Lahore's artistic riches belie popular perceptions of the place. From miniature paintings of the Mughal era to present day cartoons, there is much that is waiting to be discovered.

In 982 CE an unknown writer described Lahore as ‘a town with numberous districts', in which there are ‘markets and idol-temples, pine trees, almond trees and coconut trees…. All the inhabitants are idolators and there are no Muslims there'. Raiders came down regularly from the North, but it was not till 1014 that the Ghaznavids built the first Muslim settlements. After 1187 the city was one of their two capitals, and became the entrepot through which the Central Asian rulers established themselves in India. Today it is one of the most vibrant cultural centres in the subcontinent.

Marg's new book is a more comprehensive survey than the sub-title suggests. It includes a chapter on contemporary political cartoons, which have been periodically suppressed under martial law but are still alive and flourishing. The cartoonist's art is the vital corrective that prevents a society from sinking into corruption and tyranny, as the writer points out.

Division of labour

This reviewer is delighted to find three chapters devoted to miniature painting. Barbara Schmitz shows how the method of producing paintings for illustrated books was inherited by the Mughals from the court of 15th and 16th century Persia, and was used later, with modifications, by Muhammad Baksh, Lahore's famous bookmaker in the time of Ranjit Singh. When one remembers that Akbar's kitabkhana employed more than 100 workers the division of labour was, of necessity, highly regulated. The chief librarian planned the layout and portioned assignments; and there were specialists in calligraphy, illumination and the drawing of margins, while the less skilled artisans ground pigments or made paper. The painters too specialised, some filling in the layout, others the background, while the masters worked on the faces and gave the miniature its finishing touches. All were wage earners, and an outstanding performer could get a bonus.

Muhammad Baksh employed about 30 calligraphers and possibly as many painters, and was himself a talented artist and copyist. His books for Lahoris were made in the colours they preferred: gold, lapis and wine red, but he also accepted commissions from Rajahs of neighbouring states and exported books as far afield as Iran. When the printing press finally came to Lahore his flourishing business could no longer be sustained.

Miniature painting on ivory was a skill that originated in 17th century Italy, from where it travelled to England, and on to India a century later. The Lahore Museum has almost 100 pieces, generally oval in shape, with portraits of royalty and Mughal and Sikh notables and gurus; or pictures of mosques, tombs and other monuments in Punjab, Delhi and its vicinity. In a unique piece an elaborate scene is crowded into a space measuring just 5 x 6.7 cm. showing Akbar the Second riding the royal elephant in a procession consisting of at least 50 tiny figures, with each detail of their clothing and accoutrements painstakingly filled in.

In a development that has attracted worldwide attention Lahore has been at the centre of a vigorous revival of the traditional miniaturist's art. Introduced as an academic discipline in 1945 it initially consisted of the replication of Mughal paintings and attracted few students. Forty years later it came into its own when painters like Imran Qureshi gave it a new direction. His art is a satirical tool through which he comments on the abuse of power, local and global, through imagery of missiles, targets, dots, grids and printed text.

On the contemporary scene there is a movement towards abstraction, geometric patterns, minimalism and monochromatic colouring to explore issues such as war, terrorism and gender inequity. Four-year courses are offered in several colleges and, hearteningly, in an art that has always been a male preserve, more women than men are opting for it. Traditional methods such as painting on wasli (sheets of paper pasted together), with squirrel-hair brushes still prevail, but there is exuberant experimentation in installation art and the use of new materials. For instance, hair has been woven on a wasli in a cross-stitch pattern by Rehana Mangi.

Calligraph-art, the use of letters of the alphabet as central motifs in painting and sculpture, though barely half a century old, is directly related to the importance given to the written word in Islamic cultures since the Middle Ages, and to the inherent beauty of the Arabic script. In his fine chapter on this modern phenomenon Athar Tahir distinguishes the decorative, the illustrative and the symbolic types. The first owes more to Western graphic design than to painting as in the work of Muhammad Hanif Ramay. He uses flat, vivid colouring, well-defined outlines and ‘a flowing, almost lyrical, linearity', that is close to music. A striking example of his art titled ‘The Holy Quran' is shown on the cover of the book. Other decorative painters owe their inspiration to the delicate marble tracery on Mughal monuments. The illustrative artist, on the other hand, takes a text from the Quran or Ghalib or Iqbal and translates it into visual images.

The symbolic mode is less overt, working through suggestion and association to create a mood in which the mind is open, receptive to the Divine Word. The formation of letters is often disregarded in favour of a subjective interpretation as in the large, very striking murals of Gulgee whose method resembles the Action Painting of Jackson Pollock. In the work of Tahir himself the script is not distorted but the colours, sometimes brilliant, sometimes dark and foreboding, evoke or symbolise spiritual states of mind.

Revealing

Human representation, it is thought, was forbidden in Islamic cultures, but Lahore has two buildings covered in figural frescoes in widely differing styles. The Seh-Dara pavilion in the Lahore Fort has six, defaced or damaged but clearly identifiable as Christian saints painted after European prototypes. Though popular with Akbari and Jahangiri miniature painters they are to be seen in no other existing Muslim building. St. John the Evangelist is here and Pope Gregory the Great, St. Anthony and others. These monumental figures clothed in heavily draped floor-length garments are depicted in the manner of the masters of the High Renaissance. In their sheer mass and solidity they recall Michelangelo.The 48 frescoes at the Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh are totally antithetical. Stylistically they derive from the delicate Pahari mode adapted to Lahori tastes, with individualised faces, distance perspective, and Sikh costumes and architecture. The European influence too is evident, less so in the cover picture than in the portrayal of Naunehal Singh. His ‘saucer-like eye', pursed lips and moustache are too realistically defined to be conventionally Pahari, and his torso shows a knowledge of anatomy in the Western tradition.

Lahore will come as a revelation for Indian readers who have little awareness of the city's artistic pre-eminence. Marg has paid a splendid tribute to it with this scholarly and visually outstanding publication.

Lahore: Paintings, Murals, Calligraphy; Ed. Barbara Schmidt; Marg, Rs.2500

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