Miniatures in another
TO most people here – I mean naturally those who take any interest in these things at all –miniature painting means work of all kinds – Jaina, Rajasthani, Mughal, Pahari, Deccani, for example—elegantly executed, moving, images like Mahavira’s mother dreaming her fourteen auspicious dreams, nayikas pining away on moonlit terraces, Krishna tugging at Radha’s yielding veil, Emperors on horseback out on vigorous hunts. Just across the border, in Pakistan, too, miniatures are known, even if, to most people, they mean only Mughal miniatures, the rest of the work being generally of only peripheral, and now rapidly dwindling, interest. But nearly everywhere on the subcontinent, miniatures are associated with the past, redolent of distant and unlikely times, reminders of a world that has ceased to be. And if anyone thinks of the miniatures of today, it is copies that come to mind, some made as copies or versions, others done with the intent to deceive.
things are beginning to change. Apart from some early and rather
hesitant attempts at incorporating, within the miniature format and
technique, relatively new content, there is the very engaging work –
something that one has been aware of for some time – of ‘the Twins’,
Amrit and Rabindra Kaur, in England (to which I hope to return in this
column another time). And now comes some miniature work from Pakistan
that has an interest all its own. It might have been known over there
for a while, but I happened to see it only recently, when I caught up
with it at the India International Centre in Delhi where it was
showing under the title: "Manoeuvering Miniatures". Six
artists, all of them young, all of them with some affiliation or the
other to the National College of Arts, Lahore – the only place,
incidentally, where one can have miniature painting as a major subject
– were showing the work they had done for the lively, Delhi-based
organisation, Khoj International Artists’ Workshop. When I saw it,
in a large hall in the Annexe building of the Centre were hanging,
along the walls, these precious-looking little works on paper,
commanding attention, eliciting interest even when they were, like
miniatures generally displayed in our museums, not easy to see and
take in. That, because they were different, and one sensed that in
them, somewhere, there was a studied attempt at saying something
Sharper perhaps, and certainly more open, are the comments that other works make, for what runs through them is a critical shift, an engagement with some of the real issues that face Pakistan (much as they do India): "fundamentalism, violence against women, corruption, and nuclear warfare". When Waseem Ahmed places a reclining nude upon a sofa, obviously lifted from Manet’s much celebrated/maligned "Olympia", but covers her lush form in a thin, gossamer burqa, right from her head and veiled eyes to her finely turned ankles, we know what he is talking about. Or painting. Or, again, when Saira Wasim shows eminently recognisable figures, including President Musharraf and other uniformed worthies, mounted upon near-mythical, wooden animals whirling around in circles, as in a carousel, while some persons of obviously different ethnic groups peer at this spectacle from the top, little is left unsaid. The work is pungent, and tightly constructed. And, given the political climate in our neighbourhood, courageous.
All this, and much other like this, makes for very interesting viewing, as I said. And some thought. The introductory essay to the show by Virginia Whiles, who curated it, also makes for interesting reading. And some thought. But many questions remain, as they should perhaps: some related to scale and format and technique, others to what miniatures historically were meant to be, still others to intimate viewing and viewer-object relationships. But of them, another time.
Sense and senselessness
This exhibition from Pakistan was meant to travel in India, and it did for a while. But, yet again, art came into focus for the wrong reasons, for a lathi-wielding, slogan-shouting, mob forced its closure in Mumbai, not long ago. Not because anyone was objecting to the art – one wonders if anyone from the crowd even saw it – but simply because it had stemmed from our unfriendly neighbourhood. And that, in the charged political atmosphere of the day, was enough reason.
So much for reason.