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Ustad Bashir Ahmad and the Year of Indian Miniature Painting


Reproduced from the print and digital editions of Eastern Art Report

The legendary Padshanama in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle is traveling to some of the world’s most famous museums in 1997 and 1998 in connection with the 50 years of Indian Independence. The fanfare created by the exhibition was a perfect opportunity for Queen Elizabeth to pay tribute to a contemporary traditional miniature painter in Pakistan or Indian and add a personal touch to her good-will visit to South Asia. Royal scouts located Bashir Ahmed, professor of Indian Miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. Luckily, they had found not only a talented and dedicated teacher, but one of the most accomplished living painters in the miniature tradition. Though only 43 years old, Bashir was trained in the traditional, old-fashioned manner– as an apprentice to the venerable ustad (master artist/teacher) Sheikh Shuja Ullah. Few living miniature painters have studied with masters who, like Shuja Ullah, inherited the profession from a family of court artists.

Bashir met with the Queen’s emissaries who made several trips to the college preparing for the Queen’s visit. But on October 12t when Queen Elizabeth II arrived at the National College of Arts (NCA) to meet Bashir, the artist was absent. He was in America, giving a workshop at Oklahoma State University in conjunction with his exhibition of 30 paintings and drawings that had just arrived from an earlier exhibition at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California.

Reports reached Bashir the next day that the Queen was terribly disappointed not to have met him.

Bashir started painting at age 14 and by 16, as one of the youngest students at the National College of Art, he began painting in the Indian miniature tradition. He studied this art for eight years with two ustads, first with Sheikh Shuja Ullah at the National College of Arts, then after graduation in 1974, he took private instruction from Mohammad Haji Sharif, whose grandfather, Allah Ditta had founded an atelier at the princely court of Patiala. As an apprentice in the “old” tradition, Bashir was expected to sit at his ustad’s feet, watch and take orders. He would grind stones and make paint, prepare paper and do exercises in drawing and painting to prepare for the day when he would become the next ustad. In the early 1970s Shuja Ulla and the principal of the NCA, Shakir Ali chose Bashir to be Shuja Ullah’s successor. The aging master regarded Bashir as his protegee, and like a son. Were Shuja Ullah still alive, he would be extremely proud of Bashir’s artistic excellence but taken aback by his pedagogical departure from tradition.

Bashir is a master craftsman, his technique is flawless, his patience is unremitting and he has taken the art into the 20th century. Shuja Ullah might not be so surprised by the modernized adaptations that Bashir has done with miniature painting as by his revised, more immediate, more humane teaching methods. In 1982 after six years of teaching service at the NCA, Bashir convinced the college to offer miniature painting as a degree subject. This is the only college in the world that offers a major in Indian miniature painting–two years of specializations beyond the first two years of foundations. Though he has won awards, had numerous exhibitions in Pakistan and in America, founding the department of miniature painting at the National College of Arts is the accomplishment of which Bashir is most proud.

During the 1970s and 1980s the validity of miniature painting was challenged by a faction of artists and critics who believed it was outdated, had served it purpose in the 17th and 18th centuries and was now dead wood. Bashir and those of his ilk argued that miniature painting was the backbone of Pakistan’s artistic heritage, the jewel of Mughal art, no less significant than the Taj Mahal and that it must be preserved. Furthermore, the techniques, skill, and patience required to produce a miniature painting are intimately related and applicable to other forms of painting and have been shown to improve the ability of any student in any artistic field. On the other hand,

Bashir also recognized the contemporary potential of traditional miniature painting. He began experimenting, as did several other miniature painters, in contemporizing the art form. Bashir’s outlook was broad, since he had a solid foundation in all painting media–oil, traditional watercolor, tempera, gouache, acrylics, on all kinds of surfaces–and print making experience as well. His innovations took many forms–he mixed traditions, incorporating elements of Rajput, Mughal and Persian painting into one composition–expanded the size, turned them into black and white pencil drawings (different from Mughal siah kalam), exaggerated certain stylistic characteristics and evolved a personal symbolism.

Bashir’s oeuvre encompasses three approaches: very traditional paintings that are copies and adaptations of 17th or 18th century works; more expressive interpretations in tempera and mixed media, and large, innovative graphite drawings. Lovers on a terrace (Figure 1) is provincial Mughal in style with minute delicate details delineating every part of the painting from architectural elements to carpet, marble railing, textile patterns, even tree leaves and surface of the hills. Colours are pristine and will never fade or wash off because they are mineral paints, made by Bashir from precious and semi precious stones. Pearls produce white, emeralds the green, lapis lazuli and turquoise the blues and khatu (no translation available) the yellows.

Four sheets of handmade paper are glued together with insect resistant adhesive (also made by Bashir) for strength and longevity and prepared with a special white ground. The paper is carefully polished before painting and sometimes polished between layers of paint. His handmade brushes, some with a single hair, come from the tail of Asian squirrels. Each face is made up of thousands of carefully rendered, thin, delicate brush strokes of a one-haired brush.

