The Mughal Princess, watercolour on paper, signed lower left, on reverse a lable with details of provenance, framed, 57.5 x 45.7cm (22 5/8 x 18in).
Provenance: Air Marshal M. Nur Khan, H. J. H., Q. A. S. PK., Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Air Force: presented by him to the Iranian Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on his visit to Pakistan in July 1969.
This work was executed circa 1959.
Air Marshal M. Nur Khan was Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Air Force between July 23, 1965 and August 31, 1969. Heralded as a national war hero, Nur Khan was the influential leader of the Pakistani Air Force during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war.
Prior to this appointment he was the Managing Director of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) between 1959 and 1965. Under his tenure, he developed PIA into a financially sound and world renowned international airline. He was later appointed Governor of Western Pakistan in 1969.
Behind the Infinite Veils of Appearances
Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897-1975) was born during the heady years of fin de siècle Lahore, a thriving cultural centre since Mughal times, with a sizeable community of miniature artists. Local traditions were institutionalised by the British with the foundation of the Mayo school (todays National College of Art), where the artist enrolled in 1911.
Often construed as a nationalist painter - indeed, he was Pakistans first national art icon - his work has been convincingly interpreted as espousing a kind of Islamic cosmopolitanism envisioned by the prominent poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) and was intimately tied to the politics of pre-Partition Muslim self-determination.
Lahores cultural and intellectual elite vigorously participated in nationalist and separatist movements and no doubt informed Chughtais early rejection of the modernism emanating from Europe and the US. Dreaming of a Muslim-Indian art separate from Western influences, the artist internalised the art history of the Sub-continent and Persia instead and, crucially, advocated the quintessential hybridity of Mughal art as the bedrock for the evolution of an indigenous artistic identity.
Much has been made of Chughtais connection with the Calcutta-based Bengal School of Art controlled by the Tagore family, who, similarly, had synthesised Hindu mythology, Mughal painting and Japanese wash and printing techniques. However, by the time he had published his Muraqqa-i-Chughtai in 1928 he was fully committed to the advancement of his political and aesthetic choices, inserting himself in a history of Muslim painting that traverses Timurid, Safavid and Mughal eras. (Akbar Naqvi, Image and Identity: Fifty Years of Painting and Sculpture in Pakistan, Karachi, 1998, p.58.)
The Mughal Princess can be allocated to the latter part of Chughtais long career, marked by the simplification of compositions, the reduction of formal elements to luminous colour planes underpinned by a framework of fine draftsmanship. Presented like a Mughal portrait in profile, a convention fashionable during the reigns of Jahangir (1605-1637) and Shah Jahan (1628-1658), it is, nevertheless, unlikely that the painting represents a historical person.
However, this lot can be grouped with a painting dated 1959 housed in the Chughtai Museum in Lahore and with two further examples in private collections in the US and Rawalpindi and probably constitutes part of a larger series. The known works from this series all depict the same serenely seated figure delicately extending a hand grasping a small volume of poetry and a flower. Only the setting, minor decorative variations and the use of contrasting colour washes distinguish each work from the next, components the artist had long used to convey a sense of the metaphysical. To use Naqvis words, [Chughtai] was a painter who was committed to the imaginative provenance of the Persian Sufi and the Hindu mystical tradition of art which saw Reality disguised behind the infinite veils of appearances.(Naqvi, op. cit. 1998, p.58.)
A sense of vindication has recently entered the academic discourse concerning the importance of Chughtai to the history of modern Pakistani art. This was raised in direct proportion to the escalating international success of graduates from Chughtais alma mater, the NCA Miniature Painting Program in Lahore. Like Chughtai a century ago, contemporary miniatures draw upon the legacies of Mughal painting, (post)-modernism, and Indian vernacular to create a kind of post-national cosmopolitan Muslim aesthetic. Even the notion that Chughtai regarded his work as advancing an Indo-Muslim art under threat by the British colonial project, resonates with the political allegories created by artists such as Buzkashi, Aisha Khalid, Saira Wasim and Shazia Sikander. Ultimately, and perhaps unintentionally, as Dadi has argued, they have succeeded in bringing to fruition Chughtais dearest dream: the establishment of an internationally recognised Lahore School of Art.
I am grateful to Arif Chughtai, director of the Chughtai Museum, Lahore, for his kind help in researching this Lot.