In today’s world, we all seem too concerned about the future. We are looking at robots, and discovering more in outer space, and floating cars. What we seem to have begun to forget is history, and it’s importance.
History is a vast field, it is the study of past events, which have shaped up our present. One simply cannot build a framework on which to base your life without understanding how things work in the world, without a detailed picture of how society, technology, and even governments worked way back when so that we can better understand how it works now.
If we had no history, we would be at a loss of who we are. Our identities, cultures, and even our languages, would cease to exist. Without language, we would have no way to communicate with one another. We need the past to understand the future.
Art history is the study of visual arts, paintings, sculptures and architecture in the context of their timelines. It is the study of how and why expression evolved, in different times and various cultures.
If we speak of South Asia, as well as neighbouring Iran, the region has been a cradle for the arts for a long, long time. Unfortunately today, art takes a backseat here. There are multiple reasons for this, including the notion that art is “un-Islamic”, or conservative societies, hard hit by poverty otherwise looking towards more “useful” and “respectful” professions. Artists in the region are among the group which suffers immense exploitation to date.
What is often forgotten is the nexus between cultural heritage, identity, and ideology, and how it shapes us as people.
Heritage, for one, is not a ‘thing’ but, rather, a process. It is a relation that cannot be reduced to one dimension. It is what binds people together, may it be cultural, national or religious. Heritage is what connects us to a shared past, and to something we identify with. A shared past needs to be emphasized because even though heritage artefacts or sites or even narratives may always have different meanings to different groups and people, it still forms a bond of ownership.
Be it in the commemoration of past violence, ancient greatness, or everyday life, contestations over heritage are not merely conflicts. It is a fight over the power to define what is relevant, and who should represent it. This gives birth to ideologies, and ideology is power.
The forgotten art of the East: miniature paintings
Miniature paintings, the much-loved art of the East began to flourish in the 13th to 16th centuries. Miniatures gave visual images and illustrated literature. It was particularly famous for poetry. Although Islam forbade portraying humans and animals in paintings, however, originating in Persia, this art, exclusive to a select audience, often did not comply with the strict ideas of Islam.
It was a notable art movement of its time, perhaps one of the only one’s which was flourishing. The middle ages had nearly annihilated Europe. In terms of art, Europe indulged in “Renaissance classicism”. The movement sought to mimic the literature, rhetoric, and art of the ancient world, of ancient Rome in particular. While they focused on “rebirth” and struggled to rediscover art, literature and philosophy, the East was at the peak of its success.
The three schools of miniature art
The most important names behind the movement were Ferdowsi, Nezami, Saadi, and Hafez. No literature aficionado from Iran, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, is a stranger to these names. The great wealth of inspiring literature gave birth to important schools for miniature art, each with its unique style, which ended in a majestic diversity of paintings. Three of the most influential schools for miniature took birth in Shiraz, Tabriz and Herat. Shiraz and Tabriz lie in present-day Iran, whereas the latter is in present-day Afghanistan.
This is the city Cyrus the Great chose as his capital. A cradle of the arts, a new life was breathed into the city of Shiraz, now the capital of Fars, and once upon a time, Persepolis. Poetry flourished with Saadi, Khajoo, Kermani and Hafez, as did miniature. The “Shahnamah” and “Khamseh” remain unparalleled marvels to date. Symmetrical, straightforward and monotonous compositions were a rule of thumb for the painters.
In Tabriz, the painters dedicated themselves to creating illustrations combining Far-Eastern traits, which the Mongols had brought with them, with Armeno-Byzantine styles. The later influence is owed to the city’s geographical location on the frontier of the Armenian region. Architecture and landscapes were shown as fully as possible, and static, strained compositions became more natural and lively.
In the 15th century, when Shiraz and Tabriz began to fuse their styles, a new school in Herat emerged. The School of Herat attracted the best painters from both, Shiraz and Tabriz, and specialized in portraying people. The complicated rhythmic structures in paintings were mastered by Kemal-od-din Behzad and inspired by the great poetic works of Jami and Navai.
Later on, in 1526, when the Mughal empire was established, the Mughal miniature style of paintings developed. The empire, known for its love for aesthetics, brought this art and artists to its courts, to what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and thus, the fourth kind of miniature emerged. The fine lines of Persian artists amalgamated with the vivid colours Indian painters felt at home with, and a new style arose from the blend.
Today, not only the art but the artists are in peril. Art in Iran became stagnant and sharply declined after the revolution. Afghanistan has been ravaged by war for over four decades. In Pakistan, art died slowly, first, by Zia’s Islamisation policies, and later on, lack of interest by corrupt governments, an increasingly conservative society at large, and repeated dictatorships, well known-enemies of expression, and terrorism. In India, an increasingly strict form of Hinduism began to take root, and thus they began to disassociate themselves to anything “Muslim”, including art.
Debating the happenings
Art, enlightenment and modernism are not a threat to religion. It is necessary, to steer a middle course. Why can we not embrace modernity with room for faith? Why do we not ask ourselves what has all this cost us? Other than the apparent destruction in Afghanistan, the bombings in Pakistan, the pushing of one gender into oblivion in Iran, and thus, artists either quietened down and pushed into the darkness, or forced into self-imposed exile.
When survival becomes a struggle, who has time to contemplate the cost? When the threat to human life, is so imminent, who has time to ponder about art? When every aspect of one’s life is subject to moral policing, by both the people and the state, can one truly express what they feel? When art, or any form of expression, is automatically perceived as a threat to a regime or religion, that is where the war against art gets sanctioned. The war is then holy cause, taken up by rabid rightwing elements, which have unfortunately seeped into every layer of society.
Lest we forget
Lest we forget, we owe saving our legacy to our next generations, to give them a shared past. Our artistic heritage is just one aspect of it. In future, in the forever volatile political landscape of this region, where leftist ethno-nationalists create chaos and extremist right-wing elements shut everything down, our history, our shared heritage, common to everyone, not just a specific religious or ethnic community, is what will bind us and keep our nations from falling apart.