A Journey of Materials and Tools, Processes and Practice: Miniature and Neo-Miniature
A Journey of Materials and Tools, Processes and Practice: Miniature and Neo-Miniature

A Journey of Materials and Tools, Processes and Practice Miniature and Neo-Miniature

Author: Rumana Husain

Originally published in NuktaArt, Vol 1, Two, October 2006
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Painting by Sumaya Durrani and images taken from Karkhana

I have closely inspected posters and small paintings in the traditional miniature style, selling in Zainab Market in Karachi. The paintings are on canvas, fabric, silk, and even Pipal leaves (Ficus religiosa) enclosed in decorative frames.

“Where are these made? Who are the artists? What are the materials being used?” I inquire for this article, which explores the many traditional and modern implements and methods utilized by breeds of conventional, hybrid, modern and contemporary miniature artists.

However, I have been unsuccessful in extracting a straightforward answer from the shopkeepers who say only that the artists are anonymous but live within the city. As for the materials and tools used, they are not concerned with such mundane issues…

The Pakistani dealers have apparently not learnt to exploit the buyers. However, on a recent visit to India I came across hundreds of shops in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur in Rajasthan, where similar miniatures are sold. Dozens of artists sit inside and outside curio shops and churn out generic scenes: landscapes and belligerent hunting or fighting scenes of the Mughal and Rajput rulers. They also include stereotypes of elephants, camels, peacocks and horses – the revered animals of India – symbols of good fortune and good health.

While the grand forts and palaces of Rajasthani cities ingrain an indelible mark on the traveller, these purely commercial miniature paintings too are tourist-pullers as they further affirm the sightseer’s love for the exotic. Images of adorned elephants, dazzling forts on high mountains and Rajput men and women in fine apparels and ornaments are ubiquitous. From minuscule paintings of elephants on thumbnails to selling greeting cards and poster-size paintings, these ‘miniature artists’ have also decorated walls with murals and embellished doorways and entrances in the cities, particularly in Udaipur.

On inquiry regarding the materials used for creating the paintings on paper – pieces of colorful rocks are on display at all the workspaces – I am informed, “All the rocks are obtained from the surrounding mountains. Rubbing of the rock on a piece of wood or a slab of stone with some water brings out the pigment, which is then applied to the drawing.” The artists insist that their pigments are only from natural sources. However, their students can attest that this is not always so and the use of chemical paints is on the increase.

One such student is an Australian woman who is doing a six-month miniature-painting training in Udaipur. She confides, “The bit about natural materials is a popular selling tactic. The artists take short cuts and use chemical colors as well. I am also taught to use a mixture.”

Elephants painted on thumbnail and greeting card in Udaipur
Guards of all varieties at the entrance to the City Palace Udaipur, Rajasthan, India

Tracing the history of manuscripts, we learn that palm leaves have been the most popular writing materials historically in India. Manuscript writers used iron stylus for incising text and patterns on their surface while knives were used for trimming and erasing. Paper, which was invented in China in the 1st century, came into general use in northern India as late as the 13th century.

In regions under Muslims extending from Turkey to Persia, the first examples of illustrated text came much later than the evidence of early figurative painting found in fragments of wall paintings, textile designs, and painted ceramic pieces. This was either because the introduction of paper to the area came later, or paper deteriorates so much more quickly than other products. The earlier illuminations accompanied translations of Greek scientific works into Arabic. These were illustrated with miniatures in brilliant colors, sometimes against a background of gold. Animals painted together with elaborate and intricate designs, often depicted accounts of the beasts and the medicines extracted from them. Originally a physician to the Caliph in Baghdad compiled this scientific knowledge in the 11th century. Two centuries later it was translated from Arabic into Persian and illustrated with 94 delightful miniatures.

From Turkey to Mesopotamia, from Persia to India and Pakistan, examples of surviving miniatures include medical discourses, travelogues, animal studies, scenes from hunts, battles, and the royal court. A few are based on personal and political commentaries.

Post Mongol invasion after 1258 brought the influence of Chinese painting and many miniatures painted in a linear style began to appear. The artists utilized light, feathery brush-strokes to apply delicate tints. At first the old Mesopotamian style illustrations and the new Chinese style miniatures came into view side by side in the same texts, but from the mid-fourteenth century the blend became so complete that a new style emerged. This fusion represented the basis of Persian miniature painting.

Lokeshvara, from a Ashtasahasrika manuscript, Pala, c. 1175, Opaque watercolor on palm leaf

The Muslim conquest at the end of the 12th century introduced into India the Persian tradition of court patronage to ateliers of book production.  Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar (1556 -1605), who was a great patron of the arts, established a vast studio.

