Miniature artist Mirza Mohammed Ali Baig is 68-years-old, loves his paan and chai and takes Prabalika M. Borah on a miniature tour
The lingering fragrance of ittar and paan speaks of the other passions of miniature artist Mirza Mohammed Ali Baig. His humble home at Yakutpura might be overshadowed by tall dwellings but the man's zeal for life, art and Hindu mythology is impressive. Keeper of a 450-year-old legacy, Mirza is keen to see miniature art survive the test of time.
The green gates of his house open to a small courtyard swept clean of fallen leaves from a towering mango tree. In an extended visitor's room, Mirza has his paintings carefully covered with old bed sheets to protect them from direct light. The walls are adorned with paintings of Mughal kings and queens. Among them is a framed bust in sepia. “That is our Nizam saab. Woh photo nahin hain, humne paint kiya hain,” exclaims Mirza as he flashes his paan-stained teeth. A board on the gate, reading “Guru Sishya Parampara” (an initiative by the Union Ministry of Textiles), suggests he also trains aspiring artists. He trained 24 students for six months to one year, which, according to him, “is not enough to learn how to draw an eye properly”. “It took me several years to learn and make my strokes perfect and I cannot promise the same to anyone in one year. More than the knowledge, the inquisitiveness and urge to learn the skill is important,” he states.
“Besides my art, I love my ittars. I have a bottle for all occasions including fever and insomnia,” he laughs. “My guru once said, every artist should have an addiction to keep him going. I took to chewing paan and drinking tea. Now I have no count of the paans but I drink around 12 cups of tea,” he chuckles.
Mirza, who is also well versed in Persian, Kangda, Ajanta, Deccani, Chugtai and Nirmal art traditions, was visited and commended by novelist Orhan Pamuk as one of the master miniature artists in India. “I haven't seen what he wrote about me. When he interviewed me, I had trouble following English. He speaks very fast. And when my son was replying on my behalf, he refused to take the replies and insisted that I talk to him,” he smiles.
Mirza is winner of a national master craftsman award. “I send my entry every year but I was awarded only in 2010. For someone who began at the age of seven, citations don't really matter anymore. I had the urge to learn and master the art and that is why I feel I could do it and become one of the few miniature artists in the country.”
Mirza's speciality lies in painting ‘countless' characters in various sizes in one single canvas with microscopic detailing. In each such painting the face of even the pinhead-sized person is well defined. He creates a three-dimensional effect in his work where the characters gradually decrease in size to make the scene look real. And he does all this with brushes made from squirrel's tail.
Mirza, the only practising miniature artist in Andhra Pradesh, says he was inspired to learn the art form from his uncle, Mirza Akbar Ali Baig. “As a kid I would spend over 10 hours every day learning and getting the strokes right.” He began at 6 a.m. and sat up till 2 a.m. making lines, figures and designs. “After the initial lessons at home on miniature art, I would spend a lot of time in the Salarjung Museum looking at the collection of miniature art. The collection in the museum is huge and gives an insight into a lot of things that artists need to learn. My focus in every painting lies in the detailing.”
Mirza spent a couple of his early years in the Nirmal industry and he spent over 25 years with his guru Iqbal Husain to fine tune his skills. “That was the time when I started to work and while I was painting and selling my work and taking fresh orders, my heart and mind was fixated on one big canvas and theme—Sita swayamvar took shape.”
Mirza says he gathered more knowledge about the crafts, style and type of architecture through books. He read the Ramayana and made up his mind to paint the Sita-swayamvar scene. “The year was 1967. It took me close to a year and since then this painting has been with me. I don't want to sell it unless I feel the price is worth it.”
Mirza's house is now often visited by tourists who are interested in art. “I like it when people visit me. Now that I am aging, I don't go for exhibitions too often. It is risky to carry and transport my lofty framed works. The other day, two videshi women came and as they left they took a cheek-to-cheek photo with me. I was embarrassed,” he giggles.
“Oh, by the way I was to act in Mughl-e-azam. I was a 15-year-old boy then. They saw my work on Mughal art and loved the way I infused emotions in the paintings. But my parents didn't allow it,” he smiles. Mughl-e-azam, he says, is his all-time favourite despite a flaw. “The film maker didn't include Akbar's famous nau ratnas,” he points out.
Mirza at the moment is doing a series on Emperor Shah Jahan.