Apart from the aesthetics, I got interested in miniature paintings because of the historical and political questions related to them. I wanted to know why artists painted the Gita Govinda? Or why Muhammad Shah Rangila commissioned a pornographic portrait? Or at what point did a subsection of Indian society start to feel embarrassed about certain themes of art and aesthetics in their own culture? What influenced that? What role did colonialism play in all of this?– Ankit, the face behind the popular Instagram account @niraamish dedicated to miniature paintings
1. Tell us a bit about your personal and professional journey?
I was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan and lived there till the age of 11 before moving to the U.K. I have lived in various cities in the UK but my “hometown” is a beautiful city in the east of England: Norwich. Since September 2021, I have been working in London for an international law firm.
People are often curious about my interest in Indian miniature paintings. I think my passion for it developed over the years and is influenced by a number of factors. My very first exposure to miniatures was the painting of ‘Bani-Thani’. Kishangarh – the place where Bani Thani was made also happens to be my mother’s hometown. You can find these images in many houses there. My own hometown – Jodhpur, of course has a style of its own but I was less exposed to it. My family does not have a background in the arts so whilst living in India, I never really showed much of an interest in miniatures as such.
The next vivid memory of miniatures I have dates back to my school days in Norwich. I remember we were given a summer art project to do on the theme “I, me and myself”. On the first page, we were encouraged to come up with a mood board and I had divided mine into two-halves to reference influences from the UK and India. In those halves, I had included miniatures which resulted in a lovely conversation with my art teacher about her trip to the havelis of Shekhawati. She also introduced me to the works of the Singh Twins. As enriching as this interaction was, it did not lead to much once the project was completed.
The major breakthrough was around 2013/2014 when I started my blog (the beginning of which is a story in itself). Initially, the blog acted as a mood board for what I considered beautiful but soon enough, fuelled by my interest in politics, art, history as well as my own personal journey, it became an exploration of queer and erotic themes in Indian art and literature.
Prior to the beginning of my blog, I distinctly remember getting into an argument on an internet forum with an individual who denied the existence of erotic paintings depicting characters from Hindu mythology. So naturally, the budding law student in me provided evidence in the form of Pahari Gita-Govinda miniatures as well as other miniatures that stirred up the sensibilities of my audience. Some appreciated and were rather surprised that such paintings existed whilst others denied their origins or cast them aside as exceptions or misunderstandings by the artists. I was soon enough suspended from this forum. However, this acted as a catalyst for me to further my knowledge.
I was now seeing miniatures not merely from an aesthetic point of view but also becoming interested in the historical and political questions related to them. I wanted to know why the artists painted the Gita Govinda? Or why Muhammad Shah Rangila commissioned a porn portrait? Or at what point a subsection of Indian society started to feel embarrassed about certain themes of art and aesthetics in their own culture? What influenced that? What role did colonialism play? And many more questions that set me on a path of learning which I do not see stopping any time soon.
Nowadays, the questions are less grand. For example, a couple of weeks back, I couldn’t find my glasses. The annoyance of it made me wonder about what glasses even looked like in mediaeval India that resulted in a three-part post on my Instagram account focusing on glasses.
2. When and why did you start the Instagram account ‘Niraamish’?
My friends had always encouraged me to post on Instagram but I was happy with my blog. However, I started to notice that blog was slowly becoming quieter, and the lockdowns provided me with more time so I decided to open an Instagram account. I made my first post on @niraamish on 20th August, 2020 during the lockdown.
Right from the beginning, I was pretty sure that I wanted @niraamish to be visually focused with little text. In fact, the initial posts had little or no captions. Sure, feedback from friends prompted me to add captions but I still decided not to add detailed captions for a number of reasons. Firstly, I do not have the time to do the research and write consistently. Secondly, a good chunk of my knowledge of miniatures comes from observing them and I wanted people to experience the same and take a view. Lastly, there are art-historians and academics on Instagram who would be a better source of knowledge/learning. I’m merely an enthusiast.
