EXHIBITION: A CONTEMPORARY AWAKENING

Published April 22, 2018
Classroom, Dezmond Lazaro
Classroom, Dezmond Lazaro

When the British opened the Mayo School of Arts (now National College of Arts) in Lahore and the Bombay Arts Society a decade apart, in the 1870s, they tacitly undertook the task to point Indian art westward. As a result, some of the greatest traditional art forms of Indian history suffered, some even disappeared. Of those traditions, miniature painting — a form that first bloomed during the Mughal era — particularly paid the price. Today, other than the craftsmen reproducing or basically copying originals, there are only a handful of contemporary artists working with the form in various corners in India. Teetering on the margins of modern art, it is perhaps providence, then, that an exhibition titled Hashiya: The Margin, interprets the border or the margin in miniatures in different ways.

Titled after the Persian word hashiya meaning ‘a margin’, the exhibition began as a project more than a year ago. Mamta Singhania of Anant Art and curator of the exhibition, asked 10 miniaturists to interpret and respond to the idea of the margin becoming the centre. The tradition of painting the border, sort of like a visual enclosure for a central piece, originated in Persian miniatures itself. Through the Mughal era, the miniature evolved into many things, from capturing live action to becoming a document of wildlife. The same can be said of the Pahari miniatures that originated in the north, and are perhaps the last of the original traditions. Both, though, carried the Persian practice of drawing the border.

The margin in miniatures, be it the original Persian, Mughal or Pahari, has largely served a decorative purpose. Painted in floral patterns and evocative colours, the border alludes only to the centrepiece and conditions our idea of it. Singhania’s intention when she began the project was to invert the relation all together. Make the margin the centre. A year on, the concept has morphed into a mapping of borders literal and inaccurate, as well as personal and political.

An exhibition places the margins of miniature at the centre to give the genre an impetus to grow in India

On the political side, British-born artist Dezmond Lazaro and Pakistani artist Yasir Waqas draw intriguing perspectives. Lazaro imagines a boundary-less map of the world — a near utopian idea, a mere three centuries after the nation state came into existence. Lazaro, who in the traditionalist sense manufactures all of his own material, posits a world without division, his execution minimal and extremely subtle.

Silent Plea, Saira Wasim
Silent Plea, Saira Wasim

In contrast, Waqas’ two installations at the exhibition are perhaps the closest to a post-modernist re-imagination of the miniaturist technique. It pairs two dictionaries in different languages that meet at a common word, in effect drawing an imaginary line that we often feel divided by — our mother tongues, the colour of our skin or culture. Waqas’ work is acutely cerebral in the sense that though it is the eye that first notices, it is really the brain that gets the full picture.

The diverse backgrounds of the artists and their techniques are testament to the fact that traditionalist methods can be lifted forward to a contemporary re-imagining. For that though, perhaps a lot of the old has to go, or at least shaken, so the new can be ushered in. It may take a journey inward, for both the margin and the artist. A sociopolitical interpretation, for example, would always lead to people.

It’s All Going On, Alexander Gorlizki
It’s All Going On, Alexander Gorlizki

America-based Pakistani artist Saira Wasim’s works are drawn around the embattled migrant community in the US amidst an epidemic of gun-related violence. It shows the irony, perhaps, that a country most inimical towards others,is actually under threat by its own people. Miniatures require time, not only to create but to view and absorb. Only a just viewing of something as astonishingly fine as Wasim’s work would be rewarding.

Though Hashiya brings together a number of ideas, both literal and referential, what it does most effectively, at least in a collective sense, is to be playful. Indian artist Manisha Gera Baswani, for example, contemplates the meeting of elements, of colours and the visual ecstasy of that meeting.

Most playful though would be British-born artist Alexander Gorlizki’s busy and paradoxical paintings. Biblical characters appear alongside people from history, there are references even to popular TV shows. A real sense of mischief and mystery abound. The playfulness aside, Gorlizki’s detailing is exemplary — evidence of having spent decades learning the form in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Hashiya, for more reasons than one, is a timely, stately reminder of the long-lost art of the miniature. Though in the hands of someone like Imran Qureshi, the miniature has already had a contemporary and popular remodelling in Pakistan, in India it still struggles to find a new language. Considering how it has hung in the orbit for so long, seldom speaking a language other than history, the Hashiya seems the ideal place to begin its journey towards a contemporary awakening, a rebirth that is long overdue.

If That Is What You Mean, I am Certainly Without Possessions, Yasir Waqas
If That Is What You Mean, I am Certainly Without Possessions, Yasir Waqas

“Hashiya: The Margin” is being displayed at the Bikaner House, New Delhi from March 31 to April 24, 2018

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 22nd, 2018

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