The art of the book refers to the manuscript (text), illustration (figural and scenic documentation or painting), illumination (embellishment with abstract design in gold and other colors), calligraphy (fine writing) and binding (decoration of the cover). The term miniature does not refer to the size of the finished work, but rather, it is a concern with minute detail and a two-dimensional drawing style. The challenge is to translate the image into fine line drawing and, in the process, to flatten it out. More often than not, illustrations or paintings made in the Mughal ateliers were collective undertakings.

(1.) “A handful of pigeons pecked at the heap of eggshells. The yolk had been extracted from them to be mixed with gum and stirred to form a yellow pigment. Rotting leaves drew flies. The servant poured a cup of resin and then started to beat the mushy leaves with a spoon till they turned a lush green. Empty jars stood ready to be filled with fresh paint.”

This passage from The Miniaturist – a novel – presents intricate details of opulence and colorful references to Mughal miniature painting.

The Ottoman Sultans were also great patrons of the arts, with work of very fine quality being executed under their aegis. In the 15th century, Turkish painting was characterized by a dynamism and realism which was absent in Persian art of the period. This was the time that some miniature painters began to sign their works. The most famous of all was Behzad (1440-1514), whose style was more dramatic than that of other painters of the age, showing an interest in the individual and in the affairs of everyday life. Romance had little part to play in Turkish miniature painting, which was full of life and action, thus different from the magical and captivating dream world of Persian miniatures.

Indian miniature is categorized with reference to different schools: Pala, Orissa, Jain, Mughal, Rajasthani, Pahadi, etc. These schools are products of conservatories cultivated over generations and their varied locations explained by the changing sources of patronage due to shifts of political power. The 11th century Pala miniatures were the earliest to appear. Their symbolic use of color, in particular red for backgrounds has come to be associated in subsequent tradition with sensual and passionate longing.

The use of pure colors and heavy gold outlines in Jain miniature is reflected both in Rajasthani and in Pahadi painting. Miniature painting came into great prominence in the 16th century under the Mughals and the Muslim kings of Deccan and Malwa, as under the Hindu Rajas of Rajasthan.  During the two-hundred year colonial British rule in India, the Indian miniature tradition was mutated in ‘The Company Painting.’

(2.) The officers of the East India Company, living and working in what were called ‘mofussil’ postings in the provincial fastness of the land, bought Company paintings for the families and folks back home.

From the late 18th century on, Calcutta grew to be a booming center of Company painting, but this adaptation of the miniature painting was weakened when art schools opened by the British laid emphasis on Western tools and techniques. Art education as a whole got a Western orientation. Materials changed; oil paint and canvas was used instead of natural colors and traditional handmade paper – vasli or wasli. Manuscripts containing miniature art were taken apart and the illustrations relegated to museum walls.

Now reintroduced by the miniaturists from Lahore, Pakistan – Neo-Miniature is a contemporary revival of miniature painting. Making its presence felt since the 1990s, it forms a powerful case for the continued relevance of traditional art forms by dismantling the hypothetical dichotomy between old and new. The protagonists of ‘neo-miniature’ have recaptured the rich hybridism of the miniature practice. The content, the approach, the context, the materials, the tools and the processes may be different and new but it is the technique that ties it together.

In the newly created independent Pakistan, Abdur Rehman Chughtai (1899-1975) modernized the tradition of Indo-Persian miniature – (3.)  “He revived it as a new incarnation, and it had a grand life until Partition,” writes Akbar Naqvi in his book, Image and Identity- Fifty Years of Painting and Sculpture in Pakistan, and adds, “He created his own history and art from the skills and materials of his age. He drew according to the European method; learnt application of color from another source with decided inventiveness and originality. He was very partial to materials made in England and used only the best British paper, paint, and brush. His painting was a radical departure from the Indian and Persian miniature tradition of the past, but still within its history.”

With the emergence of organic chemistry, a new discipline in the mid nineteenth century emerged, namely, benzene-based compounds; aromatics that formed the source of many synthetic dyes. Aniline dyes, with great color intensity, were easy to use. German, French and English chemists developed these dyes and patents flourished.

Regarding the colors used by Chughtai, Naqvi says, “Chughtai claimed that the colors fixed on his paintings could not be washed away by several immersions in water. What we notice in the paintings are the subdued hues, and the painter’s preference for monochromatic tonality. The trace of immersions in water hangs over the paintings as an ineffable veil. His process, whatever it was, had to be mysterious, magical, and ritualistic.”

Ustad Bashir Ahmed, who has headed the Miniature Department at the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore for several years, has been instrumental in facilitating the revival of miniature art with a contemporary course. Bashir Ahmed started his career as an apprentice under the tutelage of traditionalists Haji Sharif, who came from a family of court painters to the rajas of small hill states of the Punjab, and Sheikh Shujaullah.

