Muslim Artist in South Western Asia: Abdur Rahman Chughtai

Introduction

The active work of Abdur Rahman Chughtai coincided with radical political events in South Western Asia, namely India’s declaration of independence from the British Empire in 1947, which led to the partitioning of the territory into two countries – Pakistan and India. In 1971, another partition occurred. Undoubtedly, these events had a potent influence on artistic movements of that time. Specifically, Lindgren and Ross assert, “cultural amnesia of partition marked the entry of South Asian artists into post-colonial era” (146). As a result, the post-colonial countries started its rigorous fight for the cultural and national revolution. In this context, the role of an artist was vital because they generously contributed to the cultural and political determination of their countries. They also promoted new standards of perceiving history and art in general. Additionally, it has been assured, “the aim of all these post-colonial art institutions was to offer a platform for artist to address the binary of tradition and modernity and render art meaningful in the progress of the nation” (146). In this respect, the concept of nation was spread in Pakistan and other Asian countries, resorting to the values related to secularism and democracy. Abdur Rahman Chughtai is among the brightest representatives of that time who managed to combine national genuineness and modernity in his distinctive and authentic water colors and etchings.

Biography

Rahman Chughtai was born in 1897 in Lahore, Pakistan, and lived there over the next six decades. During the period, the artist created over 2000 water-colored works along with a few thousands of pencil sketches and 300 aquatints and etchings. Chughtai designed many items, including tombstones, mausoleums, national insignias, monitory coins, postal stamps and many book dust-covers. He was also known as a collector of Indo-Pakistani miniatures, Japanese woodcuts, European engravings, Islamic calligraphy and many rare books. All these were collected in his house in Lahore, where the artist also stored a range of his own works. Being very active as an artist until his death in 1975, Chughtai managed to leave a rich legacy behind, including his collections and artistic works.

Abdur Rahman Chughtai was a Pakistani painter who created his distinctive, creative, and authentic style of painting, which strongly influenced Mughal art and miniature painting, Islamic art and Art nouveau movements. Moreover, he was considered to be the first modern artist from Southern Asia, as well as the first national painter from Pakistan. Chughtai’s biographic chronology and family background explains why this outstanding figure has chosen the creative and artistic path for self-development. Specifically, his family has descendants who dedicated their lives to the development of architecture, design, and craft. In fact, Chughtai family took advantage of their respectable status during the period of Ranjit Singh (Srivastava 35): the artist’s ancestor Mian Salah Mimar held a significant position in the Lahore Durbar. The painter also had two brothers – Dr. Abdullar Chughtai and Abur Rahib Chughtai who became remarkable art historians and critics respectively (Srivastava 36). The family tradition of following the artistic movement was adopted by the artist’s son Abdur Rahim Chughtai in Lahore. However, the son of Abdur Rheman Chughtai, Arif Rehman, was propagating the painting movement of his father through the opening of a Chughtai Museum Trust that he guided. Therefore, Chughtai could be considered the pioneer who managed to combine modernity and old-fashioned tradition and retain authenticity of his own style in painting.

Distinctive Features of Chughtai’s Artistic Work

Before addressing the genuine artistic works of Chughtai, it should be stressed that the painter lived in the times of the rise of modern nationalist painting and revival of cultural nationalism. That period was characterized by a movement of Indian economy to the global capitalism; an invasion of Western cultural influences; an introduction of the new ways of presenting religious fundamentalism, which introduced the effects and influences of the right wing movements (Lindgren and Ross 146). As a result, the shifts in the country’s social environment caused the rise of a new politics, which focused on the new consciousness and the affiliation to the old tradition in sculpture and painting. However, significant changes did not allow the painting movements refer to the old patterns of representation, moving to the new, contemporary genres of self-determination. In this respect, Chughtai was also among those pioneers who showed how to shift to a new level or artistic work.

The rich family tradition in the sphere of art proved that the Chughtai’s artistic life was never officially recognized. As soon as he finished his artistic career, his work stopped as well. There are no official documents that prove that he took a niche in the community as the patron in the field of painting. Therefore, social status of painters in the socialist countries was favorable because they could obtain more benefits as compared to ordinary people (Srivastava 37). Any artist was highly valued because he/she was always in the spotlight of a specific audience.

Moreover, the ancestry of of M.A. Rahman Chughtai constantly benefited from royal mentorship. The family was gifted in calligraphy, architecture, mathematics, painting, and astronomy and, therefore, obtained a patronage in the fourteen generations, including Royal favors from the Shar Jaha of Mughal Indo-Pakistan, as well as the last century from the Maharaja Ranjit Singth. Accordingly, M. A. Rahman Chughtai was variously honored by the British Indo-Pakistan government, as well as by Pakistani government with the titles “Pride of Performance” and “Hiall-el-Imtiaz” (“Biography”). The President of Pakistan paid the highest tribute to Rahman Chughtai due to his many contributions to the art development in the country.

