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Miniature Painting in Pakistan: Divergences Between Traditional and Contemporary Practice

Imran Qureshi, Moderate Enlightenment (detail), 2007

Imran Qureshi, Moderate Enlightenment (detail), 2007. Gouache on paper, 9 x 7 inches. Photo: Courtesy Aicon Gallery, New York

In the golden age of the Mughal Empire, from 1556 to 1658, painting was an art of the book.

“Krishna Holds Up Mount Govardhan to Shelter the Villagers of Braj.” Folio from a Harivamsa (The Legend of Hari (Krishna)), ca. 1590–95

“Krishna Holds Up Mount Govardhan to Shelter the Villagers of Braj.” Folio from a Harivamsa (The Legend of Hari (Krishna)), ca. 1590–95. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, 11 3/8 x 7 7/8 inches. (28.9 x 20 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Edward C. Moore Jr. Gift, 1928 (28.63.1). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source:

Murad Khan Mumtaz’s studio in Charlottesville, Virginia, January 2013

Murad Khan Mumtaz’s studio in Charlottesville, Virginia, January 2013. Photo: Murad Khan Mumtaz

Despite its strong association with the modern nation of Pakistan, the genre of contemporary miniature painting belongs to a larger history of Indian art. In terms of technique, it is closely linked to the age-old tradition of Indian miniature painting, and specifically to Mughal painting, known locally as musawwari. Both musawwari (which after the colonial period was known as “miniature painting”) and its modern derivative share a penchant for naturalism that is rooted in European influences. During the Mughal era, royal patrons encouraged their painters to assimilate aesthetic principles from the illusionistic vocabulary of Renaissance art. The new emphasis on linear perspective, naturalistic modeling, and individual portraiture was a direct result of the encounter between east and west. However, Mughal artists maintained a strong sense of continuity with the Indian tradition in terms of both form and content.

In the golden age of the Mughal Empire, from 1556 to 1658, painting was an art of the book. Favorite projects included the fanciful illustration of popular romances, royal histories, Hindu and Muslim mythologies, morality tales, and mystical poetry. Also popular were folios recording court life, royal portraits, exotic flora and fauna, and hunting and garden scenes. Under the later Mughals, painting followed similar models but became more static, losing some of the innovative spontaneity that characterized the classical Mughal sensibility.

The British, who succeeded the Mughals as rulers of India, introduced an alien set of values that privileged the western conception of “fine art” over “applied art.” As a result of the new hierarchy, traditional painting and most other indigenous art forms were relegated to the level of craft. The history of contemporary miniature painting is thus rooted in the history of colonialism in India. In 1872, the British founded the Mayo School of Industrial Arts in Lahore in order to stimulate the production of local crafts for the purpose of international trade. Under British patronage, miniature painting was viewed as yet another exotic product; local artists were encouraged to copy portraits of the Great Mughals alongside dancing girls with hookahs and other stereotypical scenes of the decadent east.

After the partition of India and Pakistan, the Mayo School was reorganized as the National College of Arts (NCA). As it remodeled itself according to a modern, European paradigm, the traditional art forms previously taught at the school disappeared, with miniature painting barely subsisting. In 1982, Bashir Ahmad, a student of one of the last traditional master miniaturists in the country, succeeded in introducing it as a major subject in the fine art department. Over the last two decades, the program has become the most successful in the school, and the work of graduating students remains in demand from international dealers and collectors.

However, in order to survive within a contemporary art institution, miniature painting had to be modified and “modernized.” Consequently, the traditional master-disciple relationship has been sacrificed. Instead, the intensive apprenticeship that formerly unfolded over decades has been condensed into two to four academic years. On one hand, the academic format in Pakistan has allowed miniature painting to survive and evolve; on the other hand, students of the practice can hope to build only a superficial understanding of the tradition.

