Icons from Traditional Indian Miniatures in Contemporary Art
Icons from Traditional Indian Miniatures in Contemporary Art

Manuscript making and illumination in the Indian Mughal courts has been a well-recognized high-art form in South Asia between the fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Emperors, such as Akbar (b.1542-1605) and Shah Jahan (b.1592-1666), frequently posed on terraces of their courts or sat on thrones or horses for royal portraits that were often painted as miniatures in manuscripts. Commissioned artists from the emperors’ ateliers meticulously captured scenes of Mughal courtly life in these lavish royal manuscripts and hand-held sized folios that followed traditional miniature pictorial laws such as the inclusion of decorated frames, embellished floral patterns, exaggerated visual perspective, and robust views of the emperors. Through these small sized paintings, Mughal emperors established their identity as majestic leaders of a vast empire with refined tastes of an art form that seldom observed pictorial change.

Shah Jahan on a Terrace, Chitarman, watercolour and gold on paper, 38.9 cm x 25.7 cm, 1628, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access, MET Collection.

Indian painting under the Mughals and the independent Rajput kingdoms followed intelligent and stringent visual standards. The knowledge of materials such as vegetable and mineral based dyes and methods used to fashion these exquisite works had been passed down generationally among the Indian artists who were responsible for keeping the tradition alive (and conventional).

However, since the late eighteenth century, this practice of traditional Indian miniature painting has witnessed periods of highs and lows. The style has survived the mitigated stately patronage after the dethroning of the Mughals by the British in Indian subcontinent. The rise of photography in South Asia and modern art in Pakistan furthered this loss after Partition in 1947 With considerable effort that went in reviving miniature painting in the 80s Pakistan, the genre has also undergone many stylistic changes especially during the past thirty years.

Today, contemporary artists who paint in the manner of miniature experiment with varied scales of canvases and diverse materials, and media, such that they produce striking sculpture, installations, and animation. Artists often engage with traditional material and fuse techniques used by court artists of yester-centuries as they create new imagery that may generate discourses on global issues and bring contemporary art in an intelligent dialogue with traditional art practices.

In term of subject matter, although many royal Mughal manuscripts depicted women of the courts and religious texts it was their male counterparts, and also often legendary heroic figures from fables, who were center staged. However, to deny that there were no icons of women in Indian miniature painting would be deceptive. Indian miniature paintings and manuscripts represented women, but in limited gendered roles. Conversely, we now see a great many numbers of women (real and fictitious) centralized in countless contemporary works either as portraits or in dynamic visual scenes.

As a result of this modern-day shift, the visual and conceptual imagery in miniature art is not the same anymore. From a tradition in the Indian subcontinent, that spanned over four centuries of Mughal rule, how have some of the icons such as the depiction of Hindu goddesses, maidens, and decorative elements been visually and conceptually transformed in ‘contemporary miniature’ by Pakistani artists who exhibit both nationally and transnationally? Additionally, how does this iconography manifest in ‘contemporary art’, distinct from the genre of “contemporary miniature?

My purpose here is to highlight these icons and subjects from traditional Indian miniature painting and explore the changes in their contemporary usage. To do so, I will first briefly introduce the two dominant styles of painting that flourished in Mughal India between sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, viz. Indo-Persian (or Mughal) and Rajasthani painting. Through the works of contemporary miniature artists of Pakistani origin, primarily focusing on the works of Naheed Fakhar, Shahzia Sikander, and Talha Rathore, I will explore how certain conventions (for example, the female figures as well as the flora and fauna illustrated in traditional miniature paintings) have been envisioned in the genre’s contemporary iconographical lexicon and within contemporary art as well.

Miniature Painting and the Art of Manuscript Illumination in Mughal India

Miniature paintings included in gloriously illuminated manuscripts enjoyed an elevated status in Persian courts (a neighboring empire to India), with its proliferation in the area dating back to seventh century central Asian countries. These Persian miniatures pervaded the court of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, in India in 1530 C.E who fostered the merger with local Indian paintings by commissioning numerous male Indian and Persian court artists. 1 The resulting Indo-Persian style (also known as Mughal painting) thrived in the Mughal-ruled Indian subcontinent between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries and produced artworks rich with calligraphy, animal motifs, and history of the Indian lands.

Indo-Persian miniature paintings exalted under the third Mughal emperor Akbar (b. 1556 – d. 1605), where the style’s visual lexicon often centered around depictions of male imperial rulers, spiritual narratives from Islam (including mystical journeys of the prophet Muhammad) alongside mythical stories of other religions. Akbar’s extensive support also allowed independent and smaller kingdoms in the Indian state of Rajasthan and Rajput ruled areas to cultivate their distinctive style of miniature painting in the subsequent years. 2

These Rajasthani illustrations depicted Hindu mythic tales from the sacred Sanskrit texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharta, and Puranas. 3 Between late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, Rajasthani paintings excelled with a focus on court life. Some popular imageries in these works include the depiction of Hindu god Krishna and his innumerable devout and physically identical female milk maidens, known as the gopis, and powerful and aggressive Hindu goddesses.

