The Naqsh School of Arts in Lahore’s Old City is perhaps the only institute of its kind in Pakistan. Located in building next to the founding family’s haveli near Lahore’s Bhatti gate, it was created to preserve the classical art form of the Mughal miniature. Stepping into its first floor, which I did for the first time in 2008, was a little like stepping into a world last seen some three hundred years ago. In a large hall that acted as a gallery and a studio, a teacher sat on a low platform covered with cushions and a wooden drawing table, while a group of students sat on low sofas around him following instructions, copying classics and quietly murmuring suggestions and advice to each other. It seemed a world given to tradition, and largely removed from the maddening modernity of the city of Lahore around them. My impression of a school isolated from the lives we lived was exacerbated by the fact that I knew little about the history and tradition of the Mughal miniature and the many ways it in fact did remain relevant to our times.
At another arts institute in Lahore not too far away from this very traditional art institution, the students however have been exploring ways to not only preserve, but to profoundly transform this classical art form. At the Lahore College of Arts, the instructors and students have taken quite a different path and transformed the art form in radically interesting ways.
One of its students, the much celebrated artist Shazia Sikander, has already transformed our understanding of the possibilities of the Mughal miniature, pioneering ways of what was perhaps the most conservative of arts into something living, and modern. The National College of Arts in Lahore, Sikander expanded the possibilities of the miniature form bring together drawing, animation, installation, video, and film. Sikandar has already been recognized as a MacArthur Fellow and continues to push her work into new directions.
However, there is yet another move towards modernizing this classical art form and it t involves giving it a voice that is resistance and dissenting. The Mughal miniature was never meant to confront, to challenge, to subvert or to question. Largely confined to issues of beauty and narrative, the artists focused on technique and artistry. Patronized by the powerful, it was as Virginian Whiles says ‘...aristocratic art with corresponding limitations.‘
Virginia While, a lecturer at the Chelsea College of Art, University of the Arts, London, has written a fascinating new book that explores the new, polemical and critical directions of art in Pakistan, and in particular the emergence of the works of a handful of artists trained in the precision and tradition of the Mughal miniature but putting it to use for explicitly modern uses.
Whiles points to the shift that took place at the school in a talk she gave at the Khoj International Artists Association in Delhi, India:
…the teacher who eventually promoted it as a major study, Bashir Ahmed, disciple of Ustad Sheikh Shujallah, disciple of Ustad Haji Mohammed Sharif, declared miniature painting’s autonomy within a separate department…Renowned for its rigorous discipline, defending the concept of an ongoing Mughal tradition in face of postmodern infiltrations, the department’s state of flux may well motivate the current explosion of energy manifested by the very different miniature production over the last few years.
The critical shift is to be seen in those works commenting on actual issues: fundamentalism, violence against women, corruption and nuclear warfare. Substantial debate is taking place between the protagonists and antagonists of the miniature practice. For example, the politicisation of content is viewed by certain students and teachers as reflecting a modish political correctness; others reject outright the miniature medium on modernist grounds of its dependency on traditional values; whilst in beween the question has been raised as to whether: “… the miniature project is a postcolonial quest to retrieve cultural identity.” (Hashmi 2000)
Many of these issues cannot be clearly answered, but they do open up room for dialogue around an art form many may consider too traditional, too outmoded to be relevant today. However, Whiles book perhaps asks us to rethink this idea, and to attempt a closer look at the works of a group of Pakistani artists attempted to bridge their heritage and the many humiliations of their modernity. Perhaps on a larger level it opens up the question of whether art can in fact be an act of resistance and dissent in the face of the leviathan of our modernity. This is a question that calls not for an answer as an absolute, but for an answer as a vision and an aspiration. How we choose to imagine and construct the answer may well decide what kind of society Pakistan will find itself to be.