The genre of contemporary miniature is still in its infancy, having gained prominence in just the last two decades. Yet its rise and significance has been meteoric and one would expect that by now at least a few books would have been dedicated to its growth and relevance in mainstream Pakistani art. The thing about a critical appraisal through publication is that it establishes a space for discourse and the art in question can then be reckoned formally as an ‘ism’. That is not to say that a label is imperative for the progression of the discourse but surely the ground requires prepping for opinions and dialogue to be stacked.
Virginia Whiles’ book Art and Polemic in Pakistan has taken years of research, investigation and even personal immersion into the tradition of miniature at NCA and by its title one assumes the debate is a globalized or even regionalized one, involving conflicting assumptions and assertions by critics and writers. But the polemic Whiles refers to exists within the small pool of artists and miniature practitioners and though the debate rages with great vehemence on both sides of the court — one traditional and the other contemporary—it is a limited debate yet. Hopefully this book will change all that and offer the indispensable insight required by outsiders looking in to form an opinion and take the trouble to examine the genre more assiduously.
To set the parameters for the polemic, Whiles divides the practicing miniaturists into two groups calling them Group O and Group X both mentored by leading practitioners. The first group includes the traditionalists who “function through an absolute belief in past traditions, and are convinced that only by imitating the ‘originals’ can the practice continue”. The group is led by the fiercely possessive Bashir Ahmed who heads the miniature department at the National College of Arts, Lahore. The themes addressed by this section of artists are grand and epic in nature taken from religious traditions or classical historic episodes and nostalgic notions of past grandeur. Yet, Whiles notes, students do tiptoe beyond acceptable boundaries of given narratives and aspire to introduce stylistic innovations and thematic anomalies. Scale is the first noticeable variation that these students have brought to the practice – three feet by two seems to have become the standardized norm amongst these artists.
The artists who belong to Group X are the revolutionaries, according to Whiles – the iconoclasts and the game-changers. They are inspired by the teachings of the late Zahoor-ul-Akhlaque and have displayed their interdependence with miniature as an art form, seeking liberation from all its restraining shackles. The artists in this group include Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Hamra Abbas, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Khadim Ali, Ahsan Jamal, Mahreen Zuberi, Hasnat Mehmood, Mohammad Zeeshan and others of the same ilk.
The book contains nine cameos of artists, all belonging to the milieu of contemporary miniature and they make for interesting reading as each artist’s practice is reviewed and explained, interspersed by their personal commentary. Whiles also goes to India and investigates the miniature tradition there which she finds to be vital and exuberant but ultimately wary, suspicious and uninterested in contemporary miniature in Pakistan. She explains “Their lack of interest may well have been due to the familiar specialist discourse which argues that the contemporary ‘traditional’ forms of art are not ‘authentic’ because of contamination by Western influences”
Whiles’ book locates miniature in its wider context of the valuation of South Asian art within the oft-repeated paradigms of exoticism, craftsmanship and ethnicity which are important to the discourse about miniature. She also discusses the global and local reaction to miniature citing Dr Naqvi’s vitriolic statements denigrating miniature and Niilofur Farrukh’s defence of it. Art and Polemic in Pakistan is a comprehensive account of miniature in its present role of defying tradition, setting new boundaries both in the art world and in the art market, and though the effect of the ‘movement’ for want of a better term, is restricted and limited, it exists. The recognition of its existence in a relevant context is Whiles’ great contribution to Pakistani contemporary miniature needs to be appreciated for the dedication with which she has put together this invaluable resource