Portrayal of Women

In the Indo-Persian miniature painting titled Devi with Shiva (1630-35 C.E), attributed to the premier Mughal court artist Payag, a deranged Hindu deity, Devi, sits on a cremation ground with the god Shiva beside her who is disguised as a beggar. 4 Devi is painted in red; her hair is black and her eyes and mouth strike fear. Her body is partially covered with skulls of her victims. She has four arms, two of these hold a sword and a trident, and the others a skull. In this instance, the painting focuses on a female character who is a powerful and terrorizing goddess without any godly mercy.

Goddess Bhairavi Devi with Shiva, Payag, watercolor and gold on paper, 18.5 cm x 326.5 cm, 1630-35, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access, MET collection.

Many miniature paintings especially from Rajput courts, India’s Punjab Hills, and those occasionally from Basohli in the Kathua district glorified the saga of the male Hindu gods, such as the brave Rama and Krishna. Rama is often shown in many forms where he is either holding clandestine meetings with his lover Sita, fighting epic battles, or adventuring the woods. The drawings and painting of Krishna frequent scenes from his childhood, battles, casual mischief, and flirtatious occasions with his consort Radha and female cowherd devotees— the gopis. These milk maidens are usually physically identical, portrayed with exaggerated body organs, tight hair-dos and are often sidelined merely as Krishna’s disciples or sexual associates in these exquisite visual narratives.

As seen in the miniature painting titled Krishna and the Gopis Take Shelter from the Rain (ca.1760), Krishna who is visually larger than the maidens, is painted in the center of the picture frame as he is surrounded by seven identical and smaller gopis who cover him or idly sit on the grass beside him. 5 The painting bursts with lush green flora and white fauna and is bordered with an earthly brown frame. In this work, the male protagonist is the central figure who takes command while his maidens are beside him, sheltering him from the pouring rain and bearing little authority. While these paintings include female figures, their portrayals as Hindu deities and lovers in these rich visual sagas emphasize the limited individualistic identity the characters exercised in these representations.

Krishna and Gopi Take Shelter, Anonymous, ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 34.9 cm x 23.8 cm, 1760, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access, MET collection.

Transformed Icons, New Agency

To maintain this South Asian and shared Indian artistic heritage in a post-colonial period, art schools in Pakistan required their students to illustrate men and women (as seen in traditional manuscripts. This meant upholding a tradition that was passed down over generations and it seemed that the only way to do so was by means of reproductions, as witnessed in the practice of a twentieth century traditional miniature artists. Thus, students in Pakistan’s art schools (for instance those at the National College of Arts in Lahore) learnt to paint in the style by making copies of traditional miniature paintings that have survived within the Mughal manuscripts or independently. While this allowed the budding artists to practice relentlessly, develop patience, and hone their skills, their wasli6 continued to embrace anachronistic women and men that simply did not relate to any social setting of the late twentieth century. Imitation from historical miniatures became an established and standard practice.

In 1985, graduating student Naheed Fakhar from the NCA, painted a series of domestic scenes in which women were shown in their homes and courtyards playing games. Remarkably, these protagonists looked nothing like the exaggerated women of historical Indo-Persian or Rajasthani miniatures. In fact, contemporary women were never observed in miniature paintings up till now. 7 Thus, these works which did not completely imitate historical sources, instigated the possibility of bringing change in the ‘practice of emulating’ by introducing ‘contemporaneity’ within miniature painting’s framework. 8

The visual compositions of Fakhar’s paintings were devised under the conventional graphic tenets of Indo-Persian miniature painting as the works were ornamented with borders and precise details. The technique borrowed the romantic allure of miniature palettes and utilized formal mediums such as hand-made pigments, gesso, and watercolors. However, the iconography now introduced ways of looking and perceiving miniature painting that was never observed before. Contemporary women were depicted in activities that prioritized “self-chosen personal interests” as opposed to imitated aggressive deities or consorts of the gods.

Kora Jamal Shahi, Naheed Fakhar, gouache on paper, 41.9 x 31.29 cm, 1984, provided by the artist. Artist's collection.
Geetay, Naheed Fakhar, gouache on paper, 38 x 38.4 cm, 1984, provided by the artist. Artist's collection.