Personal Opinion

The ideology of modernity triggered the new concepts, patterns, and movements, which marked the emergence and formation of Pakistani and Indian modernism in the 1950, lasting till the 1970s. The politicians and artists managed to cultivate a new identity and landscape that could fit the new concept f nationalism in former colonies. At the same time, Pakistan was presented as an Islamic state that influenced the way painters perceived their identity and sense of belonging. The comparative analysis of artists, including Abdur Rahman Chughtai demonstrates the evidence of the genuine ideological split between artists. The first group was committed to the old traditions of Muslim culture and denied all modern movements, affecting the overall political and cultural environment. The other group, which was headed by Chughtai, strived to develop a new authentic identity that could express a tolerant attitude to the Western influence, yet remain loyal to the indigenous Pakistani art. Therefore, Chughtai was widely popular and recognized in other countries which respected him for his unique, authentic vision of art as both an independent form of self-representation and as the representation of specific cultural movements in Islam.

Due to the enormous contributions of the painter, Chughtai’s art acquired the status of a household region in the world. The artist was a Master of Grand tradition which included linear qualities and subtle effects, different perceptions, styles and subject matters. Furthermore, Chughtai became a significant figure of Modern Islamic painting, as well as the unique artist who managed to develop his own distinctive style in art. He received education in Wazaer Khan’s mosque in Lahore, was taught by prominent artist Miran Shah who cultivated the best artistic traditions gathered from Iran, Indo-Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, China, and Japan (“Biography”). In addition, Chughtai selected the water-color media for his own projection and used the wide variety of the line works which are distinguished by water-coloring techniques (“Biography”). Although the artist was fully dedicated to Eastern and Oriental traditions in painting, there was also Western influence in his creativity works. He travelled throughout Europe and appreciated the western art and its representatives. At the same time, the works of M.A. Rahman Chughtai himself were highly appreciated in Europe: his exhibitions were presented since 1920 and were always popular among European public; some of this works were even included in collections and exhibitions of Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum in London and National Museum of Modern Arts in Delhi (“Biography”). The painter’s works were also presented in New York, Hague, Boston, Washington, and Berne, and many other famous museums and galleries. His works were also reviewed by many critics who have highly appraised his creative activity.

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While referring to the creative and artistic activity, Abdur Rahman Chughtai was considered to be one of the most outstanding and influential artists in Pakistan in the 20th century. The artist’s goal was to develop a unique style of art revealing the traditional scenes from Muslim folklore and history, which completely differed from the Western movements and influences. This outlook coincided with the Bengal School in Calcutta guided by the Tagore family (“Abdur Rahman”). While Chughtai predominantly dealt with watercolors, he was also a gifted print-maker who mastered his etching skills in London School in the 1930s (“Abdur Rahman”). His etching depicted the subjects similar to those depicted in water-colored paintings. Besides, Chughai’s etchings illustrated his remarkable skills of a draughtsman. One of his works called The Carpet Seller introduces a man who enters a town; his intricacy reminds of the Beardsley’s prints which have linear designed, being in the limelight in India and Europe at the beginning of the past century (“Abdur Rahman”). The detailed elaboration of the carpet is the major spot of the scene, but a closer examination reveals more features, such as the crow on the background, along with child and mother standing behind a figure wearing Western dress. The scene is established against the town backdrop; its buildings introduce geometric patterns that fade away as they are distant.

It should be also noted that Abdur Rahman Chughtai was presented as the most outstanding Muslim artist who contributed to the growing Muslim cultural nationalism. Though he was a Muslim, the artist did not treat Islamic themes, but was engaged in developing his authentic style, which was gradually developed into Mughal art. According to Mitter, “Chughtai was the first Muslim to use Muslim classics in a personal manner, conjuring up a fin-de-siecle voluptuous decadence to express Muslim feelings of degeneration under colonialism” (332). Furthermore, Chughtai expanded his knowledge on Islamic ornamentation, beginning from an artisan, Baba School of Art in Lahore. His father’s death forced Chughtai to leave school and work as a drawing teacher and photographer. Lionel Heath, the Principal of the Art School, eventually noticed the artist and started giving him chromo-lithography lessons. In time, Chughtai developed his own authentic outlook on painting and art in general. It has also provided new ideas and insights regarding how modernity could retain indigenous forms of Pakistani and Islamic art.

Chughtai’s early works were largely influenced by the Indian revivalist Abanindranath. As an example, his painting Jahananra and the Taj was reminiscent of Abanindranath’s The Last Moments of Shah Jahan (Mitter 330). In response, the painter considered the influence as slight because he believed that the use of Muslim sources did not provide him with genuine Muslim experience. Specifically, Chughtai was overwhelmed with Islamic nationalism and its values that was a part of his own soul. The artistic authenticity was asserted as a background for the national self-determination; it was also a response to the claims regarding the swadeshi doctrine of art. In the pursuit of personal self-perception, Chugtai was still open to other Hindu themes which were used to unveil the concealed personal features. At the same time, concentrating on personal self-determination, Chughtai was still striving to learn more about Hindu culture and national revivals. As a result, the painter was inspired by Pan-Islamic spirit and Mughal art. The latter was one of the most important themes in Chughtai’s works. It should also be stated that Chughtai chose the Eastern elements for represeentation of art nouveau. At the same time, it referred to the fin-de-siecle language, which reflected Chunghtai’s nostalgia and inspiration. After all, the artist’s orientalism is the major aspect of his painting philosophy.

