Steeped in the past, and yet, modernist in its application, neo-miniature is the new face of Pakistani art. Having evolved as a genre that is entirely indigenous in its expressions, it has also globalised Pakistani cultural idiom and has inspired a generation of artists within and outside the country
The survival of a revival
Raza Rumi believes the neo-miniature movement is located within the resilience of Pakistani society as well as its struggle to reinvent aesthetic and cultural parameters of identity
Nearly two generations of Pakistani artists have experimented with the traditional genre of miniature art; some have even gone on to expand its scope and vocabulary. It is on the shoulders of such artistic endeavour and innovation that Pakistan’s neo-miniature movement has now turned global.
Neo-miniatures retain traditional techniques while incorporating contemporary themes, and some have even deconstructed the format and articulated sensibilities that otherwise would be identified with post-modernism.
Its entry into Western markets — galleries and private collections — is are recognition of the rigorous technique and innovative thematic inferences employed by Pakistani artists. Undoubtedly, Pakistani art has found a discernible niche in the global art market.
“In the post-modern framework, where skill has been put on the back burner in preference to conceptual art, miniature is viewed with much awe and fetches high prices,” says Nafisa Rizvi, an eminent art critic and a curator. “Gallery owners and curators tend to emphasise the painstaking and meticulous effort needed to undertake a painting of this nature.”
The neo-miniature movement is not a continuation of tradition or a completely new event. It is located within the resilience of Pakistani society and its struggle to reinvent aesthetic and cultural parameters of identity and social change. This is one of the key reasons why the world takes it so seriously and provides patronage to it.
Rizvi notes that of the two Pakistani artists invited by documenta (an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany) for the first time in our history, one was the miniaturist Khadim Ali.
“Khadim Ali, an Afghan Hazara, has found the freedom to express the persecution of Hazara community, something that may not have been possible without global patronage,” explains Iftikhar Dadi, an art historian at Cornell University.
“Pakistani artists who fetch the highest prices and are represented by galleries abroad include key miniaturists,” adds Rizvi.
After 9/11, the miniature movement found renewed and greater resonance in the West. The earlier themes that the iconoclasts had chosen — the burqa motif, clerics, nihilism — had become both relevant and exploratory.
As Dadi puts it: “The playfully subversive miniature was well-suited to participate in a globalised and post-modern cultural sphere in which Pakistani art is inextricably linked to diasporic practices, international mega-exhibitions and promotion by Western galleries.”
The interest in Pakistan and the quest to understand it better also contributed to wider interest. Aisha Khalid’s work, for example, which questions the concept of veiling, gender hierarchies and the repetition of Arabesque pattern, found great traction.
Saira Wasim’s explorations of the US foreign policy and the ‘war on terror’ narratives under the Bush administration were visual allegories that highlighted manipulation and exercise of imperial power not unlike the Mughal court. Her works have also been used as book covers.
But the movement has had its naysayers too: art critic Virginia Whiles in her recent book Art and Polemic in Pakistan explains that the neo-miniature movement is split between the traditionalists, who prefer to work within conventional boundaries, and the iconoclasts, who have broken the shackles of convention and given the form a new dimension.
It is the power of the latter group that has turned the courtly miniature into a radical form of artistic expression. The movement therefore found resonance in the West, where Pakistani artists have negotiated global trends using the intimate, demanding techniques of miniature painting.
Many trailblazers in this group emerged from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore, originally known as the Mayo School of Art. The institution had been set up by the British in an attempt to preserve and mainstream traditional South Asian art forms.
With the decline of the Mughal Empire, the advent of British colonists and photography, tradition witnessed a rupture. Patronage, not unlike music, was relegated to regional kingdoms and principalities. Patronage had enabled the miniature form to flourish for nearly a millennium; and the colonial period saw its decline.
But it was only in the ’90s when younger artists such as Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid and others, under the tutelage of the legendary instructor Bashir Ahmed at the NCA spearheaded the new miniature movement. Almost all the influential contemporary miniature artists have been trained at this art institution.
Iftikhar Dadi credits Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897-1975) as the first major Pakistani artist to revive Mughal miniature style after the independence. From ’80s onwards, artist Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999) employed the stylistic features of the tradition to create a new, modern sensibility.
