A Contemporary Glance at Indian Miniature

Presenting a fascinating blend of cultures and styles, the art of Indian miniatures originated in Persia, where it was used to illuminate precious manuscripts. It was introduced to India in the mid-16th century with the invasion of the Mughal rulers—Muslims of Mongol descent, whose court painters engaged in manuscript illumination. The drawing skill was acquired via copying, and subsequently from memory and observation. Most of the miniatures surrender recurring patterns: e.g. face in profile and body in three-quarters view.

The miniatures, featured here for the first time, belong to the Museum’s collection. Their modest dimensions offer an intimate encounter with episodes rendered in delicate, highly nuanced drawing and rich colors. The ornate frames form windows, inviting the viewer to look through them at lovers from Indian mythology, nobles and princes, who dwell tranquilly in their tiny painted world. Five contemporary artists were invited to “re-touch” these distant worlds and interpret them in their own way. The new context infuses them with another layer of meaning.

In her mural, Ayelet Carmi sets feminine sensuality free from the framed mini-world. The multiple manifestations of the same figure sketch her movement as in a dream, unfurling a magical trail of a paradise lost between her and her echoing images. Avshalom Suliman‘s mural resembles a study in various stages. He captures images from the Indian pantheon and copies them, altering their dimensions to draw surprising affinities between them. The point of departure for his work is the practice of imitation and copying, which is at the core of miniature painting, but he imports it into his own world, thus giving rise to a fictitious personal mythology.

In Shai Azoulay‘s works, one is struck by the contrast between the freehand rendition, imagination, and humor characterizing them, and the meticulous quality of the miniatures. The visual link between these two worlds is formed by the figures’ flattened profiles and vivid coloration, and together they spin a new story. Chanchal Banga, an Indian artist living in Israel, responds humorously to the solemn formality and self-import characterizing the depiction of rulers in miniatures. The series of paintings portraying naughty monkeys, eager to observe their reflections in the mirror, offers a metaphor for the “selfie” generation. Lilac Sasson relocates figures from the miniatures. She covers them with gold-leaf and “inserts” them in scenes selected from the old pages of a book of photographs from India. This allows a reconsideration of the relations between the images in their new context, juxtaposing timelessness and ephemerality.

Shir Meller-Yamaguchi, curator