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