Miniature painting is a genre of Indo-Persian art that has a long history dating back to the scribes of the medieval ages. The small illuminated manuscripts that are called miniature painting has its set of rules in terms of perspective, colour palette, size, composition and subjects. Pakistan has a deep-rooted memory with this tradition, one that most people consider to be dying in contemporary times.
In April 2017, Ahmed Javed’s solo exhibition titled ‘A Series of Fortunate Events’ opened at Sanat Initiative, Karachi. Ahmed was introduced to the traditional art of Mughal miniature painting in 2013 at the National College of Arts in Lahore. Absorbing the technique and understand the procedures of this genre, Javed soon started taking the tradition forward by breaking away from conventional notions and yet adhering to the philosophy of the practice.
None of the paintings are titled; the title of the exhibition is the only guidance one has to the work. ‘A Series of Fortunate Events’ is a juxtaposition of the absence of tradition and the unchallenged observation of custom in modern times. This can be perceived in his stylization of a very traditional technique and the particular use of imagery. Javed is continuing keeping a tradition from the 17th century alive in contemporary times by contextualizing the technique to modern times.
The play of scale in his work is derived from the Mughal miniature tradition where important subjects were increased in size to highlight their superiority. In one of his paintings, Javed decreases the size of the majestic Badshahi Mosque compared to its actual size. The mosque creates a background image which enhances the figures which are much larger in proportion. The overwhelming nature of the mosque is reduced to highlight the people performing abulation in its courtyard and the guard standing outside protecting the mosque. A similar play of scale can be seen in other paintings.
The perspectives of the paintings are distorted in Javed’s work, another feature typical of miniature painting; the colour palette borrowed from the customary technique is not true to the original colours of the imagery. The size of the paintings is an obvious deviation from the tradition although Javed did display a couple of small paintings that were more pertinent to the tradition of miniature.
The large diptychs have imagery found in everyday life without any jolting or alarming element. A fascinating factor is Javed’s focus on animal sacrifice, considered to be an essential part of the Muslim religion. His imagery ranges from a goat cut from the throat with blood splattered on the ground to a slaughtered camel to the act of sacrificing a cow. The images can be disturbing and unfamiliar for an external person but these acts are considered customary and normal. Javed’s two other paintings, one in which a lion is being slaughtered and the other in which a fish seller is cutting a fish impose the sacrificial act correlating the imagery of the exhibition on a whole. The simplicity of the imagery almost empties the work of a narrative, asking the viewer to bank on their memory of such events to connect with the work.
Javed displayed diptychs in this show that comprised of one skilfully painted edge-to-edge piece and the other a minimalistic piece where he painted some elements from the other half of the diptych. The contrasting paintings in the diptychs allow the viewer to engage with the works by imagining what the empty white space could be.
‘A Series of Fortunate Events’ is a perfect example of miniature artists contemporizing a tradition that most people don’t acknowledge or consider to be irrelevant in today’s time. Javed skillfully plays with the traditional practice making it his own by following and defying the techniques of this inherent tradition particular to this part of the world.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: Works by Ahmed Javed was shown at Sanat Gallery, Karachi, from 11-20 April 2017. Images courtesy of Sanat Gallery.