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EXHIBITION: HONOURING TRADITION

January 07, 2018

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Courtesans
Courtesans

In retrospect, the year 2017 was a year of many firsts in Pakistani art. Just a couple of weeks after the Jamil Naqsh Museum was inaugurated, an extensive collection of the prolific painter Najmi Sura opened up at the Momart Art Gallery, aptly titled A Painter Between Worlds for an artist assimilating an old tradition into her own language. The timing of the exhibition so closely following the Museum’s opening was fitting as she is considered his disciple and his muse for the past 40 years, and it is difficult to talk about one without mentioning the other.

Although Sura is one of Pakistan’s most well-known painters and has been honoured with many awards including the Sitara-i-Imtiaz for her contributions to Pakistani art, her work is seldom seen in galleries. Painting is more of a private act for her and she mostly prefers to sell her work through private auctions, and when she does display, it is usually in group shows. As a result, the show at Momart is not only her very first solo exhibition but also her first exhibition in Pakistan, displaying works spanning her entire oeuvre, never seen in the country before.

From the beginning Sura’s interests in art centred around the figurative as well as the abstract. It was when she visited Naqsh for his advice that he began to mould her into the artist she is today by introducing her to miniature painting and guiding her to develop her own personal style. Her fascination with the Pahari, Rajput and Mughal schools of miniature painting is interpreted through a modernist sensibility as she turns the genre into a more personalised expression.

Najmi Sura’s fascination with miniature painting is interpreted through a modernist sensibility as she appropriates the genre into a more personalised expression

As a result, her depictions of the grandeur of the Mughal court is infused with a lot more character and depth, while adhering to the exquisite detailing and the flattened perspectives of the historic tradition. Instead of a stylised depiction of the female form that treats it as a delicate, fragile entity, Sura’s women are more robust, voluptuous, muscular and strong. They are sensual, yet at the same time not overtly sexualised. She does not represent an idealised version of the female body seeking perfection, and although it is not in any way realistically depicted either, it is still ‘real.’ These women have expressive faces, depth in the eyes and character in their gestural poses; they are more alive compared to the flattened depictions of the miniature tradition.

Prince Dara Shikoh
Prince Dara Shikoh

However, what she stays true to is the impeccable detailing that is an inherent part of the Mughal tradition. The clothes, backgrounds and jewellery are meticulously rendered. Yet it does not take away from, or overshadow her characters. She makes sure to humanise them, rather than using them as tools to display the grandeur of the Mughal court, as was the purpose of the Mughal miniatures. While those sought to depict the Mughal rulers and princes as different, better and far removed from the common man, Sura’s paintings depict people who are more accessible and real.

Mughal miniature in the past few decades has seen a revival of sorts, with contemporary miniature bringing the practice back into relevance. However, the artist’s work, while translating the practice into a personal style, playing with scale and technique, adheres to the basic subject matter and aesthetics of it, which in a way turns her work into an honouring of the genre of miniature painting.

Storm
Storm

“A Painter Between Worlds” was on display at the Momart Art Gallery from December 22 till December 24, 2017

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2018