Miniatures from several souths

January 17, 2021

The Old Traditions, New Narratives exhibition will continue at South Asian Art Institute, Chicago, till February 28

Hasnat Mehmood. Cut Along the White Line. 2004

How would the painters whose work is part of the South Asian Art Institute’s exhibition, Old Traditions, New Narratives, interact if they were somehow gathered at one place?

Would they be able to relate to one another, or recognise a common lineage? How would, for instance, the painter of Mughal miniature Sufi Seated with Ladies on a Terrace communicate with Mohammad Zeeshan, the maker of Dying Miniature Series; or Abdur Rahman Chughtai (of Standing Lady) converse with Saira Waseem, who created Identity?

Perhaps all twenty-five artists from this exhibition may act like people working on the Tower of Babel; each speaking in a different tongue, while the memory of a shared language is still fresh in their mouths and minds.

We believe today that painters of Mughal, Pahari, Rajput, Decani, Company School, AR Chughtai, Bashir Ahmed and his numerous students (Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Talha Rathore, Saira Wasim, Mohammad Zeeshan, Hasnat Mehmood, Waseem Ahmed, Khadim Ali, Wardha Shabbir and others) belong to a tradition. We call it the Indian miniature painting. Its presence – to some extent – can also be traced among artists not trained in the discipline of miniature art such as Rashid Rana, Faiza Butt, Ali Kazim, Imran Channa, Imran Mudassar and Farhat Ali.

However, the idea of belonging to a tradition is merely a longing for shelving individual artists into a category, movement or genre. This is an attitude ingrained by European art history based upon splitting art practices into periods, schools and movements. Ijazul Hassan, noticing this approach, once remarked that in the late nineteenth century Paris, there were realists, symbolists, impressionists, and post-impressionists, meeting and greeting one another as painters and not worried too much with labels tagged to their work by art historians and critics.

In that sense, the exhibition organised by the South Asian Art Institute, Chicago, (September 8, 2020 – February 28, 2021) reminds us of a latent diversity in our tradition of art making. It provides an opportunity to view individual choices and formal preferences in works made by artists, who are lugged together as ‘miniature painters’. Probably the difference among a painter of Mughal court and Decani, or a Basohli and Kangra artist would be as pronounced and detectable as between Imran Qureshi and Amjad Ali Talpur, between Nusra Latif Qureshi and Khadim Ali, between Hasnat Mehmood and Waseem Ahmed. Actually, these artists are not following a single tradition. Each of them has carved something new by combining elements, concerns and techniques of indigenous, European, modern and contemporary art.

In the exhibition consisting of 100 works, one of the oldest paintings is: Executioner Presents the Head of John the Baptist to Salome, on a Platter, While Herod Sits on a Dias. It was an appropriation of European imagery. Another work deals with the story of Prophet Joseph and Zuleika (portrayed with her female friends holding apples and knives in hands), all in the attires of Mughal period. For these painters of the past, like any artist, there were no boundaries. Prior to nation-states, there were no passports or visas. Traders, missionaries, professionals or outcasts moved from one region to another, without today’s restrictions. Likewise, the art was not bound and did not bow down to a national flavour/obligation. As painters from Mughal court domesticated Western/Christian paintings, Rembrandt copied miniatures from Shah Jahan’s period.

Cultures were in conversation, and so were artists. Today too, artists are not limited or restrained by format or convention. In any case, a person living in today’s wealth of gadgets and web of information technology, cannot be detached from the rest of the world, especially the West. Artists are freely appropriating, assimilating and invading other traditions. Diverse in their imagery, concerns, method – so much so that it is hard to classify them as a group; but who knows that 500 years later all their works would be seen as closely connected as we view historic miniatures from different courts and periods as one.

Although it seems that the exhibition intends to bridge a link between the past and the present, it seems that the present is also diffused. The display of artworks, both historical and new, by artists from the region and other countries, using conventional vocabulary and contemporary language, executed in different mediums and a range of techniques available now – certifies that tradition does not exist till a new narrative defines it, defies it or destroys it. The history of exploring, excavating and exterminating tradition is visible at various levels in the works of artists from the generation of Shahzia Sikander and Rashid Rana to the most recent ones such as Asif Ahmed and Farhat Ali. One must also recall that old master of modern miniature, Abdur Rahman Chughtai, who was the first to modernise the tradition of Indian miniature painting, and being a Muslim of North India, referred to Persian miniature, as he was associating his art with Indo-Persian cultural expression, by illustrating Urdu poets in his Muraqqa-i-Chughtai (Ghalib) and Amal-i-Chaghtai (Iqbal).

Looking at Chughtai now, one can appreciate how modern he was, before the term ‘modern’ gained common currency, here, in a colonized community. His painting, shown in Chicago, confirms that an artist of genius can foresee his followers. More than Bashir Ahmed, or other celebrated names, it was Chughtai, who transformed, and translated miniature painting into the present-day lingo. In the exhibition, one observes the way artists from diverse backgrounds have added to what is now called ‘Neo-Miniature’. From Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi to later generations, they have created digital prints, mixed media, installations, video projections and performances. Their link to miniature painting, or to a place where this art form flourished in the past, is as exciting as looking at miniatures made by Jethro Buck, the “British miniaturist who graduated from the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London and studied miniature painting in Jaipur, India”, or of Alexander Gorlizki, a “British artist who graduated from Slade School of Fine Arts, London”.

Coming across works by celebrated names of Neo-Miniature, and other contemporary artists from Pakistan, one admits that more than you living in the past, the past lives in you with all its neighbours, friends and foes from different directions and locations.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Miniatures from several souths