Even though the essential techniques of Mughal musawwari have been disseminated, material knowledge has undergone a process of abbreviation. For example, students are no longer taught the traditional way of preparing wasli paper; instead, cheap, mass-produced paper is used. Knowledge of pigment preparation has followed a similar course of departure from tradition. As well as zinc white—safaida—which continues to be used as the vehicle of opacity for all pigments, students rely on imported commercial watercolors. Current students’ lack of exposure to traditional material preparation has led to a marked indifference toward craft. Perhaps this is one reasons why it has been inevitable for NCA miniaturists to break from traditional models.

Partons’ recent focus on contemporary practice has also served to widen the gap between traditional practice and its current manifestations. In a global art economy, miniaturists are now encouraged to invoke “ethnic” aesthetics; however, paradoxically, they continue to be influenced by and judged according to an established European canon.

Murad Khan Mumtaz is an artist and researcher from Lahore, Pakistan.

Download the article in Urdu (PDF).

Is it important for contemporary artists to learn traditional techniques?

  • Susanne Haun

    Yes it is. And when they learn it, they has to forget it to create their one style.

  • MichaelJWilson

    If one thinks of traditional techniques as forms of skill, it might be worth thinking about this question in terms of the idea of “de-skilling.” Asked to respond to the currency of this notion in art criticism in a 2005 issue of frieze magazine, critic Jerry Saltz writes: “To me, ‘de-skilled’ means unlearning other people’s ideas of what skill is and inventing your own. All great artists (schooled or not) are essentially self-taught and are ‘de-skilling’ like crazy. I don’t look for skill in art; I look for originality, surprise, obsession, energy and something visionary. Skill only means technical proficiency. Real skill has to do with being flexible and creative.”

  • Gabe Nechamkin

    Very nice article it very interesting to read and I came across contemporary artist should learn traditional techniques. It helps new artist to learn new things in painting. It is fun to learn traditional techniques for painting.


  • Zardad Hussain

    It certainly was a very informative article for me. Being a Student of NCA I appreciate Mr Murad for shedding some light on the present day situation we face @ our institute. I think the knowledge of the traditional technique can enhance into one’s knowledge of medium regarding the application to paint. But in the 21st century where industrialization captures. now most of our life circle It does not stand compulsry or important to learn the traditional techniques to its full extent. In short it is upon the artist’s decision whether he/she wants to learn it or not.


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  • Huginn

    An interesting article that raises important issues in contemporary art practice and education.

    It’s important to learn traditional techniques because a hands-on physical engagement with material culture unlocks insight into those traditional cultures. When you’ve done it the way they did it, with the materials that they did it with, then you can begin to understand what they’re talking about and why their work looks the way it does. That said, I don’t think that an artist should be limited by the traditional practices of a genre.

    An even greater problem in contemporary art education is the limited technical interest in the physical properties of materials at all levels. This may be because it has nothing to do with ‘talent’ and a great deal to do with craftsmanship, but it needs to be understood and taught. We need to understand better when cheap mass produced papers won’t do, we need to know more about the properties of the pigments that we use, their light fastness and so on.

  • Maryam Hussain

    I think contemporary miniature painting from Pakistan shares more overlaps with neo pop (in terms of the means of production) than it does with traditional indian miniature painting, with which links are maintained in fairly superficial ways. In terms of visual language- the nod is typically more towards a largely prefabricated and orientalist/exoticized visual vocabulary (as opposed to being engendered through dialogue with/or from within a specifically contemporary or historical South asian linguistic framework). For contemporary miniature painting, the ease of its commodification, within an international art market is both a blessing and a curse. the appearance of visible (esoteric) craftsmanship, portability and objecthood, plus a visual vocabulary that is essentially western and if I may say so, very often reductionist makes it desirable in the market space (within which it successful reiterates a neo colonial position). At the same time it is because of market desirability, that contemporary miniature painting has survived and proliferated; perhaps we have reached critical mass, enough for meaningful discourse to emerge from within contemporary miniature painting studios; certainly visual vocabularies are starting to be less attached to particular formats in some instances.The question is this ‘is contemporary miniature painting technique and method only? In which case what are its defining characteristics and what does this particularity enable artists to do or say more effectively than by other means?