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Miniature Tradition in a Modern Idiom

Author: Aziz Kurtha      Publications: Dawn - Gallery (p.3)      Dated: 18 Nov 2006

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In the field of contemporary painting and sculpture in Pakistan there are only a few names whose works compare in stature, depth and even  auction prices when compared with the achievements of some established artists across the border in India. We have Sadequain, Jamil Naqsh, Shahid Sajjad and a few others whereas amongst Indian artists there are at least 50 big names with M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta, Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Choudhury, Gaitonde, S.H. Raza, Arpita Singh, and Amrita Sher-Gil and so on. And of course there is the rich tradition of Mughal, Pahari and other miniature painting of the Sub continent before Partition.

And yet some Pakistani contemporary artists, often nurtured at the National College of Art in Lahore, have carved out for themselves an exquisite and fruitful niche in modern miniatures which is gaining in strength, numbers and imaginative dexterity since the last decade or so. There are some Indian practitioners also but the Pakistani artists in this field like Nusra Latif Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Muhammad Imran Qureshi (Husband of Aisha), Hasnat Mahmood, Waseem Ahmed, Rashid Rana and others have really attained the higher ground and are beginning to be sought after not only at home but in the UK, America and Europe.

Some of the best of such miniature artists are presently represented in a small but excellent exhibition of Contemporary Art from Pakistan at Asia House in Londons West End. Under the rubric, Beyond the Page it purports to explore how historical miniature painting from the Mughal courts has been transformed into a contemporary art form. The exhibition brings together eight artists (including Hamra Abbas and Zahoor ul Haq who is perhaps the founder), and Usman Saeed trained in this rigorous tradition and now based around the world from Lahore to London, Berlin to Melbourne. The inclusion of the highly talented Hamra Abbas based in Berlin is a  little unusual because she is primarily an installation artist although there are miniaturist elements within her works.

However there is one glaring omission from the exhibition namely the outstanding Shazia Sikander now based in New York who in 1992 also trained at NCA and later at the Rhode Island School of Design at Providence. This exclusion is difficult to fathom but perhaps it is partly due to the (sometimes incorrectly) reported phenomena that once artists attain the truly upper echelons of international achievement (as Shazia certainly has done), then they do not wish to be grouped by reason of their national origins alone. This has certainly  happened with outstanding artists of Indian origin like Anish Kapoor who is also part Jewish, lives in London and gets commissions for his sculpture from all over the world, apart from being a former winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in the UK.

Shazia Sikander recently won the artistic equivalent of the Pulitzer namely the McArthur Award with a prize of US$ 0.5 million, beating truly international competition and feted at the Whitney Museum – as well as in New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, which is in some ways the ultimate accolade. Reverting to the Asia House exhibition it is clear that there are some outstanding new stars and the brightest may be the Melbourne based Nusra Latif Qureshi and Aisha Khalid who still lives in Lahore but was also trained in Amsterdam.

The founder of this belated and nascent interest in contemporary miniatures was the outstanding, and yet essentially abstract artist, Zahoor ul Akhlaq who as we know died in tragic/violent circumstances in 1999, not of his making. He was a Fulbright Fellow at Yales School of Art and also a graduate of the Royal College of Art in England. It is said that his close examination of miniatures at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London inspired him to engage with this tradition in a modern idiom.

Virginia Whiles, who was at the Hornsey College of Art at the same time as Akhlaq, has contributed a delightful and insightful essay on his development in this area, She says

“Akhlaq saw the potential of harnessing the formal inventions of Mughal and Pahari work into his own painting. This vision was radical…. it awakened students to the traditions original imaginative innovations…. ”

There is a remarkable reproduction of Akhlaqs untitled diptych of 1995 which was based on a miniature by Balchand titled “The Three Younger Sons of Shah Jehan” (Circa 1635). (Plate 1)

The well produced but rather expensive (Pounds 13) small catalogue accompanying the Asia House show gives a good account of the origins and inspirations in this exquisite niche with thoughtful essays by Hammad Nassar who (with his wife Anita) really organized the exhibition in collaboration with the Manchester Art Gallery and the Arts organization known as Shisha, with contributions by Roger Cranah, Anna Storm and Viginia Whiles. This takes a lot of doing over months of organisation and curating.

The quality of the essays is somewhat uneven although of course the images are the main consideration and the exhibits were well chosen even if they are placed in a well lit, relatively small basement exhibition space at Asia House. Hammad Nassars essay makes the interesting observation that “Rembrandt collected and copied Mughal miniatures, and Matisse studied them to develop his own modernist ideas of painting as a flat surface”.

However is it correct to aver that “Back in the sub continent, the early twentieth century saw both Abanindranath Tagore and Abdur Rehman Chughtai inspired by the potential of the miniature as a means of cultural resistance to colonialism” (emphasis mine). The quoted authorities for this observation, namely the works of the aca- demic Partha Mitter (of Sussex University) and our own profoundly dogmatic Akbar Naqvi (of Karachi) do not Ireally support this thesis. However this is a minor gripe as Nassars essay is well written and he is clearly one of the pioneers in popularizing modern miniatures through his involvement with exhibitions in Mumbai (“Beyond Borders” 2005) and Karkhana at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield Conneticut, in August 2005.

“Pakistani contemporary artists have carved out an exquisite and fruitful niche in modern miniatures which is gaining in strength, numbers and imaginative dexterity since the last decade or so.”