Bashir Ahmed later learnt from Zahoorul Akhlaque, who took over as head of the Fine Arts department of the NCA in the mid eighties and whose influence reached the new exponents of miniature, including well-known names such as Shazia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Nusra Latif Qureshi and many others.

The Miniature Department, which started in 1982 and had just one or two students, now, almost quarter of a century later, has several hundred graduates. They are taught to use traditional materials and tools: vegetable dye, dry pigment, watercolor, precious and semi-precious stones like agate, rock crystal, lapis lazuli or jade, gold leaf, and tea on traditional wasli paper. Some of them keep to the manuscript-page scale and format of traditional miniatures.

Some artists, like Imran Qureshi and Kazim Ali have increased the size of the wasli.  Imran Qureshi and a few others like to use yellowing pages from old books and collage components to the otherwise sanctified wasli. Shazia Sikander, Nusra Latif and others have used digital technology to expand their exploration of the miniature.  Aisha Khalid, and more recently, Talha Rathore embellish their miniature painting with stitches, embroidery and fabric.

Materials, Tools and Processes

I visit Sumaira Tazeen at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi (IVSSA) and ask her about the materials and tools used during her own training at the NCA. I also want to know whether she expounds the same while teaching at the IVSSA.

Tazeen says that she had a strictly traditional training in the techniques of making a miniature – from preparing the “authentic” wasli paper, which is grain-free and smooth, and is created by combining four sheets of water- color paper, to making the brushes and mixing the paints. She imparts the same expertise to her students.

Sumaira Tazeen

The glue, mixed with copper sulphate to guard against insect infestation, is for pasting the paper, one on top of the other. Tazeen elaborates that instead of using pulp-made paper, which is not acid-free and yellows with age, she prefers to use rag- made (fibre) paper, which has more strength and is more durable. To burnish the surface of the paper a large cowry lies near Tazeen’s feet. She wields another burnisher, “a gilder’s tool” which has an agate on one end.

Gum arabic or keekar or babul ki gond is used for joining paper to make wasli, as well as for mixing and binding the colors. Calligraphy pens, sharpened pencils and seashells are some of the other tools.

“Miniature painters always mix their watercolors in seashells. It is the most convenient container to use and can be stored in a small box.” Tazeen then adds, “But we use only a few vegetable dyes now as chemical colors are readily available.”

Traditional seating in the miniature department

Sufaida or white color is an essential material for a miniature painter. A thin white coat – astar – of white lead is treated with gum arabic medium. Tazeen explains that the pigment from white poster color is extracted by separating the gum and binder in a fifteen-day process. I ask why pure pigment cannot be bought to avoid such rigmarole, to which she says that by applying this particular technique students learn how materials are deconstructed and purified.

Creating the right brush is an important part of the miniaturist’s expertise. “We use squirrel hair to make our brushes. Squirrels breed fast and shed their tails. They do not have to be killed to obtain the hair. Each hair is sorted and inserted in a pigeon quill. Bamboo or reed is used for the handle and the quill is secured at its end with a tape.”

The meditative quality of working slowly and patiently in the personal format of a small-scale painting can completely immerse a miniature artist. The intimate manner of working with the materials while being seated on the floor, resting the wasli on a raised knee, allows the artist to enter a world that blocks out the cacophony of the mundane…

Shazia Sikander

The link and continuity of traditional process may still begin with specialized training in old techniques such as sona halkari (application of liquid gold), the Lahori khat (a regional style of Urdu calligraphy), or the use of beaten silver and gold foils. It could also entail catching a squirrel for its tail hair to making a brush, and spending hours to burnish the wasli, but there are profound changes in the artist’s social reality, which impact on the content, the approach, the context, as well as the implements used. Perhaps today’s urban-based neo-miniaturists may be ill equipped to use peori (yellow) from fine sediment that is separated from the urine of cows, fed only on mango leaves or use tiny cuttings of beetle wings to painted jewelry for creating an effect of encrusted emeralds! Nevertheless, the Pakistani protagonists of Neo-Miniatures are even using animation or creating installations constructed from found objects. Their experiments with diverse materials, tools and processes will continue…


The Miniaturist – a novel by Kunal Basu, George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, March 2004
The Art of the Book in India by Jeremiah, P. Losty, The British Library, London, 1982
Image and Identity – Fifty Years of Painting and Sculpture in Pakistan by Akbar Naqvi, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1998
Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments by Francois Delamare and Bernard Guineau, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers
Indian Miniature Painting by Anjan Chakraverty, Lustre Press Pvt. Ltd., 1996

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