In fact, Akhlaq also oversaw the setting up of a miniature painting department at the NCA along with Bashir Ahmed. Akhlaq’s own work explored conceptual and formal scale of miniature painting. His vision became the basis for a major movement a decade later.
Critics such as late Akber Naqvi were initially sceptical about miniature’s ‘revival’. But ardent defenders such as artists-educators Salima Hashmi and Naazish Ataullah, among others, carried forward the legacy of Zahoor ul Akhlaq and some of their gifted students such as Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi. Their involvement as academics is an important element of the revival and new avatar of the miniature movement.
But greater success abroad has also brought about greater critique and introspection at home: despite the wide corpus of outstanding artistic output and its global acceptance, there have been critical voices questioning the authenticity of tradition and practice.
Commodification, for instance, has been cited as a pitfall of this movement where, according to critics, some younger artists have indulged in copycat formulas for commercial success.
The rise of miniature painting at the end of the 20th century, according to Quddus Mirza, artist, art critic and educator, was a “search for forging an identity in response to Western influences in realms of politics, culture, economy and science.”
Miniature was viewed as an authentic aesthetic practice of the South Asian region. Mirza agrees that there was an element of exotica at work.
“Foreign visitors preferred to purchase miniature for its size, made with exquisite skill and labour,” he says. With an increased attention of the outside world, “local collectors also picked miniature as the most suitable art form”. The local and global intertwined over time.
But the exoticism that miniatures reproduce and reinforce, especially for the foreign market, is a matter of intense debate within Pakistani art circles.
Rizvi holds that “allure of the miniature is embedded with shades of Orientalism” as it stirs the exotica associated with traditions of the East.
“The flattened perspective, the bright jewel-like organic colours, the architectural details, and dress reiterate the South Asian cultures of yore,” she contends.
But simultaneously, the art critic argues, many artists have climbed on to what has become a neo-miniature bandwagon as the market is not only accepting of this genre but displays all the signs of growing. While the market is currently undervalued, prices will continue to soar before they fall.
“One reason for the sale of new miniatures is that these are “easy to display and transport,” Rizvi adds.
Quddus Mirza confirms that miniature for both ‘practical and aesthetic reasons’ is a sought after major at the NCA as the earlier artists’ successes have inspired a younger generation of students.
“The relatively easy potential for selling, storing and making — in comparison to other disciplines such as painting, printmaking and sculptures, which need larger studio space, storage, etc., makes it an attractive discipline,” argues Mirza.
But artist Imran Qureshi dismisses the ‘commodification’ argument and holds that “miniatures are just like other genres — prints and paintings, etc.”
In fact, he cautions, an inordinate focus on this aspect minimises what the movement has already achieved in terms of globalising Pakistani cultural idiom and inspiring a generation of artists within and outside Pakistan.
For those seeking inspiration, Shahzia Sikander remains the first of the radicals whose thesis work at the NCA subverted both the formalistic pattern as well as the thematic content. Her famed work ‘Scroll’ incorporated elements of architecture, autobiography and contemporary art sensibilities, thereby setting into motion a new vocabulary.
Sikander credits both the rigorous training by Bashir Ahmad and a lecture by Victoria and Albert Museum, (V&A) London, scholar Robert Skelton that gave her “a window on the diversity within the historical miniature painting genre itself.”
Nafisa Rizvi holds that “allure of the miniature is embedded with shades of Orientalism” as it stirs the exotica associated with traditions of the East.
After completing her MFA from the United States, Sikander started exhibiting her works across the country and gradually built an audience that was ready to converse with the complexity and range of contemporary miniature form. Others followed suit.
In 1999, Sikander exhibited at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. “Initially there was limited interest in the miniature form and this was one of the reasons that I chose a contemporary art museum to highlight its relevance,” she says.
Sikander wanted to reach out to “critics and historians outside of the miniature painting field so that they could fathom the immense potential in the form.
Another celebrated miniaturist, Imran Qureshi holds that his training at the NCA made him discover a new language for the genre. The creative process emanating from his intimacy with the miniature form enabled him to “break the boundaries as an independent artist.”
In 2003, Qureshi curated the Karkhana project — inspired by the Mughal court studio workshop — and its first show. This collaborative endeavour included five other artists — Aisha Khalid, Hasnat Mahmood, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathore and Saira Wasim — who worked on 12 paintings. This avant-garde, collective work was vital to re-imagination of miniature form in recent times. Karkhana “democratised” the art form, says Qureshi.
Other notable artists who have been torchbearers of this revivalist movement include Faiza Butt, Hamra Abbas, Ahsan Jamal, Mahreen Zuberi, Mohammad Zeeshan, Tazeen Qayyum, among others. As Qureshi explains, “This is truly a popular and robust art movement in contemporary times.”
Another artist trained in miniature craft who came to the US to study was Ambreen Butt. “The West knew of miniature painting as the art of the ‘other’, almost folksy,” says Butt. “They had no idea of its contemporary practice up until the early ’90s and academia had a major role in promoting it.”
She adds that such amalgamation of the past and the present has fascinated global art viewers. “I have been working for the past 22 years in the US but my connection with this genre keeps on redefining itself,” she adds.
Imran Qureshi’s decade long exhibits in Sharjah, Europe and the US popularised the form and found a receptive art community of critics, collectors and galleries. His 2009 exhibit “Hanging Fire” at Asia Society Museum in New York and the installation commenting on terrorist violence among other themes, at the rooftop of Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013 testified to the adaptation of scale and drama within the genre of the miniature.
Meanwhile, Mirza believes that the practitioners of neo-miniature did not restrict themselves to the form, but created works in multiple mediums, formats, imagery and concerns.
Rashid Rana who is another globally renowned contemporary artist, was also trained at the NCA in similar traditions that Zahoor ul Akhlaq set during his teaching and art-practice. Rana works with the new media and even in his digital style, one of his 2002 works is entitled ‘I love miniatures’.
This poignant production weaves a Mughal Emperor’s profile through countless billboards for products and films. Rana’s work is both an extension and a critique of the tradition where structure of a miniature and its micro details can be explored and reinvented.
The immersion of neo-miniature in the academy and global art dynamic continues.
Sikander recalls that her decision, in the initial years, to work with the academic institutions across the US was “instinctive”. It has enabled the inclusion of contemporary miniature painting into textbooks and academic art schools.
“Art 21 documentary in 1999-2000 focusing on my work at that time was reaching out to more than 5,000 high schools,” says Sikander.
Qureshi was commissioned by London Underground and is currently working on a major show at Barbican London. In fact, his public installations in many countries have contributed to furthering the possibilities of this form.
Iftikhar Dadi articulates a similar view: “Global patronage is not limited to art galleries or collectors. Private foundations, not-for-profit organisations and such other academic institutions have also espoused the extraordinary work coming out of Pakistan.”
“When did art not need legitimating by the state or market?” argues Dadi. “One can find individual artistic paths, but the terms of recognition are no longer national in today’s world.”
Any art form to flourish requires a frame of recognition. The global patronage to the neo-miniature movement is constructing a new framework for Pakistani artists, both within and outside the country.
In fact, artistic experiments beyond the national boundaries have liberated artists, including the miniaturists, from the constraints of cultural and political environment in Pakistan. Without doubt, this is another testament to the possibilities inherent within the Indo-Persian miniature art form that finds in revival centred in Pakistan.
A journey back in time
Salwat Ali takes us on a guided tour on the evolution of miniature art from the Mughal court to British India
The Mughal school began to evolve during the reign of the emperor Humayun, but the foundation of Mughal art was laid by Akbar who, on inheriting this workshop, turned it into one of the largest artistic establishments of the time. Akbar desired visual narration that could do justice to his eventful reign, which revolved round the court, the hunt and the battle field. The dynamic illustrated histories he commissioned included the Akbarnama, Kitab-i-Changiznama, Khamseh of Neẓami, Divan-i-Ḥafeẓ, etc. Though retaining the upright format, general setting, and flat aerial perspective of Persian painting, the Indian artists of Akbar’s court exhibited an increasing naturalism and detailed observation both of the people and of the court — and of the rich fauna and flora of India.
