Classical miniature art is a venerable discipline admired for its magnificence, chromatic brilliance and exquisite workmanship. Often its surface beauty is so captivating that viewers seldom set aside time to engage with the history of the concerned artists and the characters and environment that they have painted. Seen primarily as artistic gems of a distant era, the focus is often on technique, treatment and the rigours of the miniature-making regimen.
A new show titled Remastered at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, opts for a different approach. Showcasing timeless stories in pictorially rich compositions culled from the museums’ holdings of Persian, South Asian and Ottoman Turkish manuscript illustrations, Remastered invites viewers to pause and reflect on the ideologies and ethics that underpin these miniatures.
Extended examination of the composition and content of 11 classic manuscript paintings and 40 digital interventions reveal that the miniature storylines pulse to the same rhythms that are still central to basic human living. Focusing on this universality, the show highlights easily identifiable human conditions of courage, love and exemplary living, to illustrate just how relevant these paintings are to the challenging current environment of adversity and uncertainty.
To facilitate viewer engagement, technology has been harnessed for physical and online viewing. Digital interactives — developed in collaboration with Ryerson University Library — holographic 3-D visualisations of paintings, novel interpretive animations, smartphone interactives and digital restorations of damaged artworks disclose hidden facts, stories and sounds, to reveal new insights and dimensions about the otherwise static historical masterpieces.
Exhibiting folios from distinguished manuscripts such as the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp (1524–76), Tuhfet ul-Leta’if (1593-1594), the Khamsah of Nizami, the Anvar-i Suhayli, Akhlaq-i-Nasiri, etc, the show projects epic tales of courage and heroism, earthly and mystical love and ethical treatises on good governance.
The Aga Khan Museum’s latest exhibition, Remastered, gives new life to classical miniatures by reconnecting audiences online to heroic stories of adventure, love and wisdom
By clicking the tabs on three central themes, ‘The Courageous Spirit’, ‘The Heart On Fire’ and ‘The Model Life’ in the online site, spectators can access paintings and descriptive text filled with lessons that are emotionally and intellectually relevant to people today.
In the miniature, ‘The Art of Chivalry’ (1590–1595), a young Mughal prince performs a feat of chivalry while astride a horse. The painting appears in an illustrated manuscript of the Akhlaq-i-Nasiri (Ethics of Nasir), by the 13th century philosopher, scientist, mathematician and religious scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi.
Here chivalry is described as a noble |art that provides an income and requires strength, courage, superior equestrian abilities, military might and the ability to protect and defend territory.
Re-reading this description in the current context, Dr Michael Chagnon, Curator of the Aga Khan Museum says: “Though the illustration highlights characteristics that were important in the era when Nasir al-Din Tusi was writing, many of its messages are still applicable today.
Leadership qualities come under review in another illustration, ‘Sultan Sanjar And The Old Woman’ from the Makhzan al-Asrar (Treasury of Secrets) manuscript of the Khamseh of Nizami Iran, Shiraz (1527). It depicts a well-known story of Sultan Sanjar, the Seljuq ruler of Iran and Central Asia, who sets out to hunt with his entourage, and is halted by an old woman.
She complains of being ill-treated by the sultan’s soldiers. Sanjar scoffs that her complaint is absurd in comparison to the conquests he must undertake. She responds: “What good is it to conquer territory if you cannot control your own soldiers?” fearlessly putting the ruler in his place.
Love and separation, integral to Islamic poetry and prose, was also immortalised in miniature art through paintings. An example of old stories gaining new relevance comes across poignantly in the legendary tale of doomed lovers depicted in ‘Layla and Majnun Are Reunited In A Palm Grove’, from the Khamseh of Nizami in this show.
Serenading each other from a distance, the lovers’ separation echoes the distress and unease families and couples the world over are experiencing through mandatory pandemic regulations of quarantine and social distancing.
Visually delightful and surrounded by exhaustive, easily understood textual details, the digitally activated miniatures in Remastered are a treat for miniature aficionados, the general public and tech-savvy young generation enthusiasts as well.
Normal gallery watching of miniatures is either up-close or through a magnifying glass. Online showings enable amplifications not possible in physical viewing. An amazing level of picture detail can be accessed with ease, alongside historical and cultural storylines.
Remastered will reveal itself best when accessed at leisure, with time to ponder and marvel about the beauty and wisdom inherent in the treatises and how they still connect with our thoughts. g
“Remastered” is being exhibited at The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto from October 20, 2020 to August 15, 2021
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 21st, 2021