In her new series of paintings, Najmi Sura evokes the court life of the Indian subcontinent was ruled by the Mughal emperors. ‘Ruled by’ is, of course an inexact description. In the days of Mughal sway the Indian subcontinent was divided into a multitude of territories, some ruled directly, others presided over by semi-independent princes, each with his own court. Some of these subordinate rulers were Muslims, others were Hindus.
We know about this complex network of states not only through written descriptions – as the British acquired more and more influence in India, some of the texts we now have are reminiscences penned by British ‘residents’, appointed to keep an eye on potentially unruly princely behavior - but we can also experience this culture more directly, through a wealth of Indian miniature paintings, made to be held in the hand, or looked at in albums. There is a rich store of these in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Full-scale mural paintings survive, but they are necessarily much less accessible.
What Najmi Sura has done is to take the subjects of these courtly miniatures, and also the visual conventions employed by the artists who made them, and enlarge the images to the kind of scale we expect to encounter in European genre-paintings and court portraits. In this sense, her work fits neatly into the framework of ‘appropriation’ – that fashion for being ‘original’ through very pointedly not being original – that has come to dominate some aspects of today’s avant-gardism. She is a surprising sister to the ultra-fashionable American artist Richard Prince, who ‘appropriates’ Instagram images found on the Web.
However, a major difference appears when we look at Sura’s images more closely. Yes, her paintings are marvelously, exquisitely detailed and follow the conventions established by Mogul school artists. She is happy to offer all the intricacies of costume and jewelry that are such a seductive element in the traditional Indian miniatures I have just cited. The rich fabrics, the glittering weapons, the strings of huge pearls: all are fully present. These details do not, however, overwhelm the human presence of the people depicted. If one looks closely at their faces, and also perhaps at their hands, one is immediately conscious that one is in the presence of real individuals – that is to say of beings, who despite the exoticism of their costumes, live and breathe like ourselves.
The effect is strangely hallucinatory. The miniatures I have mentioned have a distancing effect when we look at them. Their tiny scale serves as a metaphor for a world and a way of life that is vanishing into the remote distance. Najmi Sura’s images, by contrast, bring that world vividly to life, and foreground her subjects in our consciousness.
We are brought into contact with an exotic world, but we also perceive that, under the trappings, there are human thoughts, human emotions, universal desires – not at all unlike our own. I stress the word ‘desires’ because one of the most attractive features of the series is the gentle current of eroticism that flows through many of the images. These are romantic paintings, in multiple senses of that often over-used adjective. It is not entirely a surprise that they are the work of a woman artist.
Art Historian, Author & Critic