An exhibition at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes (a half-hour train ride from London) illustrates the contemporary relevance of the miniature tradition and offers an opportunity to view some rarely seen works from private collections in Britain.
‘Beyond the Page: South Asian Miniature Painting and Britain, 1600 to Now’ is not just an exhibition of miniature paintings — it is an impressively curated show that examines the way the tradition of miniature painting has been reclaimed and reinvented by contemporary artists, and also raises questions about the plundering of cultural artefacts, ownership and access.
It is estimated that there are at least 100,000 South Asian miniature paintings in private collections in Britain. These include the Padshahnama (Badshahnama), a work commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan and sent to the English monarch King George III from Awadh in 1799, which is now part of the Royal Collection. The exhibition includes many rarely seen works from the Royal Collection, the Tate, the Ashmolean and National Museums Scotland.
The exhibition is a treat because it is so very user-friendly. Works from centuries ago are shown in groupings alongside modern works, showcasing a continuity of themes and stylistic elements. In the first room, the courtyard setting and the flattened vertical landscapes from the displayed illustrations of the Emperor Jahangir’s darbar are echoed in powerful works by Imran Qureshi and Noor Ali Chagani.
A remarkable show in England looks at how the South Asian miniature tradition has been reclaimed and reinvented
The empty, blood-splattered courtyard of Qureshi’s work is similar in basic structure and drafting style to the early royal miniatures but it evokes scenes from the region’s recent history of violence — the blood-stained surfaces seem to recall images from the aftermath of terrorist attacks on mosques full of worshippers.
Chagani’s work is very interesting, since he creates miniature terracotta bricks and his creations revolve around these tiny units. The painstaking concentration and micro detail this involves is again directly linked to processes of the miniature tradition and reflects what the show’s co-curator, Hammad Nasar, calls the ‘attitude’ (rather than aesthetic) of this tradition.
This first room sets up the exhibition well with the juxtaposition of past and present, and the signalling of Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Gulammohammed Sheikh as key figures in the process of reclaiming and regenerating this ‘attitude’ in the Subcontinent — not just through their own work, but through the art schools they were associated with, in Lahore and Baroda respectively.
Each room of the exhibition is a delight visually, as well as in terms of information. The work is arranged thematically and the display is never monotonous. Questions of ownership, identity and cultural capital are raised in interesting ways.
Nusra Latif Qureshi’s Did You Come Here to Find History? is a digital scroll reflecting on history and identity, and Hamra Abbas’s All Rights Reserved is a four-panel installation that questions ownership, copyright and colonial acquisition. The first panel shows a well-known detail from the Padshahnama illustration of a scene from Prince Dara Shikoh’s wedding — of gifts being taken to the bride’s family, except that here the gifts and gold are missing.
The second panel simply shows the old cover title for the Padshahnama (in the Royal Collection) which asserts ownership and says that ‘all rights are reserved’ and that no part of it may be stored or reproduced without the ‘prior permission of the copyright holder.’
The third panel modifies this by removing the copyright assertion and simply leaving the Padshahnama title, ‘King of the World’, in red letters on the page. The last panel shows the gifts and valuables that were cut from the first image: they have been removed from the people they belonged to and have been relocated.
An interesting selection of contemporary and 20th century artists are part of this show — apart from the Pakistani and National College of Arts (NCA) group and Indian, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan painters, we also have work by British artists such as Howard Hodgkin (who collected South Asian miniatures and paintings), Olivia Fraser (now based in India) and The Singh Twins (in Birmingham).
The curators have stressed that Britain is now an undeniable part of the history of the South Asian miniature — not only does it hold so many of these works in various collections, it now plays an important role in the preservation and display of these works and also, to some extent, in the revival of this aesthetic.
In my opinion, this is a must-see exhibition. The way it makes connections across countries and centuries is wonderful. And there are works in this show that are so fragile and precious that they might not be on display for at least another decade, so obviously this is an opportunity to view them before they again go into seclusion. Yes, you might come across a digital version, but it’s not the same experience. For example, I had seen reproductions of Samuel Fyzee Rahamin’s A Rajput Sirdar several times before this, but being in the presence of the original was an unexpected experience.
On display are old drawings and sketches that will enrich your understanding of the artistic encounter between the South Asian miniature and Western art. Several Mughal court paintings feature putti along the top, cherubs nestled in clouds as per the Italian tradition, except that here they are dark-haired and have the Iranian/Central Asian features typical of the Buraq’s face in so many old manuscript illustrations.
Similarly, you can see how individual portraits began to be part of darbar scenes. The beautiful 18th century work ‘41 portraits’ consists of drawings of the heads of important court personalities, which were used as a sort of image library to be used for work depicting the darbar.
The last room in the exhibition features paintings of flora and fauna by Indian artists that were commissioned by British botanists or officials. These reveal another fascinating story of artistic patronage and documentation, and some of the botanical drawings are very fine.
This is the sort of exhibition that one would like to go back and see again and again. It’s a voyage of discovery — you come face to face with some remarkable work, whether it’s by the Rembrandt contemporary Willem Schellinks or the Anglo-Bangladeshi painter Matthew Krishnan, or the Pakistani artist Muhammad Zeeshan.
And if you are unable to get to the exhibition, it’s definitely worth getting the excellent catalogue.
‘Beyond the Page: South Asian Miniature Painting and Britain, 1600 to Now’ is on display at the MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, UK, until January 28, 2024
The reviewer is a UK-based journalist and columnist
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 19th, 2023