Miniature paintings are a fixture in just about every Indian home. Many will recall encountering reproductions in books or frames, if not as prized originals. Owing to their ubiquity, the themes and motifs form a universal language that almost anyone, curator or common man, can instantly conjure up in their minds. 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. As centuries passed by, these paintings chronicled the many battles won and lost, the stylistic influences of the winning party gleaming through. Today, while the Mughal school is most known, miniatures exist in a variety of styles, from Persian to Rajput and Pahari, among others. Despite their small scale, paintings were often worked on by entire workshops of artists. These paintings are intimate and beautiful, but their small size and forced perspective drive the viewer to maintain a distance. Though not typically immersive, they are always conscious of the distinction between art and reality.
Defining miniature art as it is practised today is contentious. Most agree that it involves incorporating either the age-old techniques or its imagery into the artist’s work. Generally speaking, miniature art in present times is a tool — an ancient art form used to express contemporary stories. Languid scenes of courtly life become infused with layers of meaning as over-used tropes are given a new raison d’être by artists who utilise miniatures to break intellectual and cultural boundaries, and to explore complex themes using unambiguous imagery.
While 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 grinding stones and semi-precious gems to produce the pigments; and those whose work is informed by its formal elements, such as colour and composition; for example, Raghubir Singh was influenced by paintings around his childhood home, and Bhupen Khakhar drew from the intricate detailing of Rajput miniatures.
Shahzia Sikander clearly belongs to the first camp. Her latest show, Apparatus of Power, in Hong Kong, closes this month, and at its core are not paintings, but two seminal animations. Miniature art’s contemporary avatar revolves around reinvention. There is no room in today’s cut-throat market for copycats; many artists are deliberately going big to defy convention. “There is just too much of it being made, much of which is mediocre, at best. Many younger collectors want India to become a contemporary culture, which often is equated with large-scale abstract art canvases, certainly not miniatures,” says Peter Nagy, director of Nature Morte. Age-old techniques are being applied to a variety of media beyond watercolour on paper, including digital manipulation and photography, and extending beyond two-dimensional to installations and the moving image.
In 1980s Pakistan, miniature painting was viewed as a tired art form. Sikander saw the potential to ‘deconstruct its stereotypes’. She is attributed to be the first artist to break away from its confines and use it to express her own world view. Thanks to an enthusiastic professor, Bashir Ahmad, the miniature department at the National College of Arts in Lahore produced several artists after Sikander, such as Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid and Saira Wasim, who were part of a new surge. They were well-versed in the methods and imagery, but what is attractive about the work of both Aisha and Imran is that, as Nagy explains, “they have pushed the parameters of the miniature into new areas and, in many ways, redefined it.”
Come the 20th century, and the practice of miniature painting had fallen out of favour in India where ateliers were in decline. In the ’40s and ’50s, a sudden renewed interest among scholars and art historians led to books and reprints being published, and a revival of the art form. Starting from heritage painter families, for whom this had been an inherited livelihood, to individual painters newly eager to train, two parallel schools emerged. Workshops began to reopen in Jaipur, New Delhi, and cities traditionally known as centres of miniature art, fuelled by tourism. The second group was a result of formal training in Indian art institutions. An emphasis on art history and mastering the techniques led to academically trained artists whose works belong in art collections and museums.
Whereas Pakistani artists explored the narrative possibilities for social and political commentary, this was not the case with Indian artists, who instead incorporated its visual elements and aesthetics, and continue to do so. In Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’s tackling of perspective and space, or Nilima Sheikh’s mid-career shift to miniatures, there is a constant back and forth between old and new that runs through very distinct bodies of work.
The paintings in Manjunath Kamath’s 2015 show — As far as I know — at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) are a homage to the art of miniature painting, with large gilded expanses interrupted by tiny figures and objects. Jagannath Panda’s paintings reference Jain miniatures and Pahari paintings, but for Varunika Saraf, her training in this style of painting shows through more covertly. The UK-based Singh Twins have resisted adopting a Western aesthetic, determined to attract the attention of a global audience to what they found to be a neglected Indian tradition.
Over the years, foreign artists have also fallen under its spell. Olivia Fraser, who has called India home since 1989, chose to train under Jaipur and Delhi masters. Impressed by “the gem-like colours, the intricate patterning, the minute detailing and the extraordinary burnished, flat surfaces”, Fraser says, “I was also attracted to the confidence of the iconography, the symbolism, the meanings behind the use of colour, shape and infinitely fine line. Maybe I had a genetic predisposition towards them too as I later discovered one of my great-aunts had been a miniature painter”. Her recent show, Sacred Garden, is inspired by yogic traditions and her insistence on hand-ground pigments and handmade paper and tools makes her work meditative. Similarly, UK-born Desmond Lazaro’s painstaking, craft-like approach to his paintings is a nod to his own training.
Others such as American photographer Waswo X. Waswo have collaborated with Indian masters to create hybrid works that merge the East and the West. British artist Alexander Gorlizki is known for his collaboration with the skilled painter Riyaz Uddin. The two worked out of a studio in Jaipur, blending unusual subjects and rendering them in the intricate miniature style. When not in the studio, drawings were sent back and forth between New York and Jaipur, a single piece sometimes taking years to complete.
Meanwhile, beyond the Indian Subcontinent exists a completely different manifestation of miniature art. Compact dioramas depict dream-like worlds that combine the familiar with the fantastical. 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 one vignette a day since 2011, humorously assembling props from daily life alongside tiny figures in his project Miniature Calendar. Dioramas have even found a place in Coldplay’s latest music video Up&Up.
Our fascination with all things small refuses to recede, but it is its infinite scope for reinvention that has allowed miniature art to continue to prevail in the Indian Subcontinent and beyond.
This article was originally published in Verve magazine, July 2016.