An explosion of subversive contemporary miniature paintings has taken the art scene in Pakistan by storm.

In April this year, like almost everyone else in Pakistan, Hadia Moiz watched the video of a girl being flogged by three Taliban men as it played endlessly on television channels. As the girl lay face down, one bearded man held her legs down, one pushed back her burqa and a third wielded the whip. The images, from the Swat region in the North-West Frontier Province, horrified Moiz as much they did anyone else who saw them.

Moiz, an artist, went on to capture the medieval barbarism of that incident, and the manner in which television channels continuously looped the video for days, in a scathing work: a half-naked woman on a playing card, the clothed half of her in a burqa, and a joker standing over her. Next to it, she painted another card, and on it, a huge cockroach, symbolic, she said, of the oppression unleashed by both the Taliban and television channels.

The entire work was created as a miniature, a style that has taken Pakistan's dynamic art scene and the international art market by storm in recent years. Say miniature, and what immediately comes to mind are portraits of Mughal and Rajput kings, ethereally beautiful queens and scenes from their daily lives, holding court, going on shoots, hunts and battles, or Radha-Krishna stories, executed on paper with squirrel-hair brushes and vegetable dyes in much meticulous detail.

But Pakistan's booming tribe of miniature painters has taken this traditional art form and transformed it into a cutting-edge modernist platform for a range of contemporary themes, from the country's power play and politics to gender, femininity and self “Old style miniaturists painted what they saw – a prince going on shikar, or a battle scene, or a courtroom, or a king and his wives. I paint what I see. I was really affected by the screams of the girl while she was being flogged. It was on the television all the time,” said the 26-year-old Moiz, already a well-exhibited “neo-miniaturist”.

Moiz is a relative newcomer in a genre that was fostered in the liberal atmosphere of Lahore's National College of Arts in the mid-1980s by Zahoor ul- Akhlaque, the Pakistani artist of eminence, who was then the head of the fine arts department.

Huge market

It boasts the New York-based Shazia Sikandar, an NCA graduate who is now an international artist of repute. Her subversive transformation of a 17th century tradition, associated primarily with Mughal and Rajput court painters, gave the genre its “neo” tag, plus an international profile. Aside from her is the group described by Ali Adil Khan, a Toronto-based Pakistani art curator writing in Dawn in 2008, as the “magnificent seven” of NCA: Muhammed Imran Qureshi, Tazeen Qayyum, Aisha Khalid, Talha Rathore, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Saira Wasim and Reeta Saeed. They exhibit and sell across the world, and their works command huge prices in the international art market. A host of others follow in the trail blazed by these leaders. “Our effort has been to take the miniature out of the exotic value that was attached to it and bring it to the same level as mainstream art,” said Qureshi, who now trains a new generation of miniaturists at the NCA.

Qureshi's series Moderate Enlightenment – the title a play on the “Enlightened Moderation” concept that the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf half-heartedly tried to push – is a subtle portrayal of the socio-political issues of contemporary Pakistan, and the linkages between religious conservatives and the security establishment.

The paintings, in a reflection of a traditional miniature styles, all have a single portrait of a religious-looking man involved in every day activities, such as reading, changing his clothes, or exercising. The twist, the man wears socks or shoes in a military camouflage print, while in all the paintings, the predominant colours are blue, red and white, the colours of the American flag.

Qureshi and other neo-miniaturists including the fairly new ones are constantly pushing the envelope further, using the style to experiment with on-site wall paintings, videos, installations and even large-sized miniatures that break out of the traditional two-dimensional rule of the art form into 3-D.

At a recent exhibition in Islamabad, for instance, a collection of seven miniatures by Babar Gull were all presented on large-sized canvases. “Even a big painting can be a miniature,” said Gull, a 2005 graduate from Islamabad's Hunerkada Art School. His paintings explore the themes of the evolution and the human form.” More than a technique, miniature is an attitude,” said Qureshi, as he showed me around the red-brick campus of the NCA. Unlike at other campuses, students of both sexes mingle freely here and the atmosphere is shot over with a laissez-faire difficult to find elsewhere in Pakistan.

Experimentation

In the work rooms, students labour over their art-work and installations, while from the grounds, the sounds of a strumming guitar can be heard over the low buzz of college chatter. In the corner of the main quadrangle is a life-size wrought-iron sculpture of a couple sitting on a swing and kissing.

“Why we should we freeze our work? We are no more painting for a court or some badshah, so we can experiment all we like,” said the 36-year-old Qureshi. “Miniatures are the most experimental thing going on right now.”

With all the experimentation, how to distinguish a miniature from any other painting? “It is the patience that has gone into a work, the brushes that have been uses, the detail that has been worked in,” explained Qureshi.

With miniatures the talk of the Pakistani art world, and both local and international demand for it soaring, the miniature department, set up by guru Bashir Ahmed in 1985, is attracting more students than ever at the NCA. This year, said Qureshi, out of 40 students in the four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts programme, 30 applied for a major in miniature painting, which students begins in their third year.

It is hard work. Students start with learning the traditional techniques, including making the special paper that is used for painting miniatures called wasli, making the brushes, mixing the paints in mussel shells, and practicing the small painstaking repetitive brush strokes called pardakht, that are characteristic even of the “big” miniatures. On this particular day at the NCA, a row of students is sitting on the floor against the wall, drawing boards on their laps, beavering away on their work, in a karkhana-like atmosphere. For many students, this too is an attraction that miniatures require no big investment instudios or space. In many ways, Pakistan's neo-miniaturists see themselves as having reclaimed an art form rooted in their own culture that was marginalized as “folk” or “oriental” by the more dominant Western arttradition, and giving it a firm footing in the contemporary, modern art world. “Miniatures relate more to the people of the sub-continent than the oil painting of the west,” said Qureshi. “When I paint a miniature, I'm at ease, like I'm talking in Urdu rather than in English”.