The lord of the canvas

Published August 23, 2015
Milkmaids
Milkmaids

He possessed all shades of the spectrum as if they appear after reflecting water droplets in a large rainbow. His lines carry the flow of running water, as if it is confined in narrow streams. He personified characters of everyday life as if they were the real protagonists of this society, negating the imperial and aristocratic class and embracing the secular and humanistic themes instead. His style of painting became a distinct style itself which is known today as the ‘Chughtai Style’. Abdur Rehman Chughtai is one of the most celebrated painters of not only Pakistan but the whole sub-continent.

When the Persian tradition of miniature painting, along with the invasion of the Mughals, came to the sub-continent, it assimilated the indigenous miniature style of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The free-flowing line subjugated with the crudity of local linearity and the subdued colours were immersed into the loud reds, blues and yellows of the South Asian palette. With this amalgamation, a new style in miniature painting emerged as the Mughal miniatures with the royal subjects and regal themes of war and hunt scenes, love stories, court activities and the life of imperial families. Miniature painting remained a source of visual documentation of the majestic processions, festivities, important incidents and notable events. Lavish colours, stylised figures in luxurious attire, architectural backgrounds of forts, palaces, courts and gorgeous floral vegetation were the distinctive features of this style of painting.

When Pakistan came into existence in 1947, along with the modern and Western style painting, masters of miniatures like Haji Muhammad Sharif and Ustad Shuja Ullah came to this new state in search of work. Few were already working as miniature artists in the city in popular Bazari style by copying the Persian or Mughal technique. Among these stereotype practitioners, the secular themes, diverse subjects and a relatively distinct technique of opaque colours helped the artist to stand-out with Muraqqa-i- Chughtai in his hands as a masterpiece.

Painting from Muraqqa-i-Chughtai
Painting from Muraqqa-i-Chughtai

With his innovative mind and sound skills, he did not hesitate in experimenting with the tradition of miniature painting and used it as a more contemporary, illustrative, humane and secular medium of visual expression. Muraqqa-i- Chughtai, based on Ghalib’s, and Aml-i- Chughtai on Iqbal’s poetry, are the chef d’oeuvre of the melancholic illustration and conceptual realisation.


Abdur Rehman Chughtai’s work draws from a shared South Asian cultural heritage and his hallmark style was a composite of diverse influences, which included Mughal art, Islamic calligraphy, miniaturist painting and Art Nouveau, writes Nadeem Alam


The artist was born at the Kucha Chabak Sawaran, Lahore in 1897, to a family where technical and architectural education was already accepted as a family trade. Chughtai’s brother Dr Abdullah Chughtai was an architect and according to the family history, they descended from a ‘Maimar’ (architect / masson) Muhammad Salah, who was associated with the court of Mughal Emperor Shahjahan.

A woman with a red scarf
A woman with a red scarf

As a religious and local practice, Chughtai attended a Madressah to study Quran, but soon he left it due to his revulsion for the Maulvi. At the age of five in 1902, his father Mian Karim Bakhsh sent him to Technical Railway School, Lahore, where in grade seven, the rebel within Chugtai again compelled him to run away from the school. After coming back home, he completed his matriculation as a private candidate. It was the same defiant attitude that helped him to decide, at a later stage, to become a Musawir instead of acquiring technical skills as per family tradition.

Eventually, Chughtai’s father acknowledged the hidden talent of his son and sent him to his brother-in-law, Baba Miran Bakhsh, who was a Naqqash (decorative artist) and a master of architectural calligraphy and floral wall decoration. In 1911, Chughtai attended a drawing course at the Mayo School of Arts, Lahore where he received the formal academic training in drawing and inspired his instructors with his skills as well. Later in 1914, he joined the Mission School, Gujranwala, as a drawing master.

During this period, he also attended a drawing course in Lahore conducted by Mr Beaconson that was organised by the Punjab education department. The year 1916 is the most important and pivotal era in the life and making of Chughtai as a painter when he visited Delhi and Agra along with his brother Dr Muhammad Abdullah. The same year, he went on to study photography at the Calcutta Government Press, Calcutta where for the first time, his painting was published in a well reputed and prestigious magazine The Modern Review. The editor of The Modern Review, Ramendra Chaterji later included Chughtai’s work in the six albums of the Indian Paintings of the Bengal School. He also studied etching at the School of Photo-Engraving and Lithography in London.

The peacock
The peacock

Partha Mitter, the well-known art-historian of the South Asian arts, has the opinion that during his stay in Calcutta, Chughtai met the Tagores; Rabindranath Tagore and Abhiandranath Tagore. The former is known to introduce nationalism and considered as the harbinger of the modern painting in India and the main pillar of the Bengal School of Art.

The Japanese influence on Chughtai’s Art is believed to be an inspiration of Abhi­andranath Tagore’s expertise that he learnt when two Japanese painters, Taiken and Hishida visited Calcutta in 1903-04. Taiken worked at the studio of Abhiandranath. In 1924, Chughtai went on to hold a show at Wembley, Middlesex, which was attended by almost 25 million people.

The Murraqqa, an illustrative book of Chugtai’s paintings based on the poetry of Ghalib, first published in 1927, is considered as a masterpiece and an important event in the publishing history of India for which Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal wrote the forward. This project was partially supported by the Maharani of Cooch, Behar and was dedicated to the Nizam of Hyderabad. Whereas, the similar compilation titled as Amal-i-Chughtai, based on the verses of the poet of the East, Allama Iqbal, was published by the artist himself in 1968 in Pakistan.

A boy with a bird
A boy with a bird

The greatest modern painter of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, in a letter to Chughtai’s brother, commented, “Being a draftsman myself, I can highly appreciate this quality in the work of your brother, the painter M.A. Rehman Chughtai.”

In 1939, the Indian government conferred upon him, the title of Khan Bahadur and after the partition, he was honoured by the government of Pakistan with Hilal-i-Imtiaz in 1959 and President’s Pride of Performance Award in 1968. Today, Chughtai is known as the national painter of Pakistan.

Muraqqa-i-Chughtai, (1927), Naqsh-i-Chughtai (c. 1935), Chughtai’s Paintings (1940) and Aml-i-Chughtai are the compilations of his illustrious work that mark six decades of his artistic excellence. Collectively, almost 2,000 watercolours, uncountable pencil sketches, and nearly 300 etchings are at Chughtai’s credit. Moreover, he designed logos for Pakistan Television (PTV) and Radio Pakistan along with numerous other insignias, postage stamps and coins. He also wrote articles on art and expressed his imagination through short stories in Urdu.

A royal couple
A royal couple

Chughtai’s art has been collected and exhibited internationally. The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Hague Peace Palace and the Queen Juliana’s Palace in the Netherlands, United Nations Headquarters, New York, the Kennedy Memorial in Boston, the US State Department Washington, D.C., President’s House Bonn, Germany, The Hyderabad Museum India and Emperor’s Palace Bangkok are some prestigious places with his work on display.

In Pakistan, President House Islamabad, Governor Houses in Lahore and Karachi, and the National Art Gallery, Islamabad and numerous private collectors have Chughtai as their valuable asset. The city of Lahore owns the Chughtai Museum Trust in Garden Town that Chughtai’s son Arif Chughtai takes care of. This place has a good collection of his work and artefacts.

On January 17, 1975, this genius answered the final summons in Lahore. However, the legacy of his art is indeed eternal.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 23rd, 2015

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