Glass Cage (1979), Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan
Glass Cage (1979), Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan

In an age of growing ecolo­gical concerns and rapid urbanisation, the decadent depictions of Mughal gardens in miniature painting may seem out of sync with our time. But the complexity of its function, design and symbolism in history has not been lost to contemporary artists, who continue to expand upon their understanding and reading of it.

In a miniature painting titled ‘Babur Supervising the Laying out of the Garden of Fidelity’, we see an illustration of the ‘Chahar Bagh’, or a square plan of a garden subdivided into four quarters by canals. The ‘Chahar Bagh’ was a Persianate layout of gardens adopted by the Mughals. Not only does this painting depict their ingenuity in cultivating the land but also Babar’s desire to transplant his culture and aesthetics there. The garden wall in the painting protects the splendour and abundance of his neat garden from the outside world. It is a space that reflects Babar’s personality and penchant for order and symmetry, where his neatly trimmed bushes and flowers become part of his conquered territory and mark his domain. Yet the transformation of this space was more than just territorial demarcation for the Mughals. It was also an earthly representation of paradise.

After Babar, gardens are illustrated in paintings as sites where one often finds visual contrasts: painterly depictions of elite pastimes and decadence are offset by orderly walkways, pavilions or raised platforms. In some paintings, geometry and architecture are meant to complement the natural surroundings.

The painted garden space was gradually reinvented by modern artists and eventually, in the case of Pakistani modern art, it became emblematic of larger pressing concerns relating to society. The garden — both in poetry and painting — emerged as a motif to express discontent and, indirectly, critique inequality and class difference.

For instance, Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan painted his famous ‘View Through Window’ series after he was incarcerated in the Lahore Fort for his political imagery and views during the 1970s. His oil paintings of his garden at home came to be divided into two or three panels in either horizontals or verticals because he was attempting to, perhaps, replicate the view from his jail cell.

Paintings of gardens in contemporary art have emerged as more than earthly representations of paradise

Musarrat Hassan in her book on Hassan, titled Ijaz-ul-Hassan: Five Decades of Paintings, writes that this vantage point — where the artist was painting the garden from the comfortable interior of his home — could be interpreted as a memento to “the very word of comfort” which “often creates estrangement with the real world and is a barrier to engagement.”

While the Mughals and other princely states after them deliberately sought this “comfort” — it seems the Mughal gardens were, after all, a barrier between the elite and commoners — modern artists sought to reclaim the garden space for their own expression as the world had irrevocably and drastically changed. Hassan’s titles such as ‘Glass Cage’ and cropped images of ‘View Through the Door’ — featuring brilliantly coloured bougainvillea with vertical black bands running through the composition or a flaming yellow laburnum — indicated that he was attempting to use the motif of the garden to address burning issues relating to class difference, exclusion and society.

Babur Supervising the Laying out of the Garden of Fidelity
Babur Supervising the Laying out of the Garden of Fidelity

Perhaps it is no surprise that young artists these days have obliterated altogether the concept of a garden space as we once knew it. Imran Qureshi transformed a colonial space when the Sharjah Foundation commissioned him to create an installation at Beit Al Serkal. Titled ‘Blessings Upon the Land of My Love’, the floor of the courtyard of the former home of the British Commissioner became the site of blood-splattered leaves, painstakingly painted in the Pahari School tradition.

Wardha Shabbir has constantly questioned the garden as a sensory space by recreating a grotesque installation in a gallery complete with fake grass, meat and stuffed crows. In ‘Way to Paradise’, an installation, featured in The Lahore Biennale Foundation, the garden became a selfie spot for pictures with fake foliage rather than an elite space as envisioned by the Mughals.

Atif Khan’s digital prints, where garden spaces and architecture are drawn from Pahari and Mughal School tradition, appear as optical illusions that seem to be on the verge of disintegration — especially where they feature thunder, birds in flight, or cloudy skies, they are more than just pretty pictures. Meanwhile David Alesworth’s ‘Glory of the Garden’ series raises important ecological concerns amongst many others. Clearly, the discontent and uncertainty of our times has infiltrated the painted paradise of the garden as it once was, and this is reflected in the works of these artists today.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 25th, 2019