To be honest, I was not expecting it to amass the number of followers it has. I thought the topic was rather niche and it would become more of a visual reference or filing cabinet for my own interest but clearly, I was wrong. There are many fellow enthusiasts out there. People have reached out to me for collaborations and art consulting gigs but sadly, I have to turn them down as my day job keeps me busy.
3. What attracts you towards miniature paintings and Indian art in general? Any schools or styles you’re fond of in particular?
During my beginner days, part of my attraction towards miniatures was that I wanted to discover something “Indian”. However, after living in the UK for several years, the idea of nation states or the concept of being ‘Indian’ or ‘British’ does not hold the same meaning for me anymore. The study of miniatures has helped me answer such questions around nationality.
As I delved deeper, I realised that miniature painting wasn’t an insular art form. It was influenced by and further influenced many non-Indian artworks, whether it be the stylised clouds that have their origins in China or studies by Mughal artists of Northern European art brought by Jesuit missionaries or the work of Rembrandt and Howard Hodgkin. These aspects excite me because they highlight the cross-border and international nature of arts & ideas.
4. Can you paint? Would you like to make miniature paintings yourself?
In 2017, I did a short course on miniature paintings at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts. I learnt how to prepare wasli, natural pigments and paint miniatures in the traditional manner. Since then, I have been painting occasionally though not as much as I would like to. People have expressed an interest in buying the paintings but at this stage, I feel I am still learning and the works I create are more for skill building purposes as opposed to works that define my own style or sensibilities. I suppose it doesn’t help that my mind has been exposed to some of the greatest miniatures created so the bar is quite high.
5. Who are your favourite miniature artists and why?
This feels akin to asking a parent who is their favourite child! It really is difficult for me to pick certain artists because my favourites depend upon my mood or what I might be researching or what just happens to come into my mind as I type. Due to my origins, I am slightly partial to miniatures from Kishangarh and Jodhpur. The elongated features of Kishangarh miniatures and the Three Aspects of the Absolute painting will always have a soft spot in my heart. I also quite like Pahari miniatures – it’s difficult to not fall in love with the works of Nainsukh and Manaku. The colours of Deccani miniatures and the skill of Mughal ones! It is indeed difficult to choose one.
In terms of contemporary artists, I really enjoy films by Amit Dutta. In fact, when Mubi UK was showing his films, I watched nearly all of them in a day and was in pure bliss. I also like works of artists from Pakistan’s National College of Arts, Lahore – in particular Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi – when I think of contemporary miniatures, I think of them. I also like Olivia Fraser’s works – they were my first introduction to contemporary miniatures. There are many other artists I admire. However, in general my attachment tends to be to artworks and not artists themselves. An artist can have some works that do not appeal to me while their other works do.
6. How would you describe the environment for miniature painting artists in India?
Not particularly great, I would say. Barring few exceptions, miniatures have been reduced to an art form suitable for souvenirs. When someone asks me to show them Indian miniatures, I never google because most search results bring up unimpressive reproductions in the form of souvenirs. One has to go to the websites of museums, libraries and auction houses to find genuine examples.
Unlike the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts or the NCA in Lahore, it appears that in Indian art schools, miniatures are not being taught with the same level of focus. There are numerous talented, skilful miniaturists I have met but many are still copying and creating old works and there is little engagement or exploration of contemporary issues or themes. These artists could benefit from an exchange of ideas, and learning of skills in a more structured setting. That is not to dismiss more traditional forms of learning. Naturally, class, caste and social disparities also play a great role.
Sometimes, I wonder if this situation in India is also due to the fact that the modernist engagement with miniatures began much earlier here, before or during the independence movement – as is evident in the works of artists such as Abanindranath Tagore. The next generation of modernist painters focused more on developing their distinctive styles while making subtle references to miniatures. This is evident in the works of Bhupen Khakhar. Perhaps this created a sense of exhaustion for the next generation and they wished to explore other forms.
A miniature paintings enthusiast, Ankit is in his late 20s and currently resides in London. He likes to read books, watch films, travel and socialise. He can be reached via @niraamish on Instagram.