South Asian Manuscripts


Exploring the links between contemporary and traditional South Asian miniature painting and South Asian manuscripts, Beyond the Page at MK Gallery in the UK is showing 180 works by artists from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, Netherlands, UK and the US. Artists from different generations working in dialogue with the miniature tradition in the exhibition include Hamra Abbas, David Alesworth, Nandalal Bose, Noor Ali Chagani, Lubna Chowdhary, Adbur Rahman Chughtai, Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin, N S Harsha, Howard Hodgkin, Ali Kazim, Bhupen Khakhar, Jess MacNeil, Imran Qureshi, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Mohan Samant, Nilima Sheikh, Willem Schellinks, the Singh Twins, Shahzia Sikander and Abanindranath Tagore.

Distinguished History of South Asian Manuscripts

With a long history stretching back to the 9th century, South Asian manuscripts and miniatures illustrate epic tales and mythology, as well as sacred texts and histories, a world of gods and goddesses, rulers, romances, mythology, and political intrigue. Some can be considered factual records of court life and historic characters, including maharajas, maharanis, court nobles, and other wealthy personalities. Modern miniatures can often be seen as a commentary on modern life, with artists adding a sense of humour or irony to their work.

Opening at MK Gallery in October, the exhibition explores how the traditions of miniature painting have been reclaimed and reinvented by modern and contemporary artists, moving beyond the pages of illuminated manuscripts to experimental art forms that include installations, sculpture, and film. In the early 20th century, miniature painting represented a strand of cultural resistance to colonial rule. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, artists in South Asia and beyond continue to find contemporary relevance in the possibilities offered by the miniature tradition, including its capacity to tell multiple narratives, challenge Western hierarchies of material and techniques, and its natural tendency to combine original concepts with traditional painting skills.

Contemporary South Asian Art

Contemporary works are shown alongside examples of miniature painting dating from the mid-16th century, drawn from major collections including The Victoria & Albert Museum and The British Museum, many on public display for the first time.

The Padshahnama

A highlight of the exhibition is the selection of pages from the Padshahnama (The Book of Kings), loaned by His Majesty The King from the Royal Collection Trust. This 17th-century manuscript with illuminated miniatures, which constitute some of the finest Mughal paintings ever produced, has inspired numerous contemporary responses.

The Padshahnama is considered to be amongst the greatest treasures held within the Royal Collection in the UK. The album forms an official record of the first 10 years of the reign of Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor (and builder of the Taj Mahal). During the 18th century, the manuscript entered the collection of the Nawabs of Oudh, rulers of Lucknow in eastern India, whose wealth and power quickly eclipsed the declining imperial court. In 1797, it was given by the reigning Nawab to Lord Teignmouth, the then Governor General of India, for presentation in 1799 to King George III.

Shah Jahan (1628-1658) was known as a great patron of the arts and, in the early 1630s, he commissioned The Padshahnama as an illustrated account of his reign. The commission of the manuscript was given to Abdul-Hamid Lahawri. The text, compiled from meticulous records of major events, was written in Persian, the formal language of the court. The manuscript in the Royal Collection was transcribed by the calligrapher Muhammad-Amin of Mashad in 1657-8. The rarity of this manuscript is that it is the only known version of the chronicle to include illustrations of the period.

The 44 illustrations and two illuminations were executed by at least 14 of the finest Mughal court artists, amongst them Balchand and his brother Payag, Ramdas Murar and Bhola. On a number of occasions these artists have included their own portraits in the scenes, along with those of the principal members of the imperial circle and visitors to court. Sumptuous ceremonies and weddings, scenes of dancing and music, hunts and battles, offer a glimpse of a world of opulent splendour, magnificence and power.

The original sketches for the illustrations would, in many cases, have been done from life and incorporated the additional evidence of eyewitness accounts. The drawings were transferred on to a sheet of paper and the vibrant watercolour paints applied over a white translucent ground with tiny brushes. Finally, the whole painting was polished to create a smooth enamel-like surface. Set amidst beautiful landscapes and the architecture of palaces and forts, the formal composition of many of the illustrations denotes the strict hierarchy of the Mughal court and creates a masterfully controlled rhythm of pattern and colour. Yet it is the artists’ delight in the tiniest details, the texture of lavish fabrics and arrangement of fantastic jewels that gives the pages of the Padshahnama their extraordinary intensity.

The Question of Culture and Power

The exhibition looks at raising questions of culture and power in the entangled histories of Empire and globalisation; many of the greatest collections of these miniature paintings and manuscripts are held in the UK. For more than 400 years Indian miniatures have arrived in Britain, from Mughal royal portraits presented to James I by his envoy to the Mughal court in the early 17th century, through to the vast collection of fine paintings and manuscripts amassed by employees of the East India Company. The process of these acquisitions and their central role within British and South-Asian art histories are explored in the exhibition.

An example of this interaction can be seen in the work of Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999) and Gulammohamed Sheikh (b 1937). Both studied at London’s Royal College of Art in the mid-20th century where they discovered new ways of engaging with the miniature tradition through the Victoria & Albert Museum’s rich collections of Indian miniature paintings. Returning to the Subcontinent as influential teachers and practitioners, Akhlaq and Sheikh went on to inspire generations of artists, including N S Harsha (who won the Artes Mundi Prize in 2008), Imran Qureshi (see this month’s artist profile, page 2) and Shahzia Sikander (see profile Asian Art Newspaper, June 2021). All these artists are associated with two of South Asia’s most important art schools, the National College of the Arts, Lahore, Pakistan and the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, India.

The South Asian manuscripts and other works in the exhibition are drawn from major collections in the UK, including the Royal Collection, Tate, The Ashmolean Museum, National Museums Scotland and The British Museum, as well as private collections including Deutsche Bank, many of which are rarely on display, and include a number of new commissions from contemporary artists.

From 7 October to 28 January, 2024, MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, UK, Catalogue available