An exhibition of South Asian miniature paintings opening at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, UK, this autumn (South Asian Miniature Painting and Britain, 1600 to Now, 7 October-26 January 2024) includes four items from the Royal Collection due to go on public display for the first time. These include an illuminated watercolour from a 15th century manuscript, depicting the ninth-century Saint Rabia al-Adawiyya of Basra, the first female saint in Islam.
The show brings together brings more than 180 small-scale works dating from the 16th century, which were prized for their portability and technical skill. The miniatures depict scenes from sacred and secular texts, mythological figures and political narratives. The curators Hammad Nasar and Anthony Spira will also explore how the miniatures ended up in UK collections via acquisitions made by James I in the early 17th century and also through employees of the colonial East India Company.
Other Royal Collection items seen for the first time include a gold painted page of Persian verse, written by Nizami, an epic poet in Persian literature and an illustrated copy of the Ishqnama (Book of Love) a manuscript containing 104 illustrations commissioned during the reign of the last King of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah (reign, 1847-56).
Meanwhile, works by contemporary artists inspired by the miniature tradition also feature including The Explosion of the Company Man (2011) by Shazia Sikander and Imran Qureshi’s A Lover Waiting For His Beloved (1999).
The Pakistani artist Ali Kazim is showing a series of 16 portraits in response to a Company School drawing (a style of miniature Indian miniature painting developed by artists who worked for patrons in the East India Company during the 18th and 19th centuries) housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London along with a large watercolour drawing (Conference of the Birds, 2020).
Kazim tells The Art Newspaper: “I remember my formative years at the National College of Arts Lahore had inspired me in various ways. I wasn’t aware about the miniature painting and the printmaking until my first year at the art college. I enjoyed learning these disciplines during the foundation year.”
Kuwaiti-born Hamra Abbas, another participating artist, says: “Miniature painting has influenced my works in multiple ways, from painting to digital works and sculptural installations. Currently, I use a combination of miniature painting and gongbi [a Chinese painting technique] to paint small-size photorealistic portraits on silk.”
The exhibition will also feature works from the collections of London's British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.