The importance of South Asian miniature painting

The importance of South Asian miniature painting

29 February 2024

Miniature painting played a crucial role in shaping South Asia's visual culture and was instrumental in showcasing the region's artistic traditions to the world. Find out why this style of painting has been so collectable in the past and its relevance to the contemporary artists featured in our latest exhibition.

The term 'South Asian Miniature' relates to multiple styles and subjects of paintings produced in the Indian subcontinent. They are usually small enough to be bound up into books, meaning that they could be easily moved from country to country or beyond the continent.

Many of the most important examples are held in Britain. They came here through diplomatic gifts, exchanges, loot and active collection and patronage. The exhibition explores Britain's role in the evolution of the painting tradition and themes of Empire and globalisation.

The South Asian miniature painting tradition originated in the 16th century in the Mughal Empire, which ruled over the Indian subcontinent at the time. The Mughal emperors were great patrons of the arts and miniature painting flourished under their rule. Their support allowed this style to evolve into a sophisticated art form and gain prominence.

A defining feature of South Asian miniature painting is intricate and delicate brushwork. The paintings are remarkable for their complex compositions and minute details. Traditionally, natural pigments extracted from minerals, plants, and other organic sources produced vibrant, luminous colours. Popular pigments included indigo, lapis lazuli, vermilion, and malachite. Great technical mastery is displayed in using a number of techniques in a compact space.

Common themes depicted in miniatures include scenes from Hindu mythology, court life, battles, hunting scenes, and portraits. The paintings provide a visual narration of religious stories and recorded important events from the time, making the stories and ideas more accessible. It also provides a visual archive that documents important people, events, architecture, attire, crafts from the era.

A photograph showing a large contemporary artwork alongside several smaller ones.

Influences in modern and contemporary art

In our exhibition, you can see traditional South Asian miniature painting displayed alongside recent and current works. The works are not limited to painting; the themes extend into sculpture, installation and film.

They also bring a contemporary element to the style, covering themes such as feminism, environment, ethnicity and socio-political issues. Shahzia Sikander's 'The Explosion of the Company Man' (2006) is presented like a Mughal album, with the subject focusing on a British colonial official from the East India Company. Sikander's defacing of the figure is considered a symbolic retribution for aggressive colonial policies across South Asia.

Photograph of a gallery showing a large artwork appearing like an open book with other smaller artworks on display.

Other artists blend miniature painting techniques with other styles, or make connections between popular culture. A number of works use digital art and contemporary materials to recontextualise the artform through installations, photography, and digital art.

You can see the contemporary alongside traditional works in 'Beyond the Page: South Asian Miniature Painting in Britain, 1600 to Now' until Sunday 2 June 2024.