A man of refined sensibility the emperor Jahangir, even as a prince, showed a keen interest in painting and set up his rebel court at Allahabad where émigré Iranian painter Aqa Riza was in-charge of his workshop. Unlike the tradition of illustrating books Jahangir preferred portraiture. These are essentially large-scale exercises in portraiture, the artists taking great pains to reproduce the likeness of every figure. Among the most elaborate works of his reign are the great court scenes, showing him surrounded by his numerous courtiers. The colours are subdued and harmonious, the bright glowing palette of the Akbari artist having been quickly abandoned. The brushwork is exceedingly fine. Female portraits began to appear in this period due to the influence of Jahangir’s favourite queen Nur Jehan
Shah Jahan period
Under Shah Jahan, attention seems to have shifted to architecture, but the elegance and richness of the Jahangir period style continued but with an increasing tendency to become cold and rigid. The portraits resemble hieratic effigies, lacking the breath of life so evident in the work of Jahangir’s time. The colouring is jewel-like in its brilliance, and the outward splendour quite dazzling. The best work is found in the Shahjahan Nama and in several albums assembled for the emperor. Govardhan and Bichitr, who had begun their careers in the reign of Jahangir, were among the outstanding painters; several works by them are quite above the general level produced in this reign. In the painting, Shah Jahan receives his three sons; and Asaf Khan, their grandfather, during his accession ceremonies.
Deccani painting flourished over much of the Deccan Plateau from the last quarter of the 16th century. In mood and manner it is reminiscent of the contemporary Mughal school featuring a homogeneous style evolved from a combination of foreign (Persian and Turkish) and Indian elements, but with a distinct local flavour.
The sultanate of Golconda also produced work of high quality — for example, a manuscript of the Divan of Muammad Quli Qub Shah in the Salar Jang Library, Hyderabad, and a series of distinguished portraits up to the end of the 17th century (dispersed in various collections). The state of Hyderabad, founded in the early 18th century, was a great centre of painting. The work that was produced there reflects both Golconda traditions and increasing Mughal and Rajasthani influences.
Aurangzeb and the later Mughals
From the reign of Aurangzeb a few pictures have survived that essentially continue the cold style of Shah Jahan; but the rest of the work is nondescript painted in workshops other than the imperial atelier. Genre scenes, showing gatherings of ascetics and holy men, lovers in a garden or on a terrace, musical parties, carousals, and the like, which had grown in number from the reign of Shahjahan, became quite abundant.
A brief miniature revival in the reign of Muammad Shah, was momentary, and Mughal painting essentially came to an end during the reign of Shah Alam II (1759–1806). The artists of this disintegrated court were chiefly occupied in reveries of the past or copies of old masterpieces still in the imperial library.
Rajput Court painting
This style began to surface in the 16th century, about the same time the Mughal school was evolving under the patronage of Akbar. Throughout the early phase, almost up to the end of the 17th century, it retained its essentially hieratic and abstract character, as opposed to the naturalistic tendencies cultivated by the Mughal atelier. The subject matter of this style is essentially Hindu, devoted mainly to the illustration of myths and legends, the epics, and above all the life of Krishna. Various distinct schools, most of them belonging to its states, namely Mewar, Bundi, Kotah, Marar, Bikaner, Kishangarh, and Jaipur (Amber) are attributed to this style. The extraordinarily rich ragamala series represent the important Mewar, Bundi and Kotah schools.
Closely allied to the Rajasthani schools both in subject matter and technique is the Pahari style, so named because of its prevalence in the erstwhile hill states of the Himalayas, stretching roughly from Jammu to Gahwal. It can be divided into two main schools, the Basohli and the Kangra.
The Basholi style was flourishing toward the close of the 17th century. Bold colour, vigorous drawing, and primitive intensity of feeling are outstanding qualities in these paintings, quite surpassing the work of the plains.
The Basohli style began to fade by the mid-18th century, being gradually replaced by the Kangra style. A curvilinear line, easy flowing rhythms, calmer colours, and a mood of sweet lyricism easily distinguish the work from that of the Basohli style.
‘Company painting’ is a broad term for a variety of hybrid styles that emerged under the patronage of the British East India Company from the early 18th to the 19th centuries. Indo- European in approach, the styles, rendered in watercolours instead of gouache, blended traditional elements from Rajput and Mughal painting with a more Western treatment of space and perspective. Catering primarily to British patrons who found the purely indigenous styles not to their taste this art centred on the “picturesque” and the “exotic” aspect of the land and life in the sub-continent.
Indian artists of that time, with declining traditional patronage, fulfilled the growing demand for paintings of flora and fauna, landscapes, historical monuments, darbar scenes, images of native rulers, festivals, ceremonies, dance, music as well as portraits.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 10th, 2016