Murad Khan Mumtaz transcends divisions with Musavvari paintings

Murad Khan Mumtaz will teach a traditional Indian painting workshop at Second Street Gallery on January 13. Courtesy of the artist Murad Khan Mumtaz will teach a traditional Indian painting workshop at Second Street Gallery on January 13. Courtesy of the artist

Growing up in a family of artists and architects in Lahore, Pakistan, Murad Khan Mumtaz, a visual artist who practices the tradition of so-called Indian miniature painting, says the act of creating things came naturally.

“My father, who is a practicing architect, has more or less single-handedly tried to revive local indigenous practices, which were dying out,” Mumtaz says. “So I think I was greatly influenced by him, and by my elder brother who also is an architect.”

Mumtaz, who came to Charlottesville in 2012 to pursue his Ph.D. at UVA, says, “Prior to coming here, I don’t think I had much of an idea of my own history.” Now he studies 16th- to 18th-century representations of Indian painting as the focus of his degree in South Asian art history. “I have to dive deep into learning about the history itself, so that gave a lot of insight into things I didn’t know about, gaining more access to heritage, cultural history and the art form,” he says.

To understand Indian miniature painting, Mumtaz says one must begin with the name. In the Persian tradition, the Arabic name is Musavvari—the root of which comes from Al-Musavvir, one of the 99 most beautiful names of God in the Quran, meaning “the fashioner” or “creator of forms.”

In Sanskrit, the word is Chitrakala, and it translates to “the art of making images.” Because of the artworks’ origin in religious texts, they could be as small as pocket-size. When the British colonized India in the 19th century they named the artform “miniature painting.” Unfortunately, Mumtaz says, this simplistic name stuck.

Some of the earliest examples of Musavvari paintings can be traced to Buddhist and Jain manuscripts in the 10th and 11th centuries. But Mumtaz says, “The art form has a continuous tradition way back into early history, perhaps even prehistory.”

One of these influences came from the 16th century Mughal Empire, which brought Persian and Central Asian techniques to the medium. It continued to hold religious meaning, but also began to include the lives of the nobility. There are lots of landscapes, Mumtaz says, which serve as the backdrop for the protagonist. But the scenes also document battles and meetings. The tradition continued up to what Mumtaz calls a “decisive break” caused by colonialism.

Before Britain withdrew from India in 1947, it passed the Indian Independence Act, which partitioned India into India and Pakistan, and was the catalyst for the largest mass migration in human history.

“In that process, a lot of sectarian boundaries were demarcated and drawn,” Mumtaz says. “The history and heritage of one’s own culture was severed and lost. People had no access to local history or local mythologies or local heroes. Children growing up in India were brainwashed to think anything to do with Muslim culture was evil. It’s still happening viciously in both countries.”

Mumtaz came to realize that Musavvari painting “transcends sectarian division…It’s still steeped in contemporary practice but engaged in conversation with the tradition,” he says. It has become “a wonderful way of delving deeper into a practice to discover my own history and culture; a form of accessing my own severed history.”

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