S.M.Khayyam was born in 1992 in Quetta but currently lives and works in Lahore. Khayyam obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art, with a major in miniature painting, from the National College of Arts, Lahore. He takes an experimental approach to his work using diverse mediums, including drawing, painting, sculpture, illustration, large-scale installations and calligraphy.
We talk to the contemporary artist about his fascination with Mughal miniatures, making his own pigments and the inspiration behind his striking yet delicate works.
Your work has a contemporary aesthetic, like your faded faces accentuating beautiful textiles of a bygone era. How did you create this style?
My paintings talk about the past, present and the future all at once. The people in my paintings were once real faces of people who lived in Mughal Era. By repainting and re-contextualising these faces, there seems to be an underlying commentary of how histories and our ancestors have been buried in our subconscious and therefore exist in our present.
Faded faces in my paintings provides a dichotomous experience, on one hand they give the viewer the impression that they are unfinished, in process and on the other hand the same imagery doubles as a representation of decay with fraying aged edges. I have a personal way of creating these faces in different layers. Before I start to paint these layers, I create an image in my head than convert these imaginary drawings in a blank canvas. After that I draw portraits in sepia colour with Qalam. I usually render features with Pardakht and after rendering them I give first layer of wash and it goes on with 7 to 8 layers of different skin tones. The whole process is quite mediating and I use to enjoy a lot till the final result comes out.
How has Sufi heritage and your family background influenced you’re your artistic practice?
My great grandfather was a Sufi saint named as Baba Hussain Shah, who belonged to Amritsar and migrated to Lahore at a very young age. He was a great poet as well and wrote books of mystic poetry. My grandfather moved to Quetta, Baluchistan from Lahore. He served his life to radio Pakistan and was fond of classical music. He had great skills in playing sitar. My father served for the Pakistan government and was a well-known physician. He also had an artistic skill in playing sitar. He was creative and I would observe him quietly while he made origamis and small wooden houses. He was my first inspiration whom I learnt a lot from. My mother is also an artistically skilled woman. She's quite familiar with ceramics and worked a lot in embroidery. Me and my siblings learnt embroidery from her. I was very much into arts and started my journey at a very young age. I worked in many mediums and also interested in observing tiny objects and materials in my childhood. I used to write words and names on a rice grain. This interest led me to pursue miniature as a major subject.
Your works are inspired by Mughal miniature painting traditions of India and Pakistan. What made you develop an interest in these artistic traditions?
As I started making miniature paintings at college, I found Mughal miniature painting quite interesting because of the Mughal rich colours, and how old Mughal painters like Balachand and Payag used different techniques to render portraits, and how they stylized life drawings for compositions which inspired me a lot and these observations developed my interest to paint Mughals in my own style.
I use natural pigments that fulfils the moment in the history of art, only to present each layer that goes into the creation. The portraits and embellishments that occupy the expanse of my canvas may often seem incomplete, but their role is to discover a likely visual evidence of what could have been the routine and activity of bygone artists. The use of colours, shapes and symbols treat human and nature alike, almost as if they shared a balanced relationship throughout. My focus on the descriptions attached to my work comes less from a title and more from an explanation on where the subject stands in the larger history of the Mughal empire.
Mughal icons continue to diversify into a contemporary mirror, with appearances, themes and stories wrapped in precious memory. While a puzzle of differences between My paintings and specimens of Islamic art Mughal paintings would be difficult to solve, I include multiple portraits and an asymmetrical boundary to surround my work with the past. In the moment, I unearth the beauty of intricate patterns and a devoted presence of the artist in the art.
You have an appreciation for Mughal textiles, and the way they are presented in miniatures. Why textiles?
The way the Mughals presented textiles is always fascinating for me, especially the Muslin, silk and velvet and how they used gold, also iris and narcissus flowers which are frequently used in the borders. It has always been a part of my artistic practice because all we left with are remains of that heritage. One of major reasons I paint them is that whenever I visit museums I would see how the Mughal empire's clothes and their belongings are hanged in museums, but they are not here. When I observe clothes or turbans their faces start to appear in my mind. I paint them because every soul will taste death and only their belongings will remain here.
