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Young girls and A R Chughtai

February 09, 2008

It appears that like every artist Chughtai was also interested in young girls. Though his point of view was different, and he considered them as the manifestation of innocence, purity and beauty. Young girls, painted by him, were sweet, idealised and imaginary, yet at the same instant these reflected the aesthetics of his time and the taste of the painter.

In reality, A. R. Chughtai did not approach young maidens as a specific theme or a subject outside of his normal pictorial practice, but works with this image, selected by Arif Chughtai, were recently displayed at the Chughtai Museum in Lahore. This institution, with the efforts of Arif Chughtai, continues to exhibit works of Chughtai arranged around different ideas and interesting topics. Previously a similar show about young boys was held, and the latest exhibition was also an attempt to showcase another such series.

Actually, it is not often that an artist choses to work in a series, since each creation is connected with the overall concerns of the artist besides existing as a separate entity/experiment. However, there are a number of examples in the art world, when artists consciously worked in series; and the most notable among those was the French Impressionist Claude Monet. He painted several canvases with identical visuals, for instance the views of Rouen Cathedral, hey stacks and water lilies. All of these canvases reveal an artist's urge to explore multiple aspects/possibilities of a single subject. Usually these relate to formal or conceptual elements, and help in comprehending the creative process of an artist.

Likewise, the exhibition at Chughtai Museum, served to unfold various features of Chughtai's art. The artist, who nowadays is acclaimed and recognised as the 'National painter' or the 'Artist of the East' can not be confined into such categories. (A fortunate situation for him and for the art in general, because if one starts classifying and labelling a creative person it is like limiting his aura and reducing his vision.)

Hence in the exhibition 'Young Girls' Chughtai appeared to be beyond such demarcations. Merely, because these portraits unfolded a wide range of his influences and interests. Beginning from the Bengal School, along with the Indian features, to the compositions inspired from the European art, A. R. Chughtai demonstrated how an artist can utilise a variety of styles and movements, and formulate his individual visual vocabulary. Dark complexions of female figures, almond shaped eyes, prominent outlines and dark hues reminded of Ajanta fresco paintings, yet he was able to translate the art of the past into a contemporary idiom.

This capacity, of transforming the heritage into a living language, was complemented with another capability in the art of Chughtai; that of appropriating the outside influences and turning these into personal expressions. In his work, one could identify the traces of Western aesthetics, but these elements did not emerge as alien substance. On the other hand, these were assimilated in such a way that it became hard — even impossible to discern foreign influences and the historic imagery. With his comprehensive knowledge of tradition and visible interest in modernity, Chughtai was able to fabricate an art that is unique in its essence, and today seems more relevant and meaningful —especially after the present day revival of miniature painting in Pakistan. However, the artist did not seek to recreate miniature, as he was more inclined to shape an aesthetics, which defied any labels and definition. The wash technique (derived from the Japanese paintings) and the arabesques and floral patterns from the Persian painting were combined to develop a highly individual imagery.

All these formal aspects were on view in the recent exhibition, and more than anything, the show served to study the evolution of an artist. That how in his early painting, the presence of Bengal School was pronounced, which led to 'Oriental' imagery in later paintings. Works from the early periods are simple in composition and sparse in terms of chromatic schemes, but later group of paintings contained decorative elements such as jewellery, patterns on the dresses and rather busy backgrounds. Yet in both types of work, the unmistakable mastery of Chughtai with the line that denoted volume, besides having a lyrical character, was visible.

Probably the most important feature of the show at Chughtai Museum was to recall the initiation of portrait in our art. Historically, portrait as a genre was not much practiced in the Subcontinent. Apart from a few examples of royal portraits (executed on ivory and paper) portrait was not a popular art form. However one finds numerous samples of likeness in miniatures — especially from the periods of Jehangir and Shahjehan, but to make a single face of a known person as a single work of art was not much explored prior to British period.

It was only after the invention of camera and the arrival of English artists in the art of India, portrait assumed an independent significance/status. Perhaps it has to do with the idea of individuality — discovered after the age of enlightenment and modernity — which led to the increase of this genre, first in Europe and then in South Asia.

In that respect, the images of young girls, made by Chughtai, were not just feminine faces, but these appeared portraits of specific personalities, all rendered in his individual style. The exhibition marked, reminded and reaffirmed the importance of A R. Chughtai, not in terms of our history, but in the context of present art in Pakistan — to which Chughati seems to be an integral and logical part than many others, who are although alive, but busy producing works which can be described as dead art.