DISCOURSE: THE PATH FINDERS

Apr 12 2020

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Brahamacharis (1937), Amrita Sher-Gil
Brahamacharis (1937), Amrita Sher-Gil

Art in Pakistan has witnessed massive growth. It earned national and international acclaim through the works of artists such as the legendary Sadequain and Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq; contemporary giants Naiza Khan, Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi and Amin Gulgee; and transnational artists such as Shahzia Sikander and Talha Rathore. Prior to Independence, in the first half of the 20th century, there were formative groups and important artists in the Subcontinent. Breaking conventions with their innovative ideas and art, these mighty predecessors had been instrumental in moulding the art practices of many artists in a 73-year brief history of Pakistani art.

Studies of items kept at British museums (such as the Wallace Collection) reveal that the East India Company commissioned talented Indian artists from Delhi, Lucknow and other cities to paint Indian flora and fauna and British elites in the 18th and 19th centuries. Characteristics from local Indian painting, such as fine detailing, was done with British-imported art materials by artists such as Bhawani Das and Shaikh Zain-ud-Din. This inventive blend, termed as ‘Company Painting’, created a precedent for art in the Subcontinent that underwent many transformations.

The 1857 mutiny resulted in further discouragement of art forms rooted in South Asian and Persian traditions, such as miniature painting, by the British Raj. ‘Academic art’ learnt from European art academies and British salons was encouraged instead. For instance, Indian artist Ravi Varma (1848-1906) promoted British academic methods, for example the use of coloured lithographic prints. 

As this innovation overshadowed local methods, young Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) founded the ‘Bengal School of Art’ in the early 1900s which challenged these new modes. A nephew of the Nobel Laureate and poet Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath attended the Calcutta School of Art, where he was trained in British academic art, though he later rejected the idea, including Ravi Varma’s experimental approach. Abanindranath’s paintings titled ‘The Passing of Shah Jahan’ (1903) and ‘Bharat Mata’ (1905) emphasised Indian history by borrowing skewed perspectives and depiction of Mughals and Hindu myths from imaginative Mughal miniatures of the previous centuries.

More artists from Bombay and Madras, such as Nandalal Bose and Ananda K Coomaraswamy, became disillusioned with the increased focus on Western art and joined the school to popularise historical and mythical themes again. However, in the late 1920s the Bengal School model could not sustain because of a lack of novelty.

Before Pakistan gained independence, there were art groups and artists who blazed a trail for the country’s post-Partition painters and sculptors

Then comes the Lahore-based artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897-1975) who kept traditional art alive by blending historical themes with modern methods. Chughtai studied at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore (now the National College of Arts). His works gained popularity after exhibitions by the ‘Punjab Fine Arts Society’ in 1920. Chughtai was impressed with the Bengal School but worked separately and promoted the idea of a Lahore School. His artworks are noted for conciseness in traditional miniatures of mythical figures and Mughal themes. The artist’s ‘Muraqqa-i-Chughtai’ (1928) is a noteworthy work that illustrates Urdu poetry of the legendary poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869). As one of the first modern Muslim artists in South Asia, Chughtai continued to work well after Partition.

Similarly, another pre-independence artist, Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) is today considered to be a very important artist from the Subcontinent. Upon her return to India, her short-lived yet pioneering career in the 1930s appreciated the history of India, but most of her work engaged with European modernism. Consider the peculiar painting ‘Brahamacharis’ (1937) where five subjects whose physical features and simple attires identify them as Indian Hindus, sit on the floor next to each other. The neat placement of the subjects fills up a great portion of the picture frame. According to art historian Sonal Khullar, “Sher-Gil’s work was an interesting response to the Bengal School, as it connected with the Subcontinent and as well as to her education in the West.”

Conventions in art do not remain the same and thus, immediately after Partition, a major reaction to historical art was asserted with the formation of the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) in Bombay. The PAG’s modern artists, such as Maqbool Fida Husain, opposed revivalism from the past and focused on art that synthesised with Western modernism. However, the group was diminished by the mid-1950s.

In Pakistan, modern artists such as Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali and Sadequain began to paint with modern methods and themes. Thus, five decades of art by influential schools and individuals in a pre-Independence Subcontinent successfully paved the way for experimentation in the newly independent nation-state.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 12th, 2020