Other such examples where historical imagery has been reimagined in contemporary painting can be seen in the works of Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander. A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation (1993) is made with traditional materials such as gesso and gouache however, the painting contains one singular figure: a flesh-toned female body with a heavy bosom, slender waist, curvilinear hips, and legs like thin ropy strands as she floats over a greyish-black background. The figure is a radical reinvention of the recognizable Hindu deity that transforms into a large, anonymous, and head-less female form via Sikander’s hand. 9 Isolated in Sikander’s work, the goddess’s mythical and limited conventions diminish as the figure loses its traditional connotation with the prevalent miniature painting. Instead, now anonymous, the protagonist is equipped to be lodged with multiple associations and realistic identities. For the artist (who has made a few iterations of the same figure) the form once alluded to her own relocation to the United States of America in the 90s and to Doris Duke10 in one of the iterations (Unseen, 2012). 11 The form may also be suggestive of a disbalance between gender dynamics in historical institutions and contemporary society. Ultimately, the painting may be relatable for viewers on a personal level.

In other contemporary works by Sikander, the identical gopis of Krishna previously seen as fervent lovers of the Hindu God transform into a tour-de-force of female representation and agency. In her painting Gopi Crisis (2001) several nude gopis, drawn till the waist and with only a couple of them in full bodies, partially clash into each other as they are connected through the passing of a black string. Unlike traditional painting where gopis accompany the Hindu male gods, or are often seen bathing in the river while seemingly unmindful of each other, they are active, in control, and floating on the canvas while remains of the goddess Durga (and not Krishna) linger at the painting’s corners. 12 This enhanced visual vocabulary (that is furthered in subsequent works) is radically different than depiction of Krishna’s consorts in traditional painting and its imitation in art schools, thus bringing icons from traditional miniatures in a seductive dialogue with contemporary art.

Gopi silhouettes, hairdos, and figures in Sikander’s many works have fundamentally evolved over the course of her practice since the early 90s. They are like pieces derived from the very framework of traditional miniature that come together in hordes (in the different works by the artist), suggesting personal, social, and global tumult, universality of experience, and emphasis on inspection placed on women in power positions in social and political institutions. In her almost 7-minute video animation SpiNN (2003), a pun on the American news network CNN, images of stylized gopis penetrate the authoritative and patriarchal Mughal courts. Their hair detaches from their heads and fill the courts (and our screens)— symbolic of power and agency over outright rebellion.

Gopi Crisis, Shahzia Sikander, vegetable color, dry pigment, gravure, inkjet, tea and chine colle on paper, 39 cm x 28 cm, 2001, Sean Kelly, New York. Private collection of the artist.
SpiNN, Shahzia Sikander. Originally video animation, vegetable dye, dry pigment, watercolor and tea on wasli paper, 20.32 cm x 28 cm, 2003, Sean Kelly, New York. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.

This beguiling change in representation extends beyond figurative depiction. In traditional miniature paintings and manuscripts, the use of flora and fauna was a part of outdoor and sometime indoor compositions. Plants would often adorn the interiors where Mughal emperors would pose for portraits. In contemporary miniatures of Talha Rathore, foliage has come center front as the main subject to represent connectivity and disconnection alike, intimacy in human relationships and unicellular organism and bacteria that invade our collective and personal space.

In her painting, Grieving Tranquility II (2006), Rathore recreates the map of the New York city subway on wasli; divided in two severed sections that are connected to each other via stitches. Superimposed on each section is a singular drawing of a tree. Between the map and the respective two trees are layers of gouache and additional borders. The geometric frame-like layering of the borders creates some visual tension as it contrasts with the organic and stylized trees. The artist indicates human connectivity through the maps; however, the work is a greatly indicative of death and loss of intimacy in personal relationships (as represented through the image of the trees). The deliberate lacrimation of the wasli and its subsequent stitching disrupts the traditional values of being “pristine” and “whole” associated with the surface as a medium and adds newer connotations that indicate change and correlation.

In Subtle Perception I (2018), the artist divides a tree bark in two while its intricately repetitive green foliage is tainted with red blobs of paint. Similarly, in the work Circumscribe (2018) from the same series, Rathore centralizes a highly styled tree with repetitive leaf motifs in the center of her composition. Stained leaves in Rathore’s works are like codes; their purpose is greater than mere decoration. In fact, they may be understood as symbols that represent our brutally tackled social differences that may lead to breaking of personal or social bonds.

Perception I, Talha Rathore, gouache and archival pens on wasli, 43 x 58.5 cm, 2018, Chawkandi Art gallery. Private Collection.
Circumscribe, Talha Rathore, gouache and archival pens on wasli, 43 x 58.5 cm, 2018, Chawkandi Art gallery. Private Collection.

