Rembrandt van Rijn died three hundred years ago in faraway Netherlands. But you can still imagine him sitting in the miniature painting studio of the National College of Arts, next to students who learn the traditional technique of miniature painting by reproducing works of Mughal, Rajput and Pahari schools, and copying a work of Indian painting from the Mughal era. These students eventually develop their individual form of expression which may not appear connected to the convention of making small painting on wasli paper in a stylised format.
In fact, the great Dutch artist did replicate Mughal miniatures, drawing in ink on paper figures of Mughal Emperors (Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb), noblemen, and ordinary folks as depicted in Indian miniatures. It would be useful to recall the period of the painter (1606-1669) and the reigns of the three monarchs (1605-1707). So what the Dutch master drew was from his time, though from a different territory. Texts on the painter inform that “Rembrandt undoubtedly turned to foreign objects in his collection for artistic inspiration”, but “there are no specific records of Mughal paintings in Rembrandt’s inventory, as there are for shells and other art works”. However “The Dutch East India Company’s successful trade negotiations with the Mughals gave rise to the importation of Indian goods into Amsterdam, which found their way into Rembrandt’s collection and ultimately into his art”.
The discovery or realisation of Rembrandt reproducing Mughal painting is a curious matter for many in Pakistan, including those trained in the tradition of miniature painting or those who perceive Mughal miniature painting as the sign of identity of this region. For them, it’s a heritage to be proud of, to protect and preserve. But if one investigates the history of Miniature painting in India, one finds there was nothing regional, racial or religious about these works. The history of Mughal painting started in India with the arrival of two Persian painters. And in numerous miniatures from the Mughal courts, the subjects, figures and scenes are incorporated from European art reaching India through envoys, missionaries and traders. So one comes across suspended cherubs, angels floating in the sky, religious figures rendered, characters from life or recent history depicted in the genre of Indian miniature painting.
This is a reminder that cultures are always in conversation. A civilization is not complete if it’s isolated; and a society if secluded faces the danger of annihilation. Octavio Paz observes that the defeat of Aztecs against European invaders was not due to their inferiority in arms or inability to fight; they lost because the continents of Americas were totally remote from other part of the world. So the population did not know how to interact with the ‘other’. Thus they gave up on their first encounter.
From ancient times to the present age of so-called globalization, trades, wars and migration have forced societies to accept and assimilate influences from other regions. People, goods, products and artefacts have travelled from one terrain to the other, bringing something new to that land. Today while eating our potatoes or tomatoes, enjoying our coffee or tobacco, we tend to forget the arrival of Columbus in Americas that made it possible for us to have these ‘indispensable’ ingredients of our daily diet. Likewise for so many inventions, expressions and fashions from distant societies that have become part of our normal existence.
In the history of mankind, trade between ideas, images and objects was a normal and crucial course. But the problem for a colonised mind is the route of this traffic; because several small European nations conquered and controlled large communities and tracts of lands, even continents (Australia). With a history of British ruling India, Dutch dominating Indonesia, Portugal possessing Brazil and Mozambique, Spain conquering a major part of South America, Belgium occupying Congo, France holding Indochina, Algeria and other parts of Africa, one assumes the passage of culture and progress had only one direction — from Europe to the colonies. In reality, it is a delicate matter. One of the most prominent writers of English language is Salman Rushdie who was born in Bombay. V.S. Naipaul from Trinidad, in the words of his compatriot and competitor Derek Walcott, wrote the best English sentences. Anish Kapoor represents the art of Great Britain. There are numerous examples of artists, writers, actors, singers from former colonies taking over the centre stage in the land of their former rulers.
We tend to forget this exchange largely due to geopolitics and economics, and accept that a colonised person was always on the receiving end. He was the one who had to emulate the west in order to be perfect. This ignores the fact that the cross connection between the East and West has been in different directions. While presenting works of Pakistani artists, an art historian from the US once cited their sources of inspiration from Europe and the US. Indisputable no doubt, but it is equally true that that a number of artists from mainstream art have looked at art from the periphery for inspiration and ideas. Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Brancusi and Pablo Picasso used the art from Asia, North Africa and Africa to create their pieces. A carpet, calligraphic manuscript and African mask is evident in the mainstream art, but all muted and manoeuvred to be severed from the original sources.
On the other hand, Rembrandt, a prominent name of mainstream art in the seventeenth century Holland was referring to Indian miniature painting. No matter if this experience had any impact on his imagery, but the fact that he was redrawing those odd figures from oriental paintings certifies that the evaluation of art is an arbitrary matter. It also illustrates the freedom available to an artist to choose from any part of the world in order to enrich his vision and experience.
‘Rembrandt and Inspiration of India’, part of an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, Long Angeles (held from March 13 to June 24, 2018; with a catalogue edited by Stephanie Schrader), is a reminder that an artist is not restricted to one culture or one tradition, nor is he confined to one school. He searches and locates images from distant lands which somehow become part of his own pictorial practice. The case of Rembrandt affirms that artists are not limited to the bounds of their geography or cultural norms; they can assimilate images, techniques and materials from any part of the globe.
Rembrandt van Rijn making copies of Mughal painting is as admirable as an artist today, say from Lahore, getting inspired by William d Kooning or David Hockney.