Shahzia Sikander is one of the contemporary art world’s most celebrated stars. She’s projecting her hypnotic video installations onto Times Square billboards; she’s led exhibitions at major art museums across the world; and she was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation as a “genius” fellow in 2006. The Pakistani-born artist says art has always been a “ticket to life,” but what distinguishes Sikander’s art from her contemporaries is her training in a centuries-old handmade form of Islamic art — the bejeweled world of Indo-Persian miniature paintings.
The Finest Pictures With The Finest Lines
While the Renaissance masters were going big, the royal ateliers of India’s Mughal dynasty were going small. Miniature painting thrived in the 15th- and 16th- century courts of India’s Islamic kingdoms. Sometimes as small as 3 inches by 3 inches, these paintings were highly decorative, graphical pages that wove stories of heroism, lovers and political intrigue into gilded works of art. Artists followed stringent rules, and in addition to years of training, the craft required incredibly precise techniques. Pakistani art historian F.S. Aijazuddin says, “For the finest pictures and for the finest lines, they would use what was called an ek baal, which was a single hair — a single squirrel hair — to achieve the finest line.”
These miniature paintings are often at the center of the world’s leading collections of Islamic art. Navina Haidar curates one such collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She says miniature paintings are “dependent on tremendous technical finesse. As an artist, you are trained by your father, your forefathers, in a workshop setting to create a world that’s miniaturized in its scale but absolutely universal sometimes in its content or in its ambition.”
But as the Muslim kingdoms of India faded in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the patronage and the practice of miniature painting. Then in the 1980s, the artist Bashir Ahmad. revived the tradition by establishing a formal department of miniature painting at the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan.