Undeniably, Prof. Bashir Ahmed (b.1953) has played a remarkable role in the revival of traditional miniature (Mughal Art), which had lost its patronage and identity after the fall of the Mughal Empire. During the British Raj (Reign) it was relegated to the level of a mere craft. Bashir Ahmed felt great concern about its decline and decided to do something for the revival of this dying genre. After completing his graduation in the Fine Arts and learning the techniques and styles of the various schools of traditional miniature from Ustaad Haji Muhammad Sharif (d.1978) and Ustaad Sheikh Shujaullah (d.1980), he concentrated on the miniature paintings and became one of the greater practitioners of this form. In 1980, he was honoured with the First Chughtai Award by Pakistan National Council of the Arts.
Bashir Ahmed is convinced that miniature painting is an evergreen form of native art. It makes the artist capable of expressing his ideas provided that he follows traditional techniques. In 1976, he was inducted in the faculty of the Department of Fine Arts, National Collage of Arts (NCA). He was overjoyed at becoming a teacher but could not adapt himself to the existing system of teaching miniature art. At that time miniature painting was a minor subject and he wanted to see it upgraded to the level of a major one. His initiative in this matter was loaded with great expectations. Some did not favour his idea but he continued • his efforts. In 1981, after thorough research, he succeeded in developing the first¬ever syllabus of miniature painting. Degree-level classes started at NCA in 1982 using the syllabus he had devised. Up to now, more than one hundred students have obtained this degree.
His dreams have come true and the revival of miniature art has become a reality. ‘Contemporariness’ of miniature art is continuing but the future of miniature art is in safe hands. Prof. Bashir Ahmed is happy over his successes. He is the Incharge of his self-founded Miniature Section and as well head of the Fine Arts Department at NCA. Although, he is known as an outstanding miniature painter, he loves his professorship more.
On his art education at the NCA
I think it was the cultural environment of Lahore’s Old Anarkali areas, which led me to discover my artistic talents. Soon after sunset, I used to see people sitting together outdoors and in various tea stalls busy in gup shup (chatting). Upon asking, I learned that they were teachers, writers, artists and musicians. As a school-going boy, I had also seen artists from NCA and Department of Pine Arts, University of the Punjab making paintings. Unconsciously, I followed their styles, and made colourful charts for my school classrooms. My early impressions in art were appreciated by my Drawing Teachers. Interestingly, my father knew all about what I was doing at school with reference to art, and when I completed my matriculation, he took me to the NCA for admission. In 1970, I was enrolled there in the Design Department.
NCA was altogether a new world for me. Entering into its art-oriented environment, I found everybody involved in some creative work. I joined them happily and felt that this was the right place where I could learn and do something creative to express my thoughts in art.
During the first year, while attending classes of veteran art-educationists like Khalid Iqbal, Zahoorul Akhlaque, Colin David and Muhammad Asif, my interest in Fine Arts developed further. Thus I switched over to the Fine Arts Department in my second year of study. At that time, one had to study all the major forms of art including painting, sculpture, print-making and miniature. I whole¬heartedly learned the various techniques of these forms. I also experimented during my training and particularly my experimental works of print-making were considered innovative. However, while studying miniature art under the guidance of Haji Muhammad Sharif and Sheikh Shujjaullah, I found myself interested in learning this traditional art.
On becoming a member of the faculty of Fine Art’s at NCA
In 1974, after completion of my graduation in Fine Arts, I decided to specialize in Miniature Painting. I was proud of being a shagird (pupil) of an Ustaad whose ancestors were Khawaja Abdul Samad and Meer Ali—pioneers of Mughal Art in the sub-continent. In 1976, I was taken up in the faculty of Fine Arts Department. For me, teaching was the most respectable job.
On his training in Traditional Miniature
Traditional Miniature had always aesthetically fascinated me. But I could learn very little about its technique and way of expression during my study at NCA. I realized that to become a miniature painter, I would have to work hard and become an apprentice with some Ustaad (Teacher) of this art form. I was impressed by the Miniature Paintings of Sheikh Shujjaullah and wanted to be his disciple. When Sheikh Shujjaullah found me serious about learning his style of painting, he accepted me as his pupil. After finding me devoted student, he started giving me the lessons.
Following the traditional way, I too served him day and night and did whatever he assigned me. Step-by-step, I gained a lot from him. He educated me in the traditional discipline of Persian, Mughal and Indian Miniature. He trained me in using techniques of Siyah Qalam (black and white), gadh rang, and abri. He also gave me formulae for making wasli and colour pigments from precious stones and minerals such as pearls, garnets, silver and gold. Making a brush from a squirrel’s tail was an adventurous assignment in itself. In short, ustaad jee (my teacher) trained me to understand the technique, composition and subject matter of this traditional art. I remained his pupil till his death in 1980.
