Miniature, from the Latin miniare, meaning ‘to colour with red lead,’ was a practice originally used to decorate and illustrate hand-written books. From the 1460s hand-written books had to compete with printed books. Wealthy patrons began to demand a wide range of luxury items and miniaturists began to illustrate expensive books; at the same time, they offered them miniature paintings.Miniaturists pursued a highly specialized and distinct art form that became a new genre in the sixteenth century.
The royal courts of Persia and the Mughal dynasty were the primary patrons of miniature paintings. Persia (modern day Iran) has been home to a continuous tradition of philosophical and artistic tradition, contributing to its rich history and culture. When Islam came to Persia, pre-Islamic cultures mingled with local ones to form new traditions. The Mongols who conquered Persia in 1220 systematically destroyed repositories of local culture. The Timurids (1370–1507) who began to rule Persia in 1385, were initially not patrons of the arts. However, after restoring peace and stability to their conquered regions, they nurtured artistic development. Subsequently Timur, founder of the dynasty, became a strong patron of the arts particularly architecture and manuscript illustration. The Safavids (1501–1732 ), who replaced the Timurids maintained their patronage of the arts and Persia experienced its golden age until the end of the seventeenth century.
The Mughals (1526 – 1858) were also strong patrons of art and architecture. Humayun, who succeeded his father and founder of the dynasty, focused his attention on his manuscript collection, luring two of the most accomplished Persian artists to his court in the Indian subcontinent. These artists, Mir Musawwir and Mir Sayyid Ali, were instrumental in the development of Mughal arts. When Akbar succeeded his father to the throne in 1556, his pluralistic and meritocratic policies attracted scholars from all over the world. He encouraged and rewarded innovation and excellence, thereby promoting artists to sign their work. The Mughal paintings created during this period – a cosmopolitan atmosphere – represent a synthesis of Persian, Hindu and European styles.
During Akbar’s reign, a new genre developed, which illustrated histories and chronicles of the dynasty with the emperor as the hero. Jehangir (r.1605-1627) was fascinated by natural phenomena, following the Quranic injunction to know the Signs of God; he therefore, commissioned paintings of flora and fauna.
At the Deccani courts, miniature painting aimed to depict the joys of poetry, and the fantasy of love and music rather than a clashing of armies. After the sultanate was conquered by the Mughals in 1635, Mughal influence combined with the Rajput traditions, creating a brilliant new styles until the turn of the nineteenth century, when British art styles became desireable. The introduction of photography in 1839 forced many to take up photography as it offered more accurate and cheaper likenesses, while the younger artists rarely pursued careers as miniaturists.
The art of miniature painting continues today at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, Pakistan. Formerly known as the Mayo School of Art, it was established in 1875 by John Lockwood, father of the English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling. The NCA’s renowned Miniature Painting Department offers a two-year intensive program in the Mughal tradition of miniature-painting. One of NCA’s prominent instructors, Imran Qureshi, received the 2013 Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year” and also transformed the open spaces between the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre, Toronto into brilliant works of art during the opening ceremonies in 2014.
Research by Nimira Dewji