Indo-Persian Miniature Painting
by Fatima Zahra Hassan
Visual artist, trained in Indian, Mughal and Persian miniature painting.
The Indo-Persian miniature painting, the mathematical principles ruling it, and how this traditional art is a source of inspiration for contemporary artists.
The golden period of Indo-Persian miniature painting is seeing a renewed resurgence of interest. Originally began as artwork adorning text, such illustrations came to represent the narrative itself, even as the crux of the story to inspire the imagination of the reader. The beauty of these paintings from the golden period lies in their animated and theatrical composition and context, which uniquely defines this special genre of painting. Within the confines of a small space, artists had to portray many complex topics, characters and stories such as historical encounters, battle scenes, mechanical devices, mystical experiences and poems of love.
The illustrated manuscripts also laid down the foundations for modern book design and literary artwork. From the paper, binding and calligraphy to the illustrations, all was carefully designed.
There exist several references or clues to indicate that there was a widely used system of modular proportion in the art of Indo-Persian miniature painting. It has been shown in the study of particular manuscripts such as the Fotuhat-Homayuni (meaning Calligraphers-Painters) by Qadi Ahmad, that a module was used for arranging the text and the illustrations of manuscripts. Other systems were also used for planning compositions, however no constant or definitive means of modular proportion for the production of such manuscripts is known of today.
The illustrated manuscripts also laid down the foundations for modern book design and literary artwork
The particular study of the modular system and principles of layout cannot be fully understood without a systematic study of a wide range of paintings from different schools and different periods. Clearly modular expression was and still is considered an important starting point in painting.
Once the paper is stretched, sized and burnished then the framework for the layout of the composition is set-up. Setting out several guidelines helps determine the composition of the painting and establishes the spacing of the objects and figures as well as the position of the text in the painting. Traditionally, this process of setting out the painting was known as master, from the Arabic mastara (ruler), which is the basis of tarah, or the layout of the composition.
Indo-Persian miniature painting relies on a combination of different drawing and denotation systems. Such drawing methods did not rely on perspective because the nature of miniature painting is two-dimensional, portraying three-dimensional space as a two dimensional surface. This is a deliberate effect, which has its roots in the principles of Islamic art, for it is not concerned with the figural or accurate portrayal of the physical world, but with the representation of a higher dimension, which reflects the primordial principles behind the physical world. These paintings, however, did rely on orthogonal (straight ray) projection, horizontal and vertical oblique projection and isometric and axonometric projections. All these systems of representation transfer the three-dimensional spatial relationships onto a two-dimensional picture surface.
The Indian and Persian miniature painters frequently mixed oblique projection that is characteristic of Chinese painting with a vertical, oblique projection that is perhaps derived from indigenous Indian painting. Even more extraordinary is the way in which one part of the picture was often enclosed by a frame or border while another section “leaked out” into the surrounding field. No doubt these mixtures initially came about as a result of the interaction between different cultures, although the specific contributions made by these various influences have so far as we know never been duly chartered.
The Forest. By Jethro Buck, 2014.
There was a very fluid cross-cultural exchange over an extended period in time, and it has never been possible to formalise the individual impact of each cultural exchange.
There was a very fluid cross-cultural exchange over an extended period in time, and it has never been possible to formalise the individual impact of each cultural exchange
This combination of different representative systems is quite logical if analysed along the practical terms of pictorial composition. One reason for using combinations of representational systems might have been that some of these systems are better than others for showing particular shapes. Oblique projection is a very suitable method for drawing rectangular objects like doors, windows, arches, etc., but is inappropriate for showing round objects. The miniature painters thus showed rectangular buildings and objects in oblique projection but round hexagonal or octagonal pools etc. in vertical, oblique projection. Another reason for using mixed systems might have been to serve compositional purposes.
Multiple drawing systems allow the artists to tell a compelling story with action, drama and many activities in a small space creating a theatre-like atmosphere which is often mesmerising for the viewer who finds it enthralling.
The tradition of book-making continued even after the West started to colonise the Muslim world in the early 18th-century, but gradually it vanished due to printing facilities originating out of Europe. One element of traditional manuscript design persisted however, and that is the painting or the illustration, which took on a new life. After the fall of the Mughal Empire in 1857, artists started to work for small courts until the independence and partition of the Indian Subcontinent took place in 1947. In Iran, artists began to work for printing presses that were printing books. During the 19th and 20th centuries the world saw many changes including within in the field of art. Modern Turkey under Ataturk made certain drastic changes and the script changed, and with that, the tradition of writing Arabic and Ottoman Turkish became less practiced and less widespread.
