THE WAY IT WAS: Of pehlwans and miniatures —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The way their young student Bashir realised in a matter of a few years what the great peers could not achieve is quite remarkable. While the old masters were singing lullabies to the dying muse, Bashir nursed her to life by imparting to it a new meaning. Ever since, the miniature painters have multiplied by the dozen

“One of the customs prevailing among the rich in Lahore was very quaint,” informs Dr Musarrat Hasan (Painting in the Punjab Plains, pub: Ferozesons). “They patronised a wrestler and paid for his maintenance, so that the wrestler could carry the name and colours of the patron during his fights.” She proceeds to narrate a rather amusing episode about an artist Khalifa Imam Din. Khalifa Imam Din was called Khalifa because of the high standard of his artwork in the field of painting. He lived in Koocha Mitti Putan — you will agree we had far more interesting names of the streets then — in the Walled City. His descendants have continued to paint to this day.

Mustafa, a well-known painter of cinema posters and hoardings, is his grandson who learnt to paint from Ustad Allah Buksh. In an interview with Dr Musarrat Hasan, he narrates that when his grandfather, “Imam Din became a successful and recognised artist, he felt like emulating the rich people around him”. He particularly vied with another artist, the well-known Master Miran Bakhsh Moortanwaley. Miran Bakhsh lived in Koocha Musawwaran of Gumti Bazaar and was famous for having painted sections of the Assembly Hall and the Viceregal Lodge at Delhi. He had also rendered a portrait of the viceroy himself. In recognition of his artistic accomplishments he was offered a trip to England that he declined and asked Master Feroze, his colleague at Mayo School, to go instead. Mr Feroze after his return from abroad came to be known as Feroze Walaiti, for he took to wearing angrez apparel and strutted around with walaiti airs. Miran Bakhsh was, “too well settled to leave” perhaps he could not leave his pehlwan alone at the mercy of his family. Dr Hasan informs however that Khalifa Imam Din’s efforts to emulate the illustrious artist ended in a disaster. The cost of maintaining a wrestler was so high that the Khalifa had to sell his haveli to Bulaki Shah, the notorious moneylender. It went for a paltry sum of a hundred and fifty rupees.

As mentioned in the previous article, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala was not only a great patron of pehlwans but of the artists as well. Bhupinder Singh was a colourful maharaja who besides the sports and the arts liked his drink and pleasurable pursuits. One of his grandsons reportedly observed that while he meticulously measured two fingers of whisky for a peg, his father poured three, whereas his illustrious grandfather took a peg of only one finger — but the finger was in a vertical position. It is not surprising that his peg came to be known as the Patiala peg. It would be wise for novices to avoid using the measure.

The late Haji Sharif, Pakistan’s well-known miniature painter, hailed from Patiala, where he worked for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. Dr Hasan, once again informs us in her introduction of the brochure for a joint exhibition of Haji Sahib and his son Muhammad Hanif, held some years back a the Lahore British Council that at the Patiala court he received a monthly salary of sixty rupees, with which he not only supported his own family but also despatched his brother to Lahore to study art at the Mayo School. We are told that he paid for his brother’s education by sending to the principal, Mr Gupta, one of his miniature paintings every few months. I wonder what happened to those miniatures? Where are they? Where have they gone?

Haji Sahib’s father and grandfather were also court artists at Patiala. Ustad Allah Ditta, his grandfather, worked in the Mughal tradition, while his father, Basharatullah, who was trained by Parkhu — an artist from the Hill States — worked in the Pahari style. Haji Sahib migrated from Patiala to Lahore in 1945. After Partition he established the miniature section at the Mayo School of Arts. I remember him once saying that miniature painting was a product of inner tranquillity and then reminiscing that at Patiala the Maharaja never allowed any person or event to disturb his peace. There was not an iota of complaint in his voice but some how I felt personally admonished.

I wonder how many rich and ‘Raees’ members of our society, except perhaps for Syed Babar Ali, ever commissioned Haji Sahib for a miniature. Some of Haji Sahib’s finest works were inherited for free by the National College of Arts, where he worked as an ‘instructor’. Pakistan National Council of Arts acquired most of his other miniatures after his death through efforts of Khalid Saeed Butt, who was then the director general of the organisation.

In passing, let me mention that one of the things that delights a person on visiting the Packages Industries, situated at Kot Lakhpat, Lahore — besides the variety of roses in its manicured lawns — is the paintings hanging there. I recall as far back as the late sixties they had in their collection Shakir Ali, Jameel Naqsh and Moyene Najmi as well as many others artists. I must also compliment Syed Babar Ali for undertaking to manufacture excellent opaque and transparent water-based pigments for artists.

On Haji Sharif’s retirement Sheikh Shujaullah replaced him as the miniature instructor. Sheikh Shuja was also trained in the Mughal miniature style and continued to impart the specific technique and skills to an odd student who out of curiosity, more than anything else, took up miniature painting. For many years after the creation of Pakistan miniature painting remained an anachronism, patronised for being reminiscent of a great cultural and art tradition. It was, however, only grudgingly respected. No one would have shed a tear if with the passage of time it had demised. Haji Sharif and Sheikh Shuja had kept the techniques alive — teaching people how to prepare the right paper surface, drawing the contours and building shadows — but they made no effort whatsoever to employ their skills to portray their surroundings. They relied almost entirely on traditional subjects, forms and figures.

When Bashir Ahmed, a student of Sheikh Shuja, became the head of the miniature department, the unexpected happened. Miniature painting, instead of proceeding to die returned to life. The way their young student Bashir realised in a matter of a few years what the great peers could not achieve is quite remarkable. While the old masters were singing lullabies to the dying muse, Bashir nursed her to life by imparting to it a new meaning. Ever since, the miniature painters have multiplied by the dozen. While many continue to ape the anachronism associated with Persian, Mughal and Pahari styles, some like Shazia Sikander and others have creatively adapted it to express their individual concerns — a step forward for miniature painting.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and political activist