The modern miniaturist

Detailed art

The fine strokes and minute details are what catches the eyes when one first sees the paintings. Miniature art is best thought to belong to the Mughal age, but looking at Pakistani artist Muhammad Zeeshan’s artworks, it is clear that miniature art has made a comeback.

Zeeshan is an internationally recognised miniaturist who has combined the traditional with the contemporary. His works involve his experiments with new techniques applied on different media, thus giving them a modern twist.

As a part of the neo-contemporary miniature movement, Zeeshan is in a comfortable position to experiment and bring the diverse elements on his canvas.

In his recent outing in New Delhi, where he was showing his works after a gap of six years, he used laser scoring to highlight the half-human, half-animal forms that dominated a large part of his exhibition titled Poster Nama. Laser scoring, he says, gives one total control and power. “It is such a beautiful process, seeing your drawing being translated onto the surface of your choice. Every line is being dictated by you. It is a high,” he says.

He first came across this technique in a design lab in San Francisco where his wife was then studying. Laser scoring is basically a term used to describe a laser that scores. The laser cutting machine is a tool commonly used for cutting into acrylics, metals and wood.

Zeeshan says, “When I use it for my paper, I manually control the laser to lower its intensity to a point where it only marks and burns the paper, and not cut it. I first create my drawing on paper, then through different softwares I alter the painting to a vector file which the laser cutting machine can read. Once the file is fed, the machine only recreates what I have fed to it,” says the Lahore-based artist.

In his latest exhibition, Poster Nama, Zeeshan explores sufi traditions through miniature. Interestingly, the inspiration for the exhibition comes from archived images. “I have a huge collection of locally made posters. The ones I used this time were made by local unknown artists who were illustrating the general idea of mysticism, the local perception related to various beliefs and faiths,” informs Zeeshan.

But more interestingly, the greatest influence, he says, has been the ‘culture shock’ he experienced when he moved from the smaller town of Mirpur Khas to the big city, Lahore, where he was exposed to a liberated environment. Also, the first time he travelled abroad and came across digital traffic lights that read ‘Walk’, he found the experience quite strange. “These things changed my outlook towards life and created a better understanding for the various cultures that exist. I was/am always hungry for more interactions.

The sense of newness jolts me out of my comfort zone and I react to absorb it, and naturally, it becomes part of my work,” he says. Zeeshan, 33, had his first brush with paint and art as a kid when he resorted to billboard painting in order to pay for his art materials. He was always interested in drawing, he remembers. He would subconsciously notice things around him and later try to draw them.

In fact, illustrations in magazines and newspapers were a favourite with him. When he started billboard painting in his native Mirpur Khas, a city in the province of Sindh in Pakistan, he overcame his fear of drawing. The large, bold images that he painted — though largely he was given the task of covering up the skin of the film heroine — gave him the opportunity to master his strokes.

The learning experience that began out of necessity soon turned into a passion, one that he remembers fondly even today. “I enjoyed it because I was learning from the best, and I still say that I learnt from the best because I was taught to make/create work with fewer resources and many options to resolve issues that might come a painter’s way. We couldn’t waste, we had only two or three surfaces to draw on for the current film. So, I guess I ended up learning a lot of short cuts as well as solutions. Today, I am confident about many things which a painter only learns in a dukaan under an ustaad,” he reasons.

From bold and sweeping strokes, Zeeshan soon graduated to minute details and fine drawing when he learnt miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore. Further, a chance sighting of Ustad Haji Sharif’s miniature painting of Quaid e Azam inspired him to pursue miniature art. As he admits, till that time he was being informed mostly by the printed source.

What he discovered about miniature painting was its own distinctive style of washes, figure making, architecture and perspective. Talking about the art form, Zeeshan says, “If we look at the traditional miniatures belonging to the courts, we can see that there are steps and various elements that combine and bring discipline on the wasli surface for it to be called ‘miniature’. Quite simply, miniatures are illustrations of whoever chose to commission them. In the past, the kings patronised the art form.” In India, the earliest traces of miniature paintings have been found from the 10th century, done on palm leaves. Later, it was in the courts of the Mughals that this art prospered. Other instances of the art form were found in the Rajasthani, Pahari and Deccan courts.

It is thus natural that Zeeshan would be inspired by India, the land where miniature art thrived once. In fact, he believes that his first visit in 2005 to India was a turning point in his career. “India has always been my favourite place of exhibit. I enjoy the culture and its warm welcome. I want to show and share what I create, reaching out to as many people and cultures as I can,” he says.

Sure enough, here is one artist who is reaching out to India through the medium of an ancient art form.

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