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View from the rooftop

June 06, 2013

ANY lecturer will recognise the species. They are to be found sitting in the front row of the audience or towards the back. They clamour to be recognised so that they may ask the first question, often holding their hands aloft like some determined yogi who has sworn to keep his arm perpendicular until he achieves moksha or release.

Recently, a scholar giving a lecture in a museum in Washington had just concluded his learned discourse on miniature paintings when an arm, with clattering bracelets, went up.

“India is a large country,” she said. “Why can’t they make large paintings? Why do they have to make such small miniatures?”

Many enthusiasts who have studied the history of miniature painting in the subcontinent have been confronted by this paradox. Why should such a large country — crowned by the majestic Himalayas, crisscrossed by a filigree of pulsating rivers, covered by a topography of breathtaking variety, a witness to a never-ending cavalcade of dramatic history — not have developed an art form which reflects that grandeur on a parallel scale?

Excluding the religious murals in the Ajanta caves, the tradition of painting from the western Punjab to eastern Bengal, from northern Kashmir to southern Cochin, remained imprisoned for over four centuries within a rectangle. Convention demanded that paintings had to have four borders, to be portable, capable of being viewed at arm’s length, to be appreciated by a single person at a time. That viewer was almost always an affluent patron. Patronage constituted nine-tenths of connoisseurship.

The ‘discovery’ of the different skeins of miniature painting in India from the mid-19th century onwards owed as much to aesthetic British administrators as the study of local religions did to German academics such as Prof Max Mueller. Gradually, as more research into indigenous miniature painting became available, it became known generically as Indian miniature painting. Pre-1947, such a generic caption was justifiable. Post-1947, it succumbed to the fractious demands of green nationalism. For example, some Pakistanis and later Bangladeshis felt annoyed that the Indian Section of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London had not been re-named the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Section.

The appropriation of miniature painting as an Indian art form was reinforced by the publication in India from the 1950s onwards of a library of authoritative volumes authored by scholars such as Dr M. S. Randhawa, Karl Khandalavala and Dr Brijen Goswamy. The Lalit Kala Akademi produced beautifully illustrated monographs and for decades, the tireless Mulk Raj Anand edited the quarterly art-journal Marg, financed by the Tata Group.

My first book — a definitive catalogue of the Pahari and Sikh miniature paintings in the Lahore Museum — was published in 1977. I asked one of the reviewers (at the time the Indian deputy high commissioner in London) to assess my book on its merits, not on the basis of my nationality or religion. Sure enough, the review that appeared in the Financial Times extolled how marvellous it was that a Pakistani Muslim should have been able to write about Indian miniature painting.

Today, undeniably the most famous name in the West associated with miniature painting is that of Shahzia Sikander. She has demonstrated as no other artist working in this specialised genre before her had done, that subjects and borders do not matter. She paints through them, outside them, beyond them. It is Miniature Painting sans Frontieres.

Shahzia has fulfilled brilliantly the original purpose for which her alma mater — the Mayo School of Arts, now the National College of Arts, Lahore — was established over a century ago. It expected its students to derive inspiration from earlier traditions but to synthesise them, to present them with a fresh vision; to avoid in effect what modern miniature artists tend to do, which is to sit cross-legged and cross-eyed, mass-producing pastiches of famous originals.

Another Pakistani who has reached new heights is also a graduate from the NCA, Imran Qureshi. Like Shahzia Sikander, he studied miniature painting there. Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York gave him its vast roof as a canvas upon which he has splattered gallons of red paint. His rationale? “The red reminds me of the situation in my country, Pakistan, and in the world around us, where violence is almost a daily occurrence.” His conviction? “But somehow, people still have hope. The flowers that seem to emerge from the red paint in my work represent the hope that — despite everything — the people sustain somehow the hope for a better future.”

And who can see that future more clearly than a young climber who has conquered the world’s highest mountain?

The Pakistani mountaineer Samina Baig has reached her own rooftop — Mount Everest. Accompanied by her brother Ali (they are from a village in Hunza Valley), they stood on the same icy summit where 60 years earlier, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ended their epic climb.

That success in 1953 coincided with the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II. To a post-war Britain, exhausted by food rationing, clothes coupons, and fuel shortages, their achievement was interpreted as the herald of a new Elizabethan era. Sentimentalists in Pakistan can be forgiven therefore for seeing in the achievements of Samina Baig on the rooftop of the world and that of Imran Qureshi on the rooftop of the New York Met an augury of a new era for our own beleaguered country.

The writer is an internationally recognised art historian and author.