How did you train to become an artist specializing in these traditional artforms?
I am trained in Indo-Persian miniature painting techniques from the National Collage of Art Lahore. In my college time I always admire the aesthetics of the Mughal miniature painting. I was always curious about how they would have been making these painting at that time. I would experiment with new mediums, observing nature, study books on miniature painting and research on natural pigment and materials to try to emulate the style. I believe I am always in the process of exploring and learning from my surrounding.
You use natural pigments in your work, do you make your own pigments and why did you choose to use this medium?
As I mentioned before, my father was a physician and he used to make medicines at home and I always saw him making those medications. I learnt the whole process in which we make some of those medicines with saffron, gum Arabic and much more. I always found this process interesting. I was much more aware of different materials in my childhood like I used to make charcoal with wood tree and also, I used to crush bricks and make colours with them. At that time, I wasn't aware that how old masters work with natural pigments in miniature painting. When I grew up a bit more, I bought anfew books on old masters like Leonardo di Vinci and I read how they used natural colours and my interest developed more. I started making colours from fruits and flowers. I was also not aware of how to make natural pigments like those used in archival manuscripts and what kind of ingredients were used. I had an idea about gold and silver leaf because I already used them while making herbal medicines. And I had a strong connection with materials like the mortar and pestle. So, that's how my interest developed in it and I started making natural pigments properly during my college time. I love making them and always enjoyed the process because whenever I make them it recalls my childhood memory.
You have recently been inspired by Kufic calligraphy, will we see this develop in some of your work?
I really love early Kufic style and I think it's not that easy to understand in one go because there's no zair and zaber in it and it's has been written in manuscripts from 7th to 10th century. I've been practicing it for a long time but when I went to a museum and saw a blue Quran which was written in Kufic style in indigo colour with gold on few pages of parchment and It was very inspiring for me. I'm working on something new in which Persian poetry will be shown but what will be written will be in Kufic style.
Who are the people you admire in the art world?
I admire Leonardo di Vinci’s work because his natural genius crossed so many disciplines and the fact that he was indisputably connected with science and nature. Also, I love the way he studied his bold drawings. Vincent Van Gogh also inspired me to chase my dreams and I really like his way of imaginaing. I like his vibrant colour palette and detailed observations. Anselm Kiefer is another of my favourite artists. I admire his large and confront tied scale work and also his amazing work to find signatures and names of people of historical places and the fact Kiefer seeks to protect the past. Balchand is one of the best miniaturists whom I admire the most. I like his compositions and how he gave subtle form and strength to unruly darbar scenes in his paintings and I really like his grisaille rendered figures.
Can you share your favourite work of art you have created so far with us and why is it your favourite?
One of my favourite artworks is from early 2008, it is Calligraphy on paper. I have written Sura Yaseen in a circular composition. The Sura start from the centre it goes in spiral form. And it has the circular illumination boarder. the composition look like a circle is place on golden square. Seeing this artwork after so many years I have realize how difficult is to write Arabic calligraphy in one go and it must be composed perfectly. At that time, I hadn’t seen any illumination and was not aware of how to apply gold on surface. It was purely done with passion and love for the Islamic calligraphy. Whenever I see my earlier artworks, it always gives me sense of peace and contentment.
What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like, and how do you think we can continue to keep the miniature painting tradition alive?
Well, I believe that talented and encouraging young artists who are approaching new forms in Islamic art, will reflect the culture and there will be new progression that will strengthen the future position of Islamic culture. Islamic art continues to broaden its influence in the contemporary world and I think it cannot be limited only to religious art but also reflecting unique forms and techniques of artists' own roots. I believe it is important to recognize the value of young artist's vision that they bring to the communities.
Many artists still pursuing the traditional art forms like miniature. The style of miniature painting started from the beginning and changed as it spreads to other areas. The traditional style seems to be transforming by the changing movements in contemporary world. Most of the artists today do not practice miniature in its pure traditional form and in order to keep the tradition alive, artists really need to find ways of development and experimentation in order to keep miniature art pertinent and relevant to communities and people.
For more information follow S.M Khayyam on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/s.m.khayyam/?hl=en
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.