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How a Contemporary Artist Finds Expression in Traditional Miniature Paintings

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  • How a Contemporary Artist Finds Expression in Traditional Miniature Paintings

How a Contemporary Artist Finds Expression in Traditional Miniature Paintings

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When you think of traditional miniature paintings, you may imagine a world of storytelling, anecdotes of history, royal propaganda, portraiture of power and wealth, and illustrations of mythical and human endeavours. In recent times, this art form has found new traction in the contemporary art world. 

What does miniature painting mean for a contemporary artist? We sat down with Mumbai-based artist Divya Pamnani to explore just that. 

In a quest to find her voice as an artist, Divya discovered Indian miniature art. 

Divya lived in the United States until 2014 and worked in the non-profit sector until she decided to pursue a full-time studio practice in 2020. During her professional pursuits, she felt a deep calling to express herself visually. While balancing a full-time job, she expanded her knowledge by studying Indian Aesthetics and The Art of the Book in South Asia. A particularly formative experience was learning traditional Indian miniature painting techniques under the tutelage of Master Artist Mahaveer Swami in Rajasthan, reminiscent of the Mughal and Rajput Ateliers. 

The pandemic proved to be a turning point. As the world slowed down, it gave her a chance to immerse herself in the quietude of her studio and dedicate long days to building her visual vocabulary. During this time, Divya found solace in the slow, meditative rhythm of a traditional medium—a process that resonated deeply with her personality.

For Divya, miniature painting is more than just a creative outlet; it is a holistic experience that engages her physically, intellectually, and spiritually. Crafted over weeks, each artwork requires a steady hand and a calm mind. In a world accustomed to instant gratification, miniature painting demands discipline over one’s thoughts—a process the artist embraces wholeheartedly.

Left: Artist Divya Pamnani. Right: A close-up shot of a work in progress. Source: Divya Pamnani

So, how does a contemporary artist embrace miniature paintings?

Traditional miniature paintings, dating back to the 10th century, have a rich history across India. The various schools, such as Rajasthani, Mughal, Pahari, and Deccan, are distinguished by their origin story, colour palette, motifs, and remarkable attention to detail. Beyond having certain technicalities in common, the paintings typically revolved around similar themes of royal portraiture, festivals, processions, war, and mythology — a reflection of the royal patrons who commissioned them.

In her practice, Divya merges technical tradition with contemporary inquiry. While she uses traditional qalams and stone pigments, she also infuses contemporary shades and themes into her works. Red, chrome yellow and teal exist alongside playful pinks and purples, as she explores her own existential questions.

In The Art of Play Series, the artist draws inspiration from ancient Indian games such as snakes and ladders. Here, she wrestles with the idea of vices and virtues, imbuing her painting with didactic narratives. Through a mix of conventional and playful motifs, she invites viewers to reflect on the pursuit of personal growth. This set her up to explore more games played in ancient India, and on a path to use the geometric structure of games, imagined with patterns, colours and motifs, to add a layer of playfulness to the concept of games. For her, this series represents the sheer delight and enjoyment in imagining and rendering them in fun and interesting ways. 

Left: Vice and Virtue, Stone pigments on wasli, 2022. Right: Celestial Games x 1, Stone pigments on wasli, 2022. Source: Divya Pamnani.

The act of making becomes an exploration of personal and philosophical questions, as in her Circular Stories Series.

Drawing inspiration from a wide range of reading, including Western philosophers like Joseph Campbell and Vedic philosophy, Divya’s Circular Stories Series is a manifestation of her quest for wholeness and alignment. The circular form became more than just a compositional choice; it is a vessel for concentrated attention and profound introspection. Like the sacred mandala, the circle represents unity, harmony, and cosmic order. Within the confines of the circle, Divya found a space to gather scattered aspects of her mind — finding alignment within herself and the world around her. According to one of her favourite philosophers, the life work for each one of us is seeking out what is at the centre of our “sacred circle”, which involves the discipline of pulling all the scattered aspects of our life together, focusing on that centre and ordering ourselves to it.

Left: Indigo Beginnings, Stone pigments, gouache and inks on wasli. Right: Close-up of Cosmic Beginnings, Stone pigments, gouache and inks on wasli, 2023. Source: Divya Pamnani

Contrary to contemporary discourse that is often steeped in dark, heavy themes, Divya’s artworks exude joy and optimism. Through natural and botanical motifs intertwined with celestial elements, she conveys themes of growth, transformation, and the pursuit of light. Ultimately, these artworks convey a message of wellness and wholeness, radiating positivity, abundance, and vitality. 

Divya’s miniatures are a testament to the enduring relevance of tradition in the contemporary world. 

As she contemplates the next steps in her journey, Divya aims to stretch herself creatively. Venturing beyond the confines of traditional mediums, she plans to explore expression through experimentation with paper cutting, collage, embroidery and other innovative techniques. Divya combines her many inspirations and techniques to create truly beautiful art, reminding us that we can always create something greater than the sum of our parts.

Divya Pamnani’s work is currently part of ‘Off Margins: Miniatures in the Postmodern’, a group show at Art and Charlie, Mumbai. She will also be showcased at an upcoming show at Space118. 

Get to Know the Artist

Describe your art in 3 words: Colourful, whimsical, fun

Favourite artist: Yayoi Kusama

What are you listening to currently?: People I Mostly Admire Podcast

What’s your advice for new artists?: To make a lot of art. Keep engaging with the art of making, with yourself, and your process.

Favourite place to create art: My Studio, it’s my sacred space

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