How long can miniature art in India stand the test of time?

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A lone miniaturist works in Delhi, while others sell ‘copies’ to tourists in Rajasthan

Not so long ago, under the patronage of emperors and kings, the tradition of miniature painting flourished in India. But today in Delhi, where it was once ubiquitous and celebrated and where miniature artists flourished, the art is beginning to fade.

There is a miniaturist (believed to be the only one in Delhi) who carries out his work discreetly, far from the trades of commercial art. Jai Prakash Lekhiwal is a popular name among miniature artists, but few contemporary artists know about this genius. The Padma Shri laureate learned all he knows from his father Mali Ram, who was trained by the famous miniaturist of his time, Ustad Firoz. The ancestors of the latter were painters of the court of the Mughals.

To buy vegetables ?

Lekhiwal’s art is traditional in every way, be it its immaculate borders or the facial features of its human figures. His favorite styles, he says, are Company Style (an Indo-European style of painting) and Delhi Mughal (which uses light and shadow for depth), for their realistic interpretations.

“People don’t appreciate miniature art anymore,” says Lekhiwal, “Only someone who understands art and understands the hard work that goes into detail can appreciate it.” People negotiate with him, he says, as if they were buying vegetables.

One of the reasons for the decline in interest is that miniature art is often seen as a “copy” of an old original. “Even when the artist creates an original composition, he thinks it’s a copy,” says Lekhiwal. Also, no one wants to learn miniature painting these days. It doesn’t help that there is no university or art school teaching miniature painting in the country.

Today, the art survives only thanks to tourists, especially those who visit Rajasthan. Here, too, the art has become somewhat static. The Persian influence seems to have remained intact, as evidenced by the decorative style. But the art lacks the verisimilitude of older paintings.

Miniature art by Maya Burman

Miniature art by Maya Burman

Most artists in Rajasthan acquired their talent from a family member. They can also make copies. This practice of reproduction not only hinders the evolution of art, but also robs it of its value.

Kavita Singh, author of Real birds in imaginary gardens: Mughal painting between Persia and Europe, says: “The limitation of their work is mainly a self-imposed limitation: to cater to a tourist market, they feel they have to produce something that is recognizable by tradition, and so they end up repeating this which has been done before. This prevents them from being innovative in their work, or using the miniature genre to address their contemporary reality.

Idiosyncratic experiences

There are, however, artists who breathe new life into traditional styles. Olivia Fraser is one of them. After a year at Wimbledon College of Art, she moved to India in 1989. She was drawn to the miniature paintings she saw at the National Museum.

“When you think of a miniature painting, you think of a very small painting full of images,” she says. “And it was quite different from what I was learning in the West. In 2005, I decided to properly train myself in miniature painting.

Thumbnail art by Shakir Ali

Thumbnail art by Shakir Ali

Olivia’s approach is traditional in every way. She uses handmade paper (vasli) and squirrel bristles brush their teeth and do their job precisely: but the result is a style all its own. She says: “I increased the size (of the paintings) but I use the same vocabulary.”

Parisian artist Maya Burman has also created a signature style. French and Indian influences are evident in his work: his human figures, for example, are similar to those of the 15th-century French miniaturist Jean Colombe, but the intricate details are faithful to Indian miniature painting.

Thumbnail art by Shakir Ali

Thumbnail art by Shakir Ali

“I was drawn to the details and intricate figures,” Burman says. “Even in larger paintings with larger figures, all the elements of miniature are still there.” Despite its finesse and the fact that it represents an important part of Indian heritage, the art seems to have value only among a small group of connoisseurs, mainly outside India. Singh says, “It’s very different from Pakistan, where miniature paintings have been hugely successful in the contemporary art scene.

As Jaipur-based artist and Padma Shri award winner Shakir Ali says, miniature painting is not yet a “disappearing art”, but sadly, it seems to be heading in that direction.

The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist. Like the poet Robert Frost, he has a lovers’ quarrel with the world.

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