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Power of the Kingmaker

Author: Quddus Mirza      Publications: The News – Encore(p- 34)      Dated: 17 Aug 2008

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While the Western societies were busy inventing electricity, automobiles, telephone, computer, internet and other technologies, our society was involved in activities of different kind. Besides its focus on culinary delights, the pinnacle of which indeed is the paratha, we have been arguing about racial, religious, ethnic and cultural issues, and not too bothered about progress of knowledge or discovery of the world.

Things have changed: the lack of inventions in our society has been compensated to some extent. One sees a lot of them made by miniature painters in their works. Each new exhibition of a young miniature artist brings forth a fresh wave of imagery and technique – all employed in order to carve an individual identity and a distinct (trade) mark. Lately, the viewers have witness certain visuals being associated with a particular painter. For instance, mouse is linked with Mohammed Zeeshan and postage stamps with Hasnat Mehmood. Pair of scissors is often found in Imran Qureshis work, mannequin repeatedly figures in Ayesha Durranis miniatures, cockroach is much favoured by Tazeen Qayyum whil Talha Rathore prefers a certain tree in her works on paper.

Although these artists use other images too, usually it is one form that dominates and serves as a style. This has become A routine practice to the extent that one anticipates a new imagery before turning up in an exhibition of miniature painting.

Asif Ahmed has also tried using his own set of pictorial inventions. In his solo exhibition (Narration and Transformation held from August 7-15 at Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi), instead of being content with one special image, he has created a number of visuals – from dice and mouse two to razor blade. The former two appear in different sizes and settings in several miniatures, rendered either as a solid object or merely a pattern.

The impressive aspect is not the number of items used for pictorial purpose; it is Ahmeds ability to draw them in a skilful manner. The same level of craftsmanship is evident in dealing with each component of his miniatures; the human bodies, animals and items like the throne etc. are rendered in a delicate and sensitive fashion. Sharp outlines and careful application of tones define figures and background in a convincing way.

But his personal visuals, i.e., mousetrap, dice and blade are used in a way that these could lead to some deeper and important ideas, especially when these are juxtaposed with the portraits and figures of kings and rajas. In the catalogue, the artist has explained the reason behind his choice of imagery: “The use of mousetraps and dices over the Kings, representing the tragedy of these icons more ironically and playfully…” However his attempt to construct a meaningful iconography by combining the image of king and traps and dice, seems more repetitive than ironic. Only because this blend has become a formula adopted by many miniaturists to make their works appear meaningful and politically-oriented.

Besides this well-trodden method, there are some fresh aspects in Asifs work; one being his preference for white surface. Lately a number of our miniature painters including Muhammed Zeeshan, Mehreen Zuberi, Hasnat Mehmood and others have been using white areas in their compositions instead of the traditional practice of putting various colours inside the border.

The most prominent part of Ahmeds paintings is the depiction of king and elephant (the animal used by the Indian royalty). In several paintings the huge beast is emerging out of dice or is drawn along with its ghost image (draw in outline only). Similarly the king is illustrated diversely – as a detailed figure, a silhouette, a blurry Character, a combination of erased lines and in multiple shapes superimposed on each other. All this emphasis on the king as well as rajas could have a political context (particularly with his head rolled on the ground next to the pool of blood), but in its essence the portrait of king and its treatment signify something different. Probably for him, and to many other painters of miniature, the subject of king represents his own self as well as a link with the traditional genre.

The urge to identify with the king is visible in a number of paintings by Asif Ahmed, but it is more obvious in one work, in which his face appears in a box next to three portraits of kings and rajas. Interestingly Asif, unlike other miniaturists, does not rely on Mughal sources for his subject matter. Instead, he has explored other schools; so references to Rajasthani and Pehari paintings are evident in his portraits of the king and raja (to the extent that in a number of works the Rajasthani-inspired portrait resembles the features of another painter Muhammed Zeeshan!).

Like others, Ahmeds attempt to disfigure, alter and deconstruct the portrait of the king (central theme in the historic art of miniature) could be viewed as a desire to modify change and transform the conventional genre. An adventure that majority of miniature painters are after, but only a few are equipped to deliver it in a creative manner. Because most practitioners of miniature are only conducting minor variations on the surface, without a real understanding of the experiment. While there are others who are capable of evolving the tradition, in its vital form, and in due course move beyond the conventional miniature to something drastically original. This loss has gained them fame, fortune and artistic freedom and all of this awaits Asif Ahmed too.