Notable Works

There are two most distinguished works of Chughtai: Flower Gather and the Arjuna as a Visitor. Both paintings reveal the distinctive style and features, which have been described above (See Appendices 1 and 2). In the mid 1920s, young painter started inventing his own style of depicting languid, luscious, narcissus-eyes; he also stylized figures with erotic towns and fictional contents. Chughtai also introduced some Western art techniques which were practiced by the Victiarivn painters, along with the cave painting technique of Ajanta, which was in the process of rediscovery by modern artist. It should be also stressed that Chughtai’s artistic style was in the process of formation: he was combining certain mannerism and stylization, including the use of architectural themes and nuances, which focus on the illustration painting during the period of personal search. In the end of 1920s, Chughtai issues Muraqqa, his first artistic work, which was composed of a ranged of illustrations which had been made for the new edition of imaginative verses of Ghalib, a famous poet of nineteenth century in Persia and Urdu (Mitter 338). In the early 1930, the artist travelled in Europe, studying painting, which also had a potent impact on his artistic style. Since1940s, the artist started taking more inspiration from Western traditions rather than Indian ones. In this context, Chughtai managed to preserve his importance and introduce new ideas and fresh insights to paintings. It should be admitted that Cubism dominated the art science which was popular for the next twenty years. Moreover, the artist became a pioneer in calligraphy art and introduced his own calligraphic style.

As it has been mentioned briefly above, Abdur Rahman Chughtai made significant contribution to the Pakistan’s art heritage and was the first artist who anticipated a Muslim cultural position in Lahore, as compared to the national and Hindu art dictated by the Bengal School (Mitter 341). The tradition of Mughal miniature painting could also be regarded among the contributions of Chughtai’s artistic work. The foundation of artistic development of Mughal’s movements and workshops were successfully developed in Pakistan and Persian painting movements. Chughtai entered Mughal tradition and looked into the role of Western traditions which could enrich the tradition in particular and Muslim culture in general. Etching and watercolors were among popular styles in Pakistan, being the imported, borrowed art forms, until the moment when Chughtai started introducing them to the patterns and styles which were later accepted in Mughal works. Moreover, Chughtai focused on one more style of art – the portrait. Chughtai became the one who made portraiture in Pakistan a famous form of art – according to Muslim traditions, the direct representation of Allah and Prophet Muhammad along with the portrait works never succeeded till the painter’s work penetrated the Muslim culture. In general, this Pakistani painter was among the first who managed to split the Muslim painting into classic and modern art. His early works, therefore, refer to Hindu mythology; however, his later works relate to the Mughal and Islamic aesthetics. In such a way, the painter emphasized his strong affiliation to Panjabi painting.

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The direct representation of the religious figures as well as other influential Muslim figures was combined with a traditional indigenous routes of Pakistani artistic movement. In addition, the use of watercolors gave a fresh insight into the classical representations. Furthermore, Chughtai’s etching also reflected interesting and culturally-predetermined scenes which reflected national and political highlights.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Islamic culture has a rich history and witnessed different stages of development. Islamic artists strived to enrich the national foundation of Asian countries. Chughtai became a prominent figure of that time as he brought modernity and unique style to the Pakistani art. Specifically, the painter has skillfully combined his authentic style with old Muslim traditions and modern Western influences; yet, he managed to retain his own personality in his artistic works. As an example, watercolors were integrated into Pakistani art, but the themes and motifs still related to the Muslim traditions, depicting specific cultural and political aspects of Pakistani heritage. Therefore, it is logical that the artist became recognized and popular in his country and abroad. Additionally, he also created his own Punjab school in which he introduced his etchings and miniature works. It is logical that his creative work was associated with cultural themes because of his rich family background with all relatives involved into art, beginning from art critics and ending with designers. Apart from paintings, Chughtai was also interested in drawings and photography; he was also famous for his outstanding collections of miniatures. Overall, this figure has made a significant contribution to the development of Muslim culture in South Asia because of his ability to unite old-fashioned and modern patterns in art. What is more important is that the artist was also among the most recognized ones in terms of his own unique style. He believed that the person is the one who triggered the enrichment and advancement of culture; he is also the creator of authentic identity. Finally, he also believed that culture should not be buried in old tradition; it should have the continuation in modernity, which is the sign of advancement and enrichment of nation in general. The modernity demonstrated in his works is also the consequence of the historical events, namely the independence of Pakistan from the British Empire, and certain post-colonial political movements affecting the consciousness of the outstanding philosophers, artists, and social activists who made significant contribution to the current state of affairs. To sum up, Rahman Chughtai is regarded as one of the most influential figures of his time who managed to develop a distinguished genre and unite Eastern and Western trends in painting.

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