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April 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1453

Beyond the Page: South Asian Miniature Painting and Britain, 1600 to Now

Reviewed by Zahra Khan

The Box, Plymouth, 17th February–2nd June

This exhibition boldly and gracefully traces the impact of Britain’s colonial rule in South Asia on the arts, culture and society of both regions. The transfer of knowledge and culture between the East and the West has long been studied and variously vilified and celebrated. Beyond the Page contributes to these ongoing debates by focusing on miniature painting, exploring the ‘role that Britain’s incursions into South Asia played in the evolution’ of the tradition and its later revival as ‘an aesthetic and critical force’ (p.1).[1] Dating the emergence of miniature painting in South Asia to around 1200, the exhibition and its catalogue focus on the patronage of the Mughal courts in the sixteenth century; the vast number of miniature paintings in public and private collections in Britain from the seventeenth century onwards; and, finally, the re-emergence of miniature painting in twentieth and twenty-first century South Asia and its diaspora. 

Examples from around 1200 were primarily illustrations created to accompany Jain and Buddhist texts. In the sixteenth century, however, miniature paintings were popularised and patronised by the Mughal emperors and their courts as a way of bringing historical and battle scenes and courtly stories to life. Undertaken by only the most skilled and respected artists, miniature painting production was governed by significant traditions and rules: single-hair brushes for very fine details, pigment from crushed stone, wasli paper and narratives often chosen by the emperors themselves. There are approximately one hundred thousand miniature paintings from South Asia in British collections today. British interest in miniatures developed following James I’s envoy to the court of Emperor Jahangir around 1617; the emperor gifted James I a selection of works, and thereafter many more were brought to England – often looted, sometimes gifted or acquired. Indeed, the reasons for such a vast number of these paintings being in Britain, and what sustains their appeal today, are at the heart of this project. Curated by Hammad Nasar and Anthony Spira, the exhibition was first shown at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes (7th October 2023–28th January 2024), where it was seen by the present reviewer, before travelling to the Box, Plymouth. 

Beyond the Page does not specify exactly what constitutes a miniature. The description was first used in India by colonialists, who saw parallels with European illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The catalogue introduction states that it ‘is almost a catch-all term that contains multiple styles, approaches and subjects for paintings produced in the Indian subcontinent’ (p.1). Despite this, similarities between works emerged throughout the exhibition, and the influence of historical miniature painting on generations of artists – far beyond South Asia – was readily apparent. More than 180 works of art were on display: many by South Asian artists, others by those from the diaspora and some by transnational artists with no South Asian background. Opting for a transhistorical approach, Nasar and Spira juxtapose historical and contemporary works, as well as those by artists who are formally trained in the tradition with work by those who are not, but who have nonetheless taken inspiration from miniaturist techniques. In Because you’re worth it II (cat. no.135; Fig.20), for example, the Singh Twins (b.1966) translate the principles of miniature painting to a digital fabric lightbox, creating a critique of consumerism in the form of an elephant composed of logos, which traipses across an infernal landscape. The inclusion of works by European artists as wide-ranging as Howard Hodgkin (1932–2017) and Willem Schellinks (1627–78) also created strong dialogues, allowing the visitor to witness the ways in which their work has responded to and absorbed the nuances of miniature painting. 

Central to Beyond the Page is the reclamation of the miniature art movement in South Asia, which Nasar and Spira trace to two transformative encounters that took place in 1960s London. Gulammohammed Sheikh (b.1937) and Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941– 99) were both studying at the Royal College of Art, London – from 1963 to 1966, and 1968 to 1969, respectively – when they discovered the extensive collection of Indian miniature paintings at the nearby Victoria & Albert Museum. After their studies, each returned to their respective home city and alma mater – Sheikh to the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, and Akhlaq to the National College of Art, Lahore (NCA) – and, as Nasar outlines in his catalogue contribution, tried to introduce a degree programme in miniature painting, although only Akhlaq was successful. Paintings by the two artists were displayed facing each other in the exhibition, their traces of the influence of Mughal miniatures evident. At the NCA, the newly established department went on to produce such acclaimed contemporary artists as Shahzia Sikander (b.1969), Nusra Latif Qureshi (b.1973), Imran Qureshi (b.1972; no.101; Fig.21) and Ali Kazim (b.1979), who incorporate key tenets of the ancient technique into their practices. Their works play with scale, subject and material, but never compromise on the precision, detail and finesse that Mughal miniature paintings are renowned for. 

A highlight of the exhibition was four illustrated pages from the Padshahnama (Book of Emperors) manuscript (nos.11–13 and 15; Fig.22), which was commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan (r.1628–58) as a celebratory record of his life and the Mughal dynasty. These and other loans from British institutions were flanked by Company School paintings, which, following the decline of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century, were commissioned by officers of the East India Company, who imposed European standards on South Asian pictorial conventions. Also on view here were works by artists associated with the Bengal School, including its founder Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) and Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1894–1975), whose work has an air of romanticism. Vividly painted, jewel-like modern miniatures by such artists as Kazim and Imran Qureshi demonstrate the continuity of the movement, influence and style of miniature painting. Another important work here was Sikander’s The scroll (1989–90; private collection; no.96), which the artist completed as part of her thesis at the NCA. The painting was transformative in terms of her work and career, but also in its impact on her fellow students. Modifying miniature traditions, the painting is a personal narrative that shows her moving through rooms in the house that she lived in as a teenager. Following her time at the NCA, Sikander moved to the United States and achieved global success. She continues to rely on the tenets of miniature painting instilled in her by her training, incorporating these elements into a continuously developing practice. 

The modern miniature is not limited to two-dimensional supports. Sculptural works were also on display throughout the exhibition, including Lifeline (2011; private collection; no.133) by Noor Ali Chagani (b.1982), an undulating form resembling a blanket or rug, which is composed of hand-made miniature terracotta bricks. Several works by the Pakistani– Kuwaiti artist Hamra Abbas (b.1976) were also included in the exhibition, the most prominent of which was Lessons on love (2007–08; Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels; no.121). For this series, Abbas takes figures from miniature paintings and translates them into large sculptures. Here, a man and woman are shown embracing while the man grasps a gun, their three-dimensionality somehow highlighting the absurdity of the original pose. Nusra Latif Qureshi’s Did you come here to find history? (2009; private collection; no.126) combines layered images from across time and place, specifically her own photograph superimposed on a series of Venetian and Mughal images. The work was suspended centrally in one of the galleries and effectively tied together the exhibition’s themes. 

Beyond the Page is extensive but not exhaustive. It provides much needed insight into an artistic movement that has been practised and absorbed by artists around the globe, spanned generations of collectors and patrons, crossed geographical borders and been consistently reclaimed and renewed. It presents a sample from which one can build an appetite for more and, in the process, reconsider global cultural movements. The exhibition highlights the lasting colonial legacies within South Asia and Britain, and the cultural absorption that took place and continues to do so. One hopes that Beyond the Page will give rise to other exhibitions that continue to investigate the influential impact of miniature art, bringing it and other forms of art from South Asia into the canon of global art history. 

[1] Catalogue: Beyond the Page: South Asian Miniatures and Britain, 1600 to now. Edited by Fay Blanchard and Anthony Spira. 218 pp. incl. numerous col. ills. (Philip Wilson, London, 2023), £30. ISBN 978–1–78130–125–8.