A tryst with miniature

Suljuk Mustansar Tarar explains how miniature went from glorious heritage to a living, evolving art-form

A tryst with miniature
US based Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander is these days in a high energy mode and a state of great creativity. It seems that she wants to break her personal sound barrier with the ongoing outburst of her creative and scholastic prowess. Besides several global permanent exhibits, this year her work is currently on display in museums and at exhibitions in Hong Kong, London, Rome, New York and Philadelphia. A gigantic commission at Princeton University will be inaugurated shortly. All this work has been done in parallel with a series of talks and lectures in various institutions, including as a visiting scholar at the Rhode Island School of Design, her alma mater.

The recently re-opened Philadelphia Museum’s South Asia collection has her ‘Disruption as Rapture’ animation crowning the eighteenth-century manuscript of Gulshan-i-Ishq, a seventeenth-century poem by poet Nusrati, which draws mystic parables from a tale of worldly love. The animation and a musical score in collaboration with Ali Sethi brings to life the centuries-old poem. Describing the work, Sikander says that she wanted to create a commentary on how she looked at tradition from the perspective of a living artist - since all the works in the South Asia galleries of the Museum are historical works.

Adam Smith appears in Sikander's glass painting, hovering over the Economics department atrium at Princeton University

With this creative spree, Sikander has been successfully reinventing and reinterpreting herself from her early encounters with the international art world of the pre-9/11 era to a global citizen trying to expand conversations around social, political, religious and cultural identities in a rapidly-changing world. Her work is continuously evolving both in medium and content and creating new rules of engagement. From miniature painting, she delved into larger-scale mediums like installations and murals; and she began exploring multimedia videos, animations and performance-based collaborative works.

Exploration, especially in animations, has led her to join forces with practitioners of other art forms, such as musicians, dancers and playwrights. In her own words, she “wants to come out of the principle of linearity in painting because it seems more natural and urgent to engage via a multivalent approach with the ever-shifting world.” However, miniature remains at the heart of all of her work.

'Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector' - installation view, Rome 2016
'Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector' - installation view, Rome 2016

Sikander’s animation, “The Last Post”, one of my favorites, takes the viewer to the colonial era, conveys the control exerted by the then colonial powers and in due course depicts the destruction caused by them in lands far away from the colonial metropolis. This is communicated through the striking  visuals, use of colours and musical score, and it includes a powerful figure symbolising the East India Company. The main character, an Englishman, travels as a symbol of colonialism in a Jharoka through different lands.

The same figure of the Englishman later appears in an altered form as Adam Smith in Sikander’s glass painting hovering over the Economics department atrium at Princeton University - a permanent sixty-six foot glass mosaic and a twenty-five foot glass painting. This is her first venture into glass work. Sikander justifies transformation of her characters arguing that “humor, irony, and wit become essential to how I find ways of imaging. I am interested in the dislocation of objects and forms and how meaning is constantly in flux. Adam Smith argued against the practices of monopoly corporations using the demise of the East India Company as a case study. However, we are still caught in the same old patterns of inequities of wealth.”

Survey Exhibition of Sikander's practice, 16 March 2016 - 09 July 2016, at the Asia Society and Maritime Museum, Hong Kong
Survey Exhibition of Sikander's practice, 16 March 2016 - 09 July 2016, at the Asia Society and Maritime Museum, Hong Kong

Multimedia has allowed Sikander to explore further depths of a miniaturist’s brush and imagination with technology. Her work in high-definition animation has helped in projecting the details of her miniature on large screens. The small miniature painting appearing several times bigger than the original in animation does not compromise the original proportion and composition - an attribute of her skills and strong grounding in miniature painting. This also allows the viewers to appreciate her mastery – something for which the art connoisseurs of yore would use a magnifying glass, to explore the quality of a miniature and even to identify the brush strokes of miniature painters of recognition and repute.

Last year, I met Sikander, at the New York Public Library - almost two decades after the National College of Arts, Lahore - at a talk by her on her artistic evolution. While the interviewer did indulge in stereotypical questions on gender and the history of Pakistan, mercifully Sikander did not play to the gallery, as is done by some artists seeking fame overseas. Her experiences are common to many growing up in the Lahore of military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq’s era - the 1980’s.