The lovers look into one another’s eyes as the serving lady stands ready to offer refreshment. Coils of a hooka pipe (connecting the foreground to the couple) stretch onto the lovers’ lap–the mouthpiece points suggestively at the beloved’s mid section. Mixed perspective that characterizes this work is typical of miniature painting. The carpet is seen from above while most of the painting is conceived at normal eye level. A white pavilion with decorative and functional niches and repeating abstract geometric pattern on the roof is also common in Mughal and Rajput painting. Rather than glamorize this painting with gold accents, Bashir wants the viewer to get pleasure from the small, delicate, precisely rendered designs in carpet, pillows, costumes, railing, and trees. The transparent odhni of the beloved is luscious as are the intricate borders that frame the romantic scene.

Chessplayers (Figure 2) focuses on two 18th century Mughal gentlemen in a setting not so different from that of the lovers, but here the similarities end. The 30 by 20 inch pencil rendering makes a social statement. As he reaches to move a pawn, the elegantly posed fellow casually gestures with his other hand toward the fort in the background. A relic from the 16th century, the structure is falling into disrepair. His partner continues to draw on the pipe of his hooka, not in the least bothered by the condition of the historical landmark. They are thinking– it belongs to a past generation, what meaning does it hold for us? This attitude, Bashir explains, is the same attitude that prevailed toward miniature painting not less than a few years ago. There is an appreciation and awareness now, the moon is Bashir’s symbol of hope, even though it hangs beneath dark, ominous clouds. The clouds, decorative and fanciful, have also become a keynote of his art. They float across the top of the painting to provide a horizontal counterpart for the marble railing at the bottom.

A series of friezes slice through the composition lifting the eye from hooka, to game board to players to background and finally to the moon and clouds. The painting is encompassed by decorative borders executed in a similar technique.

The third category employing tempera and mixed media is much freer than the traditional copies or the pencil drawings. Storyteller (Figure 3) has the appeal of expressive brush work, dramatic value contrasts and unusual color combinations. Nevertheless, the painting is decidedly Kangra in inspiration. Stretching her hand to break the dark blue shape between them, the storyteller acts as a compositional device drawing our attention to the uncovered breasts of her companion. While Kangra painters had no inhibition in revealing breasts, a segment of the Pakistan public would be offended by this display. Even in this country (America) complaints were registered with the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California because they had chosen a Kangra painting for the announcement card rather than a Mughal painting. Though concerned more with national identity (Mughal=Pakistan, Kangra=India) than with revealing anatomy as in the Pacific Asia Museum case, Bashir’s paintings provoke as well as comply.

The modernity of Storyteller adds to the appeal. Handling of the line and a controlled/random quality are reminiscent of the style Larry Rivers. Smeared places on the border give the painting an antique look but also resemble the transfer paintings that Robert Rauchenburg popularized in the 1960s. Bashir doesn’t work in a vacuum. He studies painting from Europe, American and the Far East, but learns from his colleagues and former teachers as well. Retired NCA painting professor, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, one of Pakistan’s foremost contemporary painters and Bashir have worked closely together, each benefiting from the experience of the other.

Several of Bashir’s students are becoming well-known in Pakistan and America. Fourteen paintings in traditional style with American themes by seven of Bashir’s students comprise a current traveling exhibition for the USIA in Pakistan celebrating 50 years of nationhood. Certainly this is the year of miniature painting in Pakistan and in America, a year that celebrates history and welcomes a new genre of miniature painting.


1. The exhibition entitled Kind of the World, a jount venture of the Arthur Sackler Gallery and the Royal Library, Windsor Castle travels to National Museum of India, New Delhi, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, The Sackler Gallery of teh Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of ARt, California, The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, and the Indianapolis Museum of ARt, Indiana.

2. The descriptive term “miniature painting” is currently under discussion since many paintings of this category are not truly miniature. Album painting is a preferred usage by art historians of this mind. However, since the term miniature painting is still used in Pakistan, I will use it as well in this article. I am grateful to Stephen Markle, curator of South Asian Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California for this update.

3. Shuja Ullah traces his ancestry to the two famous Persian painters brought to India by Humayun in the 16th century–Mir Said Ali and Shiekh Abdul Samad. Shuja Ullah’s family was attached to the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar in the mid nineteenth century. When Zafar was deposed by the British in 1857, the Shuja Ullah family moved to Alwar, India and attached themselves to the court there. Finally, in 1947 with Indian independence and partition of the subcontinent, Shuja Ullah moved to Lahore, Pakistan.

4. See Sirhandi, Marcella, Contemporary Painting in Pakistan, Ferozsons Ltd., Lahore, Pakistan, 1992, pp131-132.

5. Kangra refers to a style of miniature painting associated with the Kangra kingdom located in the Punjab Hills. It is predominately HIndu.

Captions to Images

  1. Lovers on a Terrace, 1997, mineral colors on paper, 11″x1o”. Photo by Khalid Sirhandi.
  2. Chessplayer, 1997, pencil on paper, 30″x20″ Photo by Khalid Sirhandi.
  3. Storyteller, 1997, mixed media on paper, 16 1/4″x13 1/2″. Photo by Khalid Sirhandi.

Reproduced from the print and, later, digital editions of Eastern Art Report

Author: Editor

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