sometimes final details were applied using expensive silver and gold leaf before the painting was eventually handed over to one of the clerks.
Both the text and illustration pages were then set into thicker margin paper, which had often been tinted. These were then sent to the illuminators who created the gold or coloured border designs. Later a series of coloured rulings or designs were drawn to mask the joints between the text or illustration pages and the margins. Bookbinders finally arranged all of the pages into their proper order, sewed them into sections and bound them all together into a volume. These were then set into leather or lacquer decorated book covers and ready for presentation.
This painting from c.1595 gives us a rare glimpse into the world of the kitabkhaneh or ‘book house’ at the Mughal court. In the colourful scenes we can identify daroghas and bitikchis (superintendents and clerks), musavvir (artists), katib (calligraphers), and other artisans in imperial employ. The kitabkhaneh was a large and highly-organised establishment, responsible not only for the storing, classification and cataloguing of the vast Mughal library, but also for the creation of new manuscripts.
While the master calligraphers held the highest status, followed by the top painters and illuminators (muzahhib), other members of the atelier included those who prepared and cut paper (kaghazi), those who burnished the paper (mohrah kash), others who ruled the pages and margins, zargar who prepared the gold dust and gold leaf, bookbinders (sahaffi) and further craftsmen specialised in leather-work and lacquer who created the beautiful bindings.
Apprenticeships in the atelier usually began at a young age and many came from families of artisans who passed on ideas, styles and techniques from one generation to the next. Artists' wages are recorded as roughly equivalent to those of soldiers, but they could be additionally rewarded by the emperor with bonuses for outstanding work. While most were based at court, certain artists travelled to war, hunts, and other events in order to make official records for posterity.