A life in miniature

November 11, 2018

A retrospective of Bashir Ahmad’s work at the National Art Gallery, Islamabad is an occasion to revisit the history of modern miniature painting in Pakistan

A life in miniature

Watching the works by Bashir Ahmad at his retrospective show, a shadow of a painting by Zahoor ul Akhlaq hovered around as I moved from one room to the other at the National Art Gallery (NAG), Islamabad. Akhlaq was not only a teacher but a great source of inspiration and a major influence for Ahmad, like many others.

That fabulous canvas is not far from the location of the gallery -- in the collection of Naeem Pasha, also the architect of NAG. A large surface with recurrent motifs of Akhlaq’s aesthetics confirms the genius of the artist and affirms his position as the old master of new art in Pakistan. Similar elements are found in the works of Bashir Ahmad created between 1971to 2016, ranging from pencil and graphite on paper and board to Siah Qalam to Gouache on wasli to mixed media paintings and oil and acrylic on canvases.

The contribution of Bashir Ahmad can be gauged by the stature and success of his students like Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Nusra Latif, Talha Rathore, Waseem Ahmed, Hasnat Mehmood, Saira Wasim, Muhammad Zeeshan, Khadim Ali and many others -- all miniature students at NCA once. The subject itself was introduced in 1982 when Zahoor ul Akhlaq was the Head of Fine Art Department.

We cannot ignore the role of Akhlaq or efforts of Ahmad in the revival of modern miniature painting. Anticipating postmodernism, Akhlaq referred to history as a language to converse with contemporary times. His work borrows elements from historical miniatures but these are essentially paintings. While his follower, Bashir Ahmad, a student of Haji Sharif at NCA, opted for another course -- to preserve tradition and add a few elements. He preferred conventional technique, material and imagery. Thus, his students were expected to make replicas of old miniatures as part of the curriculum.

Apart from the academic project of reproducing samples of old miniatures, the real question for a miniature painter today is how much to incorporate and what to discard. One must remember that all these students of Bashir Ahmad are in the age of the ‘present’ that deals with eliminations: of literal space, narrative, representation, etc. Their vocabulary amounts to not a destruction of miniature painting but redefining it, to meet the pressure of modern times like global art fairs, international exhibitions, western museums’ attention and foreign collectors’ interest.

Apart from the academic project of reproducing samples of old miniatures, the real question for a miniature painter is how much to incorporate and what to discard.

The retrospective of Bashir Ahmad as a painter also illustrates him as a tutor. Titled, ‘Teacher Student’, the exhibition (August 14-November 14, 2018) which is spread to four spaces of the Gallery provides a backdrop to the mindset of this important personality. Belonging to various phases of Ahmad’s art, the exhibition is an occasion to revisit the history of modern miniature painting in Pakistan.

The most striking inclusions are pencil drawings and Siah Qalams, like Noor Jehan’s face (1971), a village girl (1971), and Radha and Krishna (1972). These drawings on yellowing papers are the best entries. Solely because these (including the portrait of Dr Ghazal Khakwani, 1986) show the artist’s inquiry into his chosen form of expression, his command in the mode of representation and his facility with the medium. Due to their strict adherence to naturalism, these are the most impressive pieces. Their realism reminds one of Mughal painters who captured reality. In rendering people of their surroundings or from a historical source, they based their observation of actual personage/models. While invoking the glorious past of Mughal masters, one must remember they also incorporated strategies of representation from the European works they were exposed to.

Ahmad appears to be embodying all strands in his art -- drawings, paintings, miniatures and sculptures. One is perplexed by his extra-stylisation. The features, postures and compositions indicate how the artist stopped looking outside and has relied on his imagination.

This is in complete contrast to the painters of Mughal courts because no matter how else we perceive them, those were inscribers -- not with words like Abu Fayze and Abul Fazal but through images -- who recorded the feats of emperors and other noblemen. In that tradition, if someone ends up in stylisation rather than fantasising their subject, they are shifting from reality or reality of history.

Arthur C. Danto observes: "History is best remembered when condensed into myth". Bashir Ahmad’s work denotes this approach. He translates the examples of superb miniatures in varying formats. Starting from precise and strict reproduction of Mughal queen, religious figures and ordinary people, he ventures on ‘personalising’ them, substituting the conventional medium of brush with pencil (a western invention). But the distortions in figures, and the overarching format of stage-like setting within a frame, punctured by clouds that trespass the border, suggest the artist’s efforts in extrapolation of reality.

Reality is a deceptive construct. Each culture has a separate system of recording and representing it. In the art of Bashir Ahmad, one witnesses a general assumption of ‘reality’. Unlike the precision of painters at the courts of Jahangir and Shah Jahan, he has focused on a modification that appears to be a deviation at some places. Besides Ahmad’s remarkable skill, works executed in graphite and acrylic, instead of gouache, convey the artist’s perception of the past.

This shift in paint, a minor detail for some, may be a decisive factor in the art of Bashir Ahmad; since the history of paint is also a history of ideas. The introduction of new mediums brings a change in pictorial practices. His retrospective reveals how the artist adjusts to mediums vis-a-visa ideas. In a sense, the show confirms an individual’s quest or position on the question of tradition and modernity, past and present; because a considerable part consists of works of Bashir Ahmad’s students, both from NCA and from his recent workshop in the city of Xi’an, China.

It was refreshing to view those drawings in pen and pencil on paper by his Chinese students. They were trying hard to imitate the miniatures of Mughal period but out of habit were transposing Indian faces into Central Asian features. The act of Chinese students making miniature painting is taking the cycle back to the history of art, because the earlier inheritors of Delhi’s throne bore these Central Asian features, despite the fact that they were ‘Indian’ Emperors.

A life in miniature