Certainty is displayed in Chawkandi



The sophistication of painting techniques as practiced in Mughal workshops is gloriously exhibited in the fine miniature works of art by SM Khayyam currently on display at Chawkandi Art. Entitled ‘Certainty’, the 15 works invite the contemplation of beauty, impermanence and the ephemeral.

Khayyam works strictly within the techniques of Mughal miniature painting, particularly as it evolved during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. An active patron of the arts like his father Akbar, Jahangir established a studio in Allahabad. He brought a trend towards modernity by favoring the hand of a single artist for a work rather than collaborative production as was common in Akbar’s workshops. Under Shah Jahan formal portraiture and courtly scenes came to prominence.

Khayyam’s work is bright in color. He incorporates pigments and pure metals such as lapis lazuli and turquoise, cochineal and onyx, and gold leaf, which he burnishes to a high degree. Portrait, text and still life are all featured in the content. As a modern miniaturist, Khayyam synthesized imagery from a range of works across different periods of Islamic miniature painting.

‘Shah Jahan I’ (2021) is a life-size portrait of the emperor, painted in profile. A golden halo surrounds his head. Her pink embroidered tunic is enhanced with a real necklace of pearls, rubies and emeralds. This unusual addition adds 3D functionality to the flatness of the painting. Other characters from Mughal history also inhabit Khayyam’s work. There are complete depictions of Dara Shikoh and Jahanara, Zeb-un-Nisa and Mumtaz Mahal. Some figures are painted in monochrome in the manner of a shaded drawing.

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A variety of framing styles are used for the paintings; some floral borders decorated with hash’iya and others simpler and more irregular. These jagged edges are clues to the philosophical ideas embedded in the work, as is the treatment of the portraits. While the costumes are painted in bright, shiny colors, the faces are deliberately dulled with layers of translucent skin tones. Khayyam plays with notions of certainty and uncertainty with these clues. The slightly opaque rendering of the faces evokes the mortality of life. Likewise, the tattered frames suggest that the glories of history are subject to decay.

The ascetic notion of transience is strongly emphasized by these visual dynamics. Once this dynamic is brought to our conscious thoughts, the vibrant colors of the paintings also become suggestive of the ephemeral and transient. A melancholic nostalgia is evoked by the thought that great beauty is vulnerable to loss.

In addition to figurative work, Khayyam created pure text painting. This untitled work on linen, with lapis lazuli and gold leaf, represents a Kufic script in the manner of the rare manuscript of the Blue Koran. The text is a couplet from the ghazal of Hairat Allahabadi:

Agah apni maut se koi basharnahin/ No one can predict the time of death

Saman saubaras ka hai pal ki khabar nahin/ We plan for a century not knowing if we will draw our next breath

This warning message that opposes the unpredictability of death to our certainty in the longevity of projects. Even Shah Jahan’s sumptuous painting contains the following line (in Kufic script) composed by Khayyam himself:

Matti ne matti main matti ho jana/ All will return to earth.

Thus, similar themes can be expressed very differently across cultural tropes. Artists like Khayyam preserve the legacy of generations of painters from across the Muslim world by faithfully adhering to their aesthetic virtuosity while presenting new ideas with continued relevance to our lives. As we ponder the messages of Khayyam’s art, we can’t doubt that the art offers profound reflections on the nature of time and existence.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 15and2022.

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