Trace the history of miniature art

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Text by Amishi Parekh

Miniature paintings are an integral part of almost every Indian home. Many will remember encountering reproductions in books or frames, if not as treasured originals. Due to their ubiquity, themes and motifs form a universal language that almost anyone, conservative or common man, can instantly conjure up in their mind. The ancient Indian art form originated on palm leaves in the 10th century, and was followed by paper in the 14th century, as found in illustrated Buddhist manuscripts and Jain texts. Over the centuries, these paintings have chronicled the many battles won and lost, the stylistic influences of the winning side showing through. Today, while the Mughal school is best known, miniatures exist in a variety of styles, from Persian to Rajput and Pahari, among others. Despite their small scale, the paintings were often worked on by entire workshops of artists. These paintings are intimate and beautiful, but their small size and forced perspective compel the viewer to keep a distance. While not typically immersive, they are still mindful of the distinction between art and reality.

Defining miniature art as practiced today is controversial. Most agree that it is about incorporating either the age-old techniques or its imagery into the artist’s work. Broadly speaking, miniature art in modern times is a tool – an ancient art form used to express contemporary stories. Languid scenes of court life become imbued with layers of meaning as overused tropes are given new purpose by artists who use miniatures to break down intellectual and cultural boundaries and to explore complex themes using unambiguous images.

Although its influence is powerful, artists fall into two camps – there are those who have spent years mastering the painstaking process that involves the making of wasli, the polished substrate and the grinding wheels and semi-precious stones to produce the pigments; and those whose work is informed by its formal elements, such as color and composition; for example, Raghubir Singh was influenced by the paintings around his childhood home, and Bhupen Khakhar was inspired by the intricate details of Rajput miniatures.

Shahzia Sikander clearly belongs to the first camp. His last show power device, in Hong Kong, ends this month, and at its heart are not paintings, but two seminal animations. The contemporary avatar of miniature art revolves around reinvention. There is no place in today’s cutthroat market for imitators; many artists deliberately make it big to challenge convention. “There is just too much being done, much of it mediocre at best. Many young collectors want India to become a contemporary culture, often equated with large-scale abstract art canvases, and certainly not miniatures,” explains Peter Nagy, director of Nature Morte. Age-old techniques are applied to a variety of mediums beyond watercolor on paper, including digital manipulation and photography, and extending beyond the two-dimensional to installations and the moving image.

In the 1980s in Pakistan, miniature painting was considered a tired art form. Sikander saw the potential to “deconstruct his stereotypes”. She is credited for being the first artist to break through her boundaries and use it to express her own worldview. Thanks to an enthusiastic teacher, Bashir Ahmad, the miniature department of the National College of Arts in Lahore produced several artists after Sikander, such as Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid and Saira Wasim, who became part of a new wave. They were familiar with the methods and the imagery, but what’s appealing about Aisha and Imran’s work is that, as Nagy explains, “they pushed the parameters of the miniature into new areas and, in many ways, redefined it. .”

By the 20th century, the practice of miniature painting had fallen out of favor in India where workshops were in decline. In the 1940s and 1950s, a sudden revival of interest among scholars and art historians led to the publication of books and reprints and a revival of the art form. From heritage painter families, for whom this had been an inherited livelihood, to individual painters newly eager to train, two parallel schools emerged. Workshops have started to reopen in Jaipur, New Delhi and towns traditionally known as centers of miniature art, fueled by tourism. The second group was the result of formal training in Indian art institutions. The emphasis on art history and mastery of techniques has led to academically trained artists whose works are in art collections and museums.

While Pakistani artists explored the narrative possibilities of social and political commentary, Indian artists did not, who instead incorporated its visual and aesthetic elements, and continue to do so. In Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’s approach to perspective and space, or in Nilima Sheikh’s mid-career turn to miniatures, there is a constant back and forth between old and new that runs through very distinct works.

Paintings from Manjunath Kamath’s 2015 exhibition — For all I know – at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) are a tribute to the art of miniature painting, with large golden expanses interrupted by tiny figures and objects. Jagannath Panda’s paintings refer to Jain miniatures and Pahari paintings, but for Varunika Saraf, her training in this style of painting shines through more covertly. The UK-based Singh Twins resisted embracing a western aesthetic, determined to bring global audiences’ attention to what they saw as an overlooked Indian tradition.

Over the years, foreign artists have also fallen under his spell. Olivia Fraser, who has called India home since 1989, chose to train with masters in Jaipur and Delhi. Impressed by “the gem-like colors, intricate patterns, intricate detailing and extraordinary flat, burnished surfaces,” says Fraser, “I was also drawn to the confidence of the iconography, the symbolism, the meanings behind the use of color, shape and infinitely fine line. Perhaps I also had a genetic predisposition towards them, as I later discovered that one of my great-aunts had been a miniaturist.” show, sacred garden, is inspired by yogic traditions and his emphasis on hand-crushed pigments and handmade paper and tools makes his work meditative. Similarly, the meticulous, artisanal approach of UK-born Desmond Lazaro is a nod to his own training.

Others like American photographer Waswo X. Waswo have collaborated with Indian masters to create hybrid works that merge East and West. British artist Alexander Gorlizki is known for his collaboration with talented painter Riyaz Uddin. The two worked in a studio in Jaipur, mixing unusual subjects and rendering them in the intricate miniature style. When not in the studio, designs shuttled between New York and Jaipur, with a single piece sometimes taking years to complete.

Meanwhile, beyond the Indian subcontinent exists a completely different manifestation of miniature art. Compact dioramas depict dreamlike worlds that combine the familiar with the fantastic. Artists such as Thomas Doyle, Joe Fig and Kendal Murray play with scale and juxtaposition in their work. Instagram sensation Tanaka Tatsuya has been creating a vignette a day since 2011, humorously assembling everyday props alongside tiny figures in his project Miniature Calendar. Dioramas even found their way into Coldplay’s latest music video Top Top.

Our fascination with all things small refuses to recede, but it is its endless scope for reinvention that has allowed miniature art to continue to prevail in the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

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