Detail from the mosaic at Princeton
Detail from the mosaic at Princeton

The interviewer asked stereotypical questions on gender and Pakistani history. Mercifully Sikander did not play to the gallery

The chance encounter with Sikander was a nostalgic reminder to the arched entrance of the small Miniature Studio of Lahore’s National College of Arts. Walking past that area, towards the main auditorium, one would see a group of heads bent over drawing boards. On a good Lahori day, some of those heads were found dispersed in the brick court; painting or mixing paints or indulging in forward backward rhythmic movement to make wasli (specialised paper for miniature painting).

Ustad Bashir Ahmad, a critical force in revival of miniature painting - a figure providing some solid grounding to the present generation of miniaturists - was mostly to be seen sitting closer to that studio’s entrance, ever ensuring that his small group of devoted disciples did not go missing. To enter the studio, one had to take off their shoes because everyone was sitting on the floor working - a reflection of the aesthetic, rigour and methodology of traditional miniature painting. Most of today’s big names in miniature and experimentation therein; Imran Qureshi, Tehniat Majeed, Ambreen Butt, Aisha Khalid, Talah Rathore, Nusrah Latif, Shireen Bano and others, were part of that group in the 1990’s, trained and groomed by Ustad Bashir Ahmad.

Exhibition, 'Apparatus of Power'
Exhibition, 'Apparatus of Power'

Sikander was among the firsts in that group of heads in Bashir sahib’s studio. They were like characters from Chughtai paintings, performing different chores, their heads bent and fully immersed in work. Despite my sparse interaction, Sikander stood out to me as someone very focused: a perfectionist, completely devoted to her work. Later, I joined evening drawing classes offered by Bashir sahib, where she was his main apprentice, always helping the new students improve their drawing skills.

Earlier this year, Sikander was joined by Ustad Bashir Ahmad for in-depth conversations in Hong Kong, in the margins of her exhibition, documenting the progression of miniature in Pakistan and its resulting impact on the global art landscape.

Her thesis project in 1990 took the college by storm, which included the five-feet-long ‘The Scroll,’ it’s finesse and unorthodox scale was remarkable for a miniature. It was a game-changer. Bashir sahib still recalls The Scroll as a very strong thesis composition and one of the best executed under his supervision.

Size - 66 x 6 feet, Location - Atrium of the Economics building, Princeton University
Size - 66 x 6 feet, Location - Atrium of the Economics building, Princeton University

Ustad Bashir fondly recalls Sikander as a turning point in modern miniature

She won numerous awards and started teaching at NCA. Her experimentation with miniature inspired many students. Many of them experimented with larger scale in their subsequent thesis projects. In time Sikander went overseas to study in the US and is mostly based there for last twenty years but has lived and worked in Seville, Sydney, Berlin, Shanghai, Rome and elsewhere.

Beyond her work Sikander has engaged in building bridges between artists and communities through her work. In her Rhodes School talk, she encouraged the young artists to engage with “creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.” Her progression remains news in the art circles and the growing art market of the country.

Sikander ‘s experimentation with different topics is quite phenomenal. The animation “Gopi-Contagion,” showed last year on the billboards of New York’s Time Square, was a study of the hair particles of Gopi, a female follower of Krishna. The momentum of hair particles translated into patterns of birds flying, reminiscent of the imagery in Pink Floyd’s animated rendition of their classic rock music album ‘The Wall.’ Sikander successfully tears apart the subjects and then rebuilds them in animation. A familiar pattern in many of her animations is a zoom-out then a zoom-in towards a microcosm - be it a subject of history or mythology.

Sikander is fascinated by the fluidity of manuscripts and layers. She uses them as both: a narration and as motifs in her work. Her evolution as a master craftswoman is based on the depth of her research and her willingness to break the glass ceiling. Her grasp over history and her ability to convey it through her work is exceptional. This gives her work a stronger intellectual framework and an edge when she challenges selective interpretations of history and defies the rules of painting.

The 2013 Sharjah Biennale’s “Parallax” and her exhibition in Hong Kong titled “Apparatus of Power” both allude to their locales, the colonial history and the geostrategic importance of those places through the past and the present. She feels her interest in history allows her to open multiple ways of interpretation. Thus wherever she works, she draws inspiration from history and politics. Princeton University commissioned her to explore how economic theory affected the world at large and thus, unsurprisingly, Adam Smith emerged out of that research as a character in her glass painting.

Another interesting aspect of Sikander’s practice is the themes or titles of her work, which pique curiosity for further exploration, and reflect the solid conceptual framework she builds her work on - “Apparatus of Power”, “Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector” and “The World is yours, the World is mine,” are titles that certainly capture attention and the intellectual depth of her art pieces.