Traditional Indo-Persian and Rajasthani miniature painting was intellectually and visually rich with well thought out pictorial rules. Problems, however, arose in representation when this native art form was seldom supported by the British in the colonial period and finally. After the inception of Pakistan, the practice avoided new representation of subjects that were contemporaneous with the then moment. However, major stylistic and media-based changes in the past thirty years of contemporary art have reinvigorated this stupendous art form. This article thus took into consideration how iconography from traditional miniatures has been detached from its original source, and now layered to be more responsive to current times in contemporary miniature painting and contemporary art. Its reimagined and innovative icons have made it possible to discuss issues of identity, social relationships, and female agency in modern-day society that transcends all national borders.

Title image: Radha and Krishna, Manaku, opaque watercolour, beetle fruit fragments and gold on paper, 20 cm x 30cm, 1730, Victoria and Albert Museum Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum online access.


  • Ahmed, Jalal-ud-Din. Art in Pakistan. Lahore: Pakistan Publications, 1962.
  • Brandon, Claire. “A Slight and Pleasing Dislocation.” In Apparatus of Power. Edited by Claire Brandon. Hong Kong: Asia Society Hong Kong Center, 2016.
  • Asher, Catherine B. and Cynthia Talbot. India Before Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Christoph, Sara. “Shahzia Sikander with Sara Christoph.” In Tell Me Something Good- Artist Interviews from the Brooklyn Rail. Edited by Jarrett Earnest and Lucas Zwirner. New York: David Zwirner Books. 2017.
  • Fletcher, Valerie. Directions: Shahzia Sikander. Smithsonian Institute, 2000.
  • Hashmi, Salima. “Radicalizing Tradition,” in Contemporary Art in Asia: A Critical Reader. Edited by Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011.
  • McInerney, Terrence, “Mughal Court Painting and the Origins of Rajput Court Painting,” in , Divine Pleasures: Paintings from India’s Rajput Courts. Edited by Terrence McInerney. New York: Met Publications, 2016.
  • Kossak, Steven. Indian Court Painting. New York: The MET Publications, 1997.
  • Rizvi, Kishwar. “History, Narrative, and the Female Figure (as Disruption),” in Shahzia Sikander: Extra-Ordinary Realities. Edited by Sadia Abbas and Jan Howard, RISD museum catalogue, 2020.
  • Smith, Terry. What is Contemporary Art? Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.


  1. Jalal-ud-Din Ahmed, Contemporary Painters of Pakistan, (Pakistan Cooperative Book Society: N.P, 1958), 18
  2. Terrence McInerney, “Mughal Court Painting and the Origins of Rajput Court Painting,” Divine Pleasures: Paintings from India’s Rajput Courts, ed. by Terence McInerney, (New York: MET Publications, 2016), 17.
  3. Rajasthani miniature painting is also known as Rajput painting. Ramayana and Mahabharta are Sanskrit epic poems containing war stories and philosophical material originating in ancient India. The Puranas is also in Sanskrit and chronicles Hindu myths, legends, and cosmological philosophy. Ramayana has been greatly illustrated in Indian miniatures, depicting the war and battle fought by the Hindu God Rama. (Catherine B. Asher and Cynthia Talbot, “Southern India, 1350-1550,” India Before Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2007).
  4. Anonymous, “The Goddess Bhairavi Devi with Shiva,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/457743
  5. Anonymous, “ Krishna and Gopis Take Shelter from the Rain,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/37968
  6. hand-made tea washed paper
  7. Hashmi, “Tradition,” 288. Historically, miniature paintings have always included depiction of either historical characters such as mythological female Hindu gods, hand maidens, milk maidens, or wives or/and lovers of Mughal emperors.
  8. “Contemporaneity” in this regard refers to the inclusion of fictitious or real protagonists that seemed to belong from then contemporary society. Terry Smith, “What is Contemporary Art” in What is Contemporary Art (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 241.
  9. Valerie Fletcher, “Directions: Shahzia Sikander,” (Washington Dc: Smithsonian Institute, 2000), 2.
  10. the American billionaire tobacco heiress
  11. Claire Brandon, “Shahzia Sikander, Apparatus of Power,” Apparatus of Power ed. Claire Brandon (New York: Asia Society, 2016), 20.
  12. Kishwar Rizvi, “History, Narrative, and the Female Figure (as Disruption),” in Shahzia Sikander: Extra-Ordinary Realities, eds. Sadia Abbas and Jan Howard (RISD museum catalog, 2020), 44.

Nageen Shaikh is an art historian and critic, an industrial designer and an academic of social sciences and liberal arts at The Institute of Business Administration (IBA). Her research interests are in the transnational and global perspectives within the evolution, production, and dissemination of art and design in South Asia, and the history of collaborations between materials, art and science. She was previously a Fulbright Scholar at SUNY Stony Brook University and tweets @nageenjs.

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