Multiple drawing systems allow the artists to tell a compelling story with action, drama and many activities in a small space creating a theatre-like atmosphere which is often mesmerising for the viewer who finds it enthralling
Central Asia became part of the USSR and the traditional arts and crafts of the Islamic period were nearly forgotten past. The legacy of Samarkand and Bukhara was no longer celebrated and only existed in history books for future generations to merely glance upon and imagine the golden times. Afghanistan emerged as a country and the Timurid and the Safavid periods of Herat disappeared in the ashes of time as the centre of the Book Arts.
Folio from Yusuf-u Zulaykha by Jami. Safavid Iran, 1557.
Freer Gallery of Art.
These illustrated manuscripts shaped modern Europe, and foundations were laid down in the fields of science and mathematics, as well as other relevant aspects of knowledge being recorded meticulously with detailed illustrations including historical accounts and personal chronicles of famous rulers and nobles of the Muslim World. These manuscripts travelled through ambassadors of various Muslim empires and traders to the non-Muslim World mostly on the Silk Route. From China to South Asia, from the Middle East to the West. Also, different artistic influences from Chinese civilisation arrived in the Indian subcontinent, to Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and to Muslim Spain, from which it spread to the rest of the Europe.
Many modern artists and painters from South Asia, Iran and Turkey have used traditional references from this art form, especially in relation to colour palettes and the naive method of painting. Some made appropriations of famous paintings.
Those who have been trained traditionally in the technique of Indo-Persian painting have used such methods in their own practice to this day. Modern artists have also taken the expression of traditional arts to another level by experimenting with size and subject via expansion into new media, including the incorporation of such traditional references into animation, video and film. This succeeds in making miniature painting more relevant for the observer in the 21st century.
These manuscripts travelled through ambassadors of various Muslim empires and traders to the non-Muslim World mostly on the Silk Route. From China to South Asia, from the Middle East to the West
One contemporary miniature painter whose work has that beauty and at the same time the power to move the public is that of Khadim Ali, born in Quetta, Balochistan. in a Hazara refugee family who migrated from Afghanistan during the cold war. He belongs to the Hazara tribe, which faced persecution for decades, forcing his family to flee from Afghanistan during the cold war.as refugees. Ali got into the well-known National College of Arts Lahore, Pakistan in its prestigious Miniature Painting programme and studied under the auspices of a leading master artist Ustad Bashir Ahmad, who also taught many painters from the region (including the author herself).
Khadim spoke Dari and Farsi and learnt the art and craft of miniature painting along with calligraphy. He visited Iran in the 90s and got to hear the Iranian artists who were working there at the time. His work was immediately noticed by the international art world when he depicted the protagonist Rustam, a famous hero from the Shahnama in the form of a demon. His Rustam became so famous that he continued to paint a series of paintings and large-scale tapestries showing demon-like Rustom, who portrayed his tribesmen being treated like demons by the Taliban through persecution and killings.
Contemporary trends in South Asian painting particularly found in Pakistan and within the Pakistani community in the USA have received world-wide recognition.
Visual artists like Khadim Ali, as well as Shazia Sikander, Ambreen Butt, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Saira Wasim have trained in Pakistan and are now established names. Then we have Desmon Lazzaro from the UK, who now resides in India, Michal Gilikson from Australia who paints beautifully on scrolls, emerging artists like Alina Gallo based in Italy and Jethro Buck from the UK. They are all taking this beautiful traditional art form, making it relevant to a global society.
How encouraging and heartening is the premise that interest in this “living tradition” is growing every day.
Lion attacking a Bull. Folio from a Kalila wa Dimna, Herat, 1430.
Untitled from Transition-Evacuation Series. By Khadim Ali.
For Further Reading:
Sadiq Beg, Qanun al-Suwar (The Canons of Painting), translated into English by M. B. Dickson, in M. B. Dickson and S. C. Welch, The Houghton Shahnamah, vol. I, appendix I, Harvard Univeristy Press, Cambridge 1981.
N. M. Titley, Persian Miniature Painting and its Influence on the Art of Turkey and India, University of Texas Press, Austin 1983.
F. Z. Hassan, “Mughal Persian Miniature Painting”, in K. Azzam, Arts & Crafts of the Islamic Lands. Principles, Materials, Practice, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013