With all the accolades abroad, Sikander has faced some criticism for staying and working abroad. Some of her compatriots feel that in deciding to do so, she opted for ‘easier pastures’ and has, with time, become detached from the realities of her society and country. While her grasp of South Asian history and polity - and her ability to interpret them through global political trends - is ever flourishing in her work, some would argue that in her decision to work from abroad, she has missed out on the everyday societal trends and changes which many of Pakistan’s contemporary artists have creatively captured and ably depicted. Moving abroad can never be a zero-sum game. This creative dilemma or question is faced by many artists deciding to work from abroad and stay there - which sometimes emerges as a key theme in their work. However, Sikander’s devotion to taking miniature painting to higher levels of aesthetic achievement and the vast expanse of her creative canvas remains one of her biggest strengths and a fine riposte to some of her critics. Sikander says she is inspired by poetess Fahmida Riaz’s words:

Kuch log tumhay samjhaingay

Wu tum ko khauf dilayangay

Jo hay wu bhi kho sakta hay

Iss raah mein rahzan hain itnay

Kuch aur yahaan ho sakta hay

Kuch aur tu aksar hota hay

Tum jiss lamhay mein zinda ho

Yay lamha tum say zinda hay

Yay waqt naheen phir aayay ga

Tum apni karni kar guzro

Jo hoga dekha jayay ga!

[Some will advise you;

They will scare you away;

That you will lose what you already have;

There are many a robbers on the way;

There could be other difficulties too;

Many a times things happen;

The moment that you live in;

This moment owes its existence because of you;

And this time will not turn back;

You move ahead and do what you want to;

And let it be!

(Translation by the author)]

Ustad Bashir fondly recalls Sikander as a turning point in modern miniature. For him, she was the first one to experiment successfully and as a student of his, she was someone adept in both theory and practice. He says that he provides his students with the necessary foundation and Sikander ably built upon it - especially through her amalgamation of animation and miniature. Bashir says with pride that years after graduation, Sikander had sought permission from him before accepting one of her first prizes in the US and displaying her major exhibition there. Talking about him, true to the tradition of historic art forms, Sikander conveys unequivocal respect for her Ustad (teacher) and his contributions.

Moving forward, Sikander plans to continue to challenge the linear tradition in painting, seeking to explore links outside of modernism. Her focus on flux and collaboration, with the fast-changing world around us, will provide opportunities and further subject matter for her artistic endeavours. However, for an astute miniaturist like her, it remains to be seen how she would uphold some of the centuries-old cardinal principles and traditions of Islamicate miniature.

Shahzia Sikander, along with other characters from Chughtai’s painting in Ustad Bashir’s miniature studio, have come out in the real world. They are playing bigger roles and building on the solid footing provided to them by their Ustad, Bashir Ahmad.

The writer can be reached at smt2104@caa.columbia.edu

State of the art

Suljuk Mustansar Tarar explains how the centuries-old art of miniature was revived in Pakistan

The curriculum for a degree in Miniature Painting at the National College of Arts, Lahore, was mainly designed by Ustad Bashir Ahmad in 1981-82. He remained its only teacher of this art form for a long time. At that time, miniature was not being offered as a formal discipline in Fine Arts education except through traditional teachers and associated learning approaches.With a humble beginning of 2-3 students in a studio, today miniature painting from Pakistan is an independent pillar of contemporary arts. A good number of miniaturists are making their mark at the national and international level - both by continuing with traditional subjects and experimenting widely with media and topics. Years of traditional apprenticeship were condensed into two to three years of undergraduate training. The rigour of traditional composition, methodology and even producing their own colours and paper (wasli) has allowed contemporary practitioners of miniature art to play with scale and material while remaining loyal to the roots of the art. This has led to a swift revival of traditional miniature and a rapid evolution of modern miniature painting. Among the pioneers and leaders, in addition to Shahzia Sikander, there is Imran Qureshi, who has - beside other innovations - used architectural spaces to amalgamate his detail-oriented work and floral techniques to synthesise time, space and events that deeply impact him. Ayesha Khalid has weaved her miniature into textile design, creating a mystic experience. Others have framed it into collages and prints. And so, in less than four decades of formal education, miniature painting is at the core of contemporary forms of expression in Pakistan and has achieved a global presence.