Image Credit: Fatima Zahra Hassan

The Easel called Mughal Empire

I have been reading Bazm – I – Aakhir (Urdu) which means The Last Gathering in English. In many ways the title of this 1885 book by Munshi Faizuddin is metaphorical. The book a brilliant commentary into Bahadur Shah’s daily life at the Red Fort, also sums up the king’s perceptions of life while world’s one of the most zestful regimes comes to its hopeless end.

Ironically the emperor is the least gallant in common parlance, dependent on the British for his pensions and yet Zafar remains one of the most erudite of his lineage. Bahadur Shah Zafar was a poet, a fine calligrapher, equestrian, an archer, a Sufi at heart, and above all a benevolent patron.

For him perhaps Art could save the world, so while the unassuming signs of the uprising was growing stronger in the hedonistic Mughal capital of Delhi, and the royal fiscal trove was at its lowest, Zafar continued to support artists as many as he could. He supported Ghulam Ali Khan, court painter and the most important artist from the royal atelier, his extended family including the very talented Mazhar Khan, Mirza Shahrukh Beg and others.

Unlike their ancestors legendary Bichtr, Baswan, who often prioritised regnal themes highlighting a sense of power, stability and permanence, Ghulam Ali Khan and the later artists were at the heart of a fluid political, societal change which would lead to a new visual culture of South Asia birthing right within the chaos, the drumroll of the final fall of the Mughal Empire.

Image Credit: Fatima Zahra Hassan

A New Canvas

Yuthika Sharma an eminent art historian whose work on the later Mughal painters is considered seminal reasons the rise of this “new form of visuality” as a result of variant patronization courtesy nouveaux riches of 19th century, the provincial rulers and the East India Company.

The art produced would be termed “Company Paintings”, an overarching name for all kinds of commissioned paintings consisting portraiture, topographical art and lots of architectural designs. Mughal artists began re-employing their intergenerational learnings fused with European influences.

They were proud of their lineage as was Zafar who became the patronising ruler, supporting them. However, Zafar did not witness the culture of memorialisation that would take over, after his death in a way in which popular nostalgia would get fanned up. With antiques, paintings, memorabilia, artifacts reaching British markets like never before; ‘privileging past’ read history would now be the template of understanding the Mughal cultural expressions.

In next few decades the Mughal artists disappeared from reckoning and Miniature painting became a thing of the past. Years of lull followed and then ‘oriental’ resurfaced through the art of Lahore born Abdur Rehman Chugtai who belonged to a family of artisans, architects, draftsmen.

Cover 101 Dishes
101 Dishes for The Emperor: The book is a beautiful portrayal of the power of community and sharing

Chugtai who was initially trained in naqqashi by his uncle, joined Mayo School of Art (later National College of Art, Lahore) in 1911. This would be followed by his illustratious career spanning sixty years, an oeuvre rooted in the traditions of folklore, Indo Islamic Art and the Mughal Miniature. Pertinently, Lahore was a prominent Mughal city with royal ateliers churning out albums from days of Akbar.

In 1920s there weren’t many who wanted to continue working on Mughal style although the subcontinent’s art scene was vibrant with various influences at work including Japanese, Chinese and European. Around this period, Chugtai would play the catalytic in the reviving the legacy of Mughal Miniature paintings, transforming the perceptions of newer generations about an art that they mostly believed was a thing of the past.

101 Dishes for The Empire

It is this style of visually endowed stories that mark the dazzling work of Fatima Zahra Hassan, a contemporary Mughal Miniature artist based in the United Kingdom.

Zahra’s richly illustrated kid lit titled “101 Dishes for The Emperor” – A story about Sharing, Community and Food) (written by Soni Zuberi Shah) is an example of contemporized Mughal Miniature paintings where the illuminations and text go hand in hand.

A wholesome story of Anwar a young, energetic foodie and his mother Paro who can cook world’s most delicious dal and how Anwar unhesitatingly one day invites the Emperor and his huge entourage to his private dinner, “101 Dishes for The Emperor” is a story of celebration of life.