On his first Solo Show of Miniature Paintings
I was exhibiting my paintings in the group shows since 1976, but my first solo exhibition was held in 1980. The work which I displayed in this exhibition was the outcome of what I had been learning, practicing and experimenting. Viewers considered my work skillful with reference to the use of traditional techniques and composition. They particularly appreciated the creative freshness of the subject matter in my paintings. In the same year, my traditional works succeeded in winning the First Chughtai Award.
On starting degree level course in Miniature Painting
After 1980, there were two paths open to me. Either I should adopt the popular trend of making a studio or do commercial work so that I could earn money. Although it was attractive to do commercial work, but I felt that it was against my nature and approach to art. Therefore, I opted to become a true artist by producing real creative work in the traditional miniature form which was being considered as dying art at that time.
After the loss of Haji Muhammad Sharif and Sheikh Shujjaullah, the art of miniature painting was left totally un-patronized. There were some artists who had training in this school of art but most of them were working for the promotion of other forms of art. At that crucial stage I was made responsible for the survival of miniature art. Realizing this challenge, I engaged myself in teaching as well as planning to bring about some revolutionary changes in the existing teaching methodology. I wanted to see sufficient number of pupils becoming miniature painters every year.
To achieve this objective, I planned to draw up a syllabus, as it was not done before in Pakistan in the history of miniature painting. Without it, I felt that my idea for starting a degree-level course in this subject could not mature. However, regardless of all problems, I concentrated and studied various aspects of this traditional art. After working day in and day out, I succeeded in composing a practical course of traditional miniature art. On June 6, 1981, I handed it over to the Head of Fine Arts Department for approval by Board of Governors of NCA.
The board was reluctant to approve the syllabus, but I didn’t lose heart and continued my struggle to raise the status from a minor subject to a major one. However, in 1982 NCA allowed me to start a degree-level course on an experimental basis. In its first session I could attract only two students who opted for Traditional Miniature as their major subject.
On the performance of NCA’s Miniature Department
I have always given emphasis to our centuries-old socio-cultural traditions, which have deep roots, a decent language, a powerful religion, a civilized society and a strong artistic background. Tell me, how many countries in the world have such strong cultural roots as Pakistan has? Fortunately, we belong to a progressive society. In the past too, we have been welcoming new ideas, arts and crafts from other lands but without undermining ours.
For instance, the history of traditional miniature has seen many turning points particularly with reference to subject matter. Under Persian influence, at the time of Mughals, it reached its zenith with reference to both technique and style. After the fall of the Mughal Empire, miniature art lost its patrons. It was forced to move into small states and stay there up to the period of Sikh Rule in Punjab. How could we ignore such an important form of expression, which is a record of our socio-political and cultural history?
For the viewers, it had always been a familiar art. They liked its visual impact and the stories it told. This way, even in the absence of royal patronage, it survived in our society. One could buy a fine copy of an old art piece. At that crucial time, copy work played a significant role in the art’s life but restricted the artist to express his own feelings. Only the traditional technique was preserved. Perhaps due to this reason, miniature was taught as a craft in the Mayo School of Arts. Retrospectively, we learned a lesson from the rise and fall of this traditional art. It reminded us of what we had lost and forgotten.
I think that I have more or less succeeded in achieving my objective. Since 1982, more than one hundred students have become degree-holding miniature painters. Day by day I see the popularity of this art is increasing and I feel happy. I’m satisfied by my Department’s performance. It’s functioning according to my designed programme and is offering the only professional degree in miniature painting in Pakistan.
On modern miniature
I don’t know what modem miniature is, neither have I seen it. For me, miniature is a traditional form of art and I am working for its revival and promotion. My success is because of my students. They are all using the traditional technique. However, they are freely experimenting with subjects of miniature painting. By the way, what is the difference between” traditional ” and ” modern”. How is one different from the other? Can anybody have answer?
Today I am happy because our revived miniature art is representative of Pakistan in the world. It is being accepted as a major form of Pakistani Art. This is because now miniature is traditional as well as contemporary in reference to its subject matter and visual vocabulary. Then again, miniature is not a borrowed form of art. It is a part of our own cultural heritage. Whether it is modern or not is of little significance. It has its roots in the society. For the viewers, it’s a readable visual art.
On his miniature paintings
In my work one can see the treatment of the technique, study of space, characterization and overall composition. As I have already said, I am inspired by traditional miniature. It fascinates me artistically and aesthetically. I find it a good medium for expressing one’s creative ideas provided one follows the traditional technique. It’s not a conservative form of art. For me, it’s like ghazal poetry. In 1998, after a gap of eighteen years, my second solo exhibition was displayed at Lahore Art Gallery. It earned me appreciation and encouragement and was considered a major exhibition. In fact, I don’t have much time for painting as I remain busy with my favourite job of teaching. Now I am heading the Fine Art Department.