The Miniaturists

DATED: 14 OCT 1999

Miniature painting evolved in an historic era when there were few scribes and fewer readers. Initially describing religious doctrines, the boundaries of album painting expanded under the patronage of powerful families and their courts. Beautifully illustrated manuscripts and books were commissioned and court events documented. During the Mogul dynasty in the subcontinent, album paintings reached heights of genius that have never been surpassed. Many of these masterpieces now have pride of place in prestigious foreign museums.

Eclipsed by the trends of the 19th century and the invention of the camera, the art of miniature painting was restricted to a few hereditary painters who reproduced miniatures of the past in an attempt to preserve this art form. In recent years, younger artists in Pakistan engendered a new appreciation, examining the classic tradition in context to their own environment and experience. Encouraged by their teachers, students countered with increasing interest and enthusiasm. The response of art patrons gave support to a time-honoured genre where artists introduced their own innovations. In many instances, what evolved was a new viewpoint, a contemporary ethos in a miniature format.

An exhibition of miniature paintings by Aisha Khalid and Mohammed Imran Qureshi, held recently at the Chawkandi Art, showed a collection of miniature paintings which illustrate a successful consequence of this phenomenon. Both the artists are evolving their own individual idioms, acknowledging the root source of tradition. Aisha Khalid, as well as teaching miniature painting at the National College of Art, is a freelance textile designer specialising in block printing. In her paintings, she introduces a strong design element; the geometric order is often dazzling, creating dimensional illusions that cloak a narrative of restated dreams.

Aishas concerns, stretch far beyond those of her own generation, confronting situations that are changeless. The cathartic power of her narrative encompasses the innocent fantasies of young women, the moonlight and roses that become submerged in the aspirations of the young wife. Courting the approval of her own segment of society, womens hopes are centred on fertility. Tradition decrees that she shall be feted, lap filled with fruit, hennaed hands, a consecrated glass of milk nearby. The alternative scenario is chilling.

Looking at the past / present with a symbolist vocabulary, the artist employs hectically patterned curtains as screens that dominate many of the narratives. They symbolize an unknown future as well as the drapery that will shroud the young womans form. What lies behind these none can tell, but a swirling curtain reveals an ominous, empty spaces. The underlying sadness of Aishas theme permeates the vibrant colouration of design, mocking the brilliant squares and diamonds. In a wonderfully tender change of mood, she puts aside sad thoughts with an intensely personal, horizontal panel. Painted on her own heart beats, electro-cardiogram waves, it is dedicated to her husband, Imran, and titled Just For You.

Using as his medium gouash, photo-transfer, tea wash, and gold leaf on wasli (the traditional layers of paper employed mind in miniature painting), Mohammad Imran Qureshis work resounds with verbal and visual puns. He weaves together allegorical images from different times, his contemporary ethos subsumed by the stylized simplification of Rajasthani miniatures, and the formalism found in many of the Moghul court paintings. In Imrans paintings, one may find the settings are classic, glowing reds or yellows pose as backgrounds hues for slim trees with detailed leaves and graceful fronds. These landscapes are inhabited by youthful, t-shirted and jeans clad representatives of a modern generation.

Imran uses his family and friends as subjects, arranging them in poses that parody emperors in classic album pieces; greeting and meeting noteworthy visitors. Often one finds a surface divided into two parts. Seemingly suggesting some congruence between present mores and those outmoded, the artist conducts a sensitive enquiry, offering his own observations. Incorporating script, confrontations with the other, there are references to Quddus Mirza and to Anwar Saeed, but in an affectionate way. Rather like doffing ones cap to a friend in passing. These artworks are dominated by the personality of the painter. One engaging piece portrays a friend enjoying the rain while wearing an old grey coat that belonged to her grandmother. It is this coat, highly coveted by the artist that is actually the subject of the painting. Rain, which appears in several paintings, is depicted as a vertical bead curtain. Another very striking artwork appears as two pages from an antique album. One page, bordered with a wide, lustrous duck egg blue border, is centred around the portrait of a king. Tea wash stains add to the illusion of age. The facing image is a photo-transfer of a written page, a mirror image that surrounds the same portrait devoid of colour. Adhering to the miniature painting format, making his brushes from squirrels hair, mixing mediums, lmran Qureshi confirms the symbolic significance of the genre.

An agreeable personality devoid of arrogance, Imran completed his BFA with distinction from the National College of Art in 1993. In that year, he won the Award of Excellence from the NCA and the Hajji Mohammad Sharif Award for miniature painting. In 94, he was awarded a bronze medal at the 6th National Exhibition of Visual Arts, held in Islamabad, and started teaching at the NCA.

There have been two solo exhibitions of Imrans work, shown in Lahore and in Islamabad. In Karachi, his work in group shows attracted media and public attention. ln 97, he was commissioned to paint a series of eight miniature paintings, Draped and Shaped, depicting traditional costumes for Cartwright Hall, Leeds. In the Asia Pacific Triennial held in Brisbane, which opened in September, 99, three of his paintings were acquired for the collection of the Asia Pacific Museum. Undoubtedly one of the more interesting of the younger miniaturists, manipulating art history as he does throw up some pertinent questions as to the validity of uncertain, contemporary authenticity.