The words ignite the memories of 1001 Nights while Zahra’s vivid illustrations remind us of the folios of Akbarnama (where each folio had a lot happening) and of Ottoman miniatures featuring royal feast and rituals). In all there is a deep essence pre-modernity in her art which perfectly fits with the fairytale story.

One realises that Zahra’s work is more than just professional pursuits of a miniaturist as she opened to a free willing chat about her art school days, life beyond school, and her work, “We underwent rigorous formal training, starting with pencil, followed by ink and squirrel brush line practice. We were taught how to make our own paint brushes. It was a laborious process of learning all the traditional methods, identifying materials and finally the technique.

Our teacher taught us how to make the famous Wasli paper and prepare the surface for Siyah (black) Qalam (brush) (monochromatic technique) the first one in which the students learn how to work with black Soot and brush and create a drawing and then paint.

We began with Pahari Painting, Kangra learning to use the wash or Neem Rang technique in which the colour pigments are used in the form of wash and are more translucent in the application followed by Gauch Rang (Gach in Persian is Chalk or powder), in which artists prepare the colour pigments in opaque form which then are applied in different ways.”

Image Credit: Fatima Zahra Hassan

Power of Mughal colour palette

Her energy was noticeable as she recalled her decision to specialize in Mughal Miniature, “The beauty of the lines is par excellence, and the borders, narrative built around each image is unique. Last but not least it’s the colour palette of Mughal school (a merger of the Persian and the indigenous Indian palette) that enamoured me.”

Zahra’s artistic perceptions had taken the truest form in “101 Dishes”. Her lines draw the readers first into the illustrations compelling them to read the text as they flow along. For the image that introduces the Emperor in the story, Zahra had displayed the power of Mughal colour palette, exactly what had fascinated her. In some of the other illustrations, she has experimented with various styles in a single frame.

Her depiction of Paro is an active recall of Chugtai’s folk impressions and Pahari colour schemes. One could imagine Paro as a woman from the north of the subcontinent, frail skin, aquiline nose, dressed in jewelry, adorned in flared skirts and a large dupatta (South Asian scarf / stole at large).

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The miniaturist reveals, “Chugtai was my first influence. As I learnt further, the list of my favourite artists grew longer. I started loving Ustad Mansur, Abu al-Hasan, Daswanth, Mir Sayyid Ali, Abd al-Samad, Bishandas, Farrukh Beg, Govardhan, and last but not least are Miskina and Basawan. Persian master Ustad Behzad (Kamluddin) and Nainsukh from Guler, Pahari School held high esteem too.”

So was “101 Dishes for the Emperor” a one off project for Zahra and if she has more collaboration with Soni Zuberi who is from Indian ancestry, “Books are my passion, and I have just begun. Soni Zuberi Shah is a long-time friend. She is an author of children's literature, a communication professional. Her family moved to the UK from Lucknow when she was only two years old. “101 Dishes” is a story that father used to narrate to her as a kid. After her father passed away, she decided to write it and get it published. I fell for its simplicity, the universal message of it, and the timeless charm”.

There was an unmistakable warmth in her voice, “We both belong to the same land that was once called Indian Sub-continent. We do share a similar experience with our roots in India & Pakistan. Soni and I decided to do this project for the 75 Years of Independence of both countries. We were fortunate to get support from the Arts Council of England, London's Watermans Gallery and Theatre and Horse & Bamboo Theatre in Lancashire (the later for travelling exhibition). The book is close to our hearts and has played a significant role in our friendship. Hoping it will remain for posterity.”

The conversation was drawing to an end. Zahra’s passion for what she does has a long way to go, few breathes later the miniaturist mentions, “Would like to illustrate Panchatantra (Kalila Wa Dimna), Arabian Nights and many more South Asian titles that need to reach a wider audience beyond the region.”

My mind travels back in time, wishing Zahra an experience of a Ghulam Ali Khan journey’s, supported my many patrons, recording societal changes.

Will she find a Bahadur Shah Zafar and William Fraser all at once? Will she, the question remains…

Nilosree is an author, filmmaker