Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

Have a look at the trailblazing work of Abdur Rahman Chughtai, the artist who redefined contemporary Pakistani art with his unique style.

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

"Characteristic style, perfect technique and universal appeal"

Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897-1975) emerged from the vibrant fin de siècle Lahore (end of the century).

The area is a cultural hub with a rich tradition of miniature artists dating back to the Mughal era.

Born into a family of craftsmen, architects, and decorators, Chughtai’s journey began at the Mayo School (present-day National College of Art) in 1911.

Here, British institutionalisation of local traditions played a pivotal role in shaping his early artistic inclinations.

Often identified as a nationalist painter, Chughtai transcended mere patriotic symbolism.

His works mirrored cosmopolitanism envisioned by philosopher-poet Muhammad Iqbal and were intricately entwined with the pre-Partition politics of Muslim self-determination.

Rejecting Western modernism, Chughtai dreamt of a distinct Muslim-Indian art, internalising the creative heritage of the Subcontinent and Persia.

He championed the hybridity of Mughal art as the foundation for an indigenous identity. Art curator Salima Hashmi emphasises this, writing on Chinar Shade:

“Chughtai is one of South Asia’s foremost painters.

“He was part of the movement that started in the early part of the 20th century to establish an identity indigenous to the subcontinent.

“He rejected the hegemony of the British Colonial aesthetic.”

His pivotal moment came with the publication of Mirza Ghalib’s Muraqqa-i-Chughtai in 1928.

The poetry collection, illustrated by Chughtai, committed to aesthetic choices that aligned with a broader history of Muslim painting spanning the Timurid, Safavid, and Mughal eras.

As the legacy of Chughtai gains renewed recognition in the academic sphere, his influence on modern Pakistani art becomes increasingly apparent.

The NCA Miniature Painting Program in Lahore, Chughtai’s alma mater, now produces graduates whose works draw from Mughal painting, post-modernism, and Indian vernacular.

This aligns with Chughtai’s vision of advancing Indo-Muslim art threatened by British colonialism.

However, this theme is also echoed in the works of contemporary artists like Buzkashi, Aisha Khalid, Saira Wasim, and Shazia Sikander.

Abdur Rahman Chughtai, awarded titles like Khan Bahadur and decorated with honours, laid the foundation for modern Pakistani art.

His vast body of work, encompassing watercolours, sketches, etchings, and publications, is a testament to his multifaceted talent.

After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Chughtai attained recognition as one of the country’s eminent representatives.

His paintings, gifted to dignitaries like Allama Iqbal, Pablo Picasso, and Queen Elizabeth II, solidified his position as a cultural ambassador.

Chughtai’s unique artistic style evolved from early watercolours reflecting Bengal School revivalism to a distinctive fusion by the 40s.

His impact extends beyond canvases.

He designed the iconic logo for the Pakistan Television Corporation and, in 1951, crafted a set of stamps recognised as the world’s most beautiful at the time.

His contributions resonate with contemporary artists, echoing his dream of establishing an internationally recognised Lahore School of Art.

But what made his artwork so poignant and have the lasting impact it has?  Let’s turn the gaze to the canvas where Chughtai’s brilliance truly comes alive. 

Hiraman Tota

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s renowned masterpiece, Hiraman Tota, takes centre stage as his most celebrated work.

The painting skillfully portrays the enchanting presence of Rani Padmavati alongside her eloquent companion, the talking parrot Hiraman.

Chughtai’s artistic brilliance extends beyond this, where subjects gracefully inhabit a flattened pictorial space adorned in opulent golds and soothing pastels.

His distinctive style is marked by the reduction of forms into radiant colour planes and meticulous draftsmanship, creating a visual language rich in metaphorical depth.

The Mughal Princess

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s legacy, encapsulated in the famed “Lahore Oriental Style”, is a testament to his vision.

One of his notable paintings within this distinctive style is The Mughal Princess.

It exemplifies the fusion of influences from miniature painting, Mughal art, Art Nouveau, and Islamic art traditions.

Chughtai used themes like the grandeur of Mughal royalty and heroic tales of Islamic history.

These layers are all intricately intertwined with the architectural marvels of the Mughal era and regional folk stories. 

Jahan Ara At The Taj

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

This image possesses a distinct peculiarity and a nuanced precision of design characteristics.

The unique feature lies in the meticulous attention devoted to illustrating the architecture of the columns and their arches in the background.

Technically flawless and remarkably realistic, this portrayal surpasses the confines of a purely Oriental style.

The mystic essence of the picture only becomes apparent when one directs their attention to the lady.

Crouched in the foreground, her draperies unfold like an expansive fan.

What renders this study truly convincing is its unconventional angle.

Rather than facing the viewer directly, the picture directs our gaze towards the vast distance the woman contemplates.

This unique perspective, coupled with a certain philosophical calm, contributes to the captivating allure of the composition.

Maiden with an Oil Lamp

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

The motif of a young woman contemplating the glow of a lamp is a recurring theme in Chughtai’s work, particularly in the initial three decades of his career.

The image can be interpreted literally: a solitary maiden sits, perhaps anticipating the arrival of her beloved or gazing into the flame while reminiscing about him.

This sentiment is echoed in a Ghalib couplet that Chughtai paired with a similar piece:

“She was waiting alone all night.

“Only the lamp kept her company and now the lamp has gone out.”

However, in the realm of poetry, the flame also serves as a metaphor for the beloved, symbolising the irresistibility of the object of their desire.

Omar Khayyam

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

Omar Khayyam was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet.

Born in Iran, Khayyam made substantial advancements in algebra, geometry, and astronomy.

Chughtai was mesmerised by certain figures that had a notable impact on society and their respective fields.

He used his artwork to pay tribute to these idols, celebrating the nature of life and appreciating an evolving world.

Nude Goddess

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

There’s no denying that Chughtai was a risk-taker and never shied away from nudity or bodies in his paintings.

Nude Goddess represents the beauty of a woman’s body. Whilst she is exposed, Chughtai has a wonderful way of depicting the innocence of someone through their features.

The woman here represents liberation yet sorrow.

Her eyes drowning in anguish but her smirk hinting at love and safety.

It’s these conflicting emotions and deep backstories we see in Chughtai’s work which he was a master at.

The warm colours yet pale backdrop is another element he uses to emphasise these contrasting aspects. 

The Extinguished Flame

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

One of Chughtai’s most eloquent paintings, it seamlessly blends inspiration with technical perfection.

A profound sense of silence permeates the canvas, where every element harmoniously exists in a suspended state.

Remarkably, there are no subdued grey or soft blue hues employed to evoke this feeling, no tonal softening, and no restraint in line.

Instead, the emotive atmosphere emanates from the figure’s perfectly abandoned posture.

The outstretched hands and cascading coils of hair further contribute to this captivating ambience.

For A Song

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

Contemporary art in Pakistan was a renaissance and there were many paintings depicting villages filled with devotion.

For A Song is a gorgeous piece that celebrates music, which was another key theme in Chughtai’s work.

The browns, maroons and whites are soft on the eyes.

The blurry hue gives this painting a dream-like feel.

The curve of the bodies and straight-edged lines of the building help create a dramatic masterpiece where the layers of a blossoming story can thrive. 

The Last Days of Shah Jahan

Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

The historical episode of Shah Jahan’s house arrest in the Agra fort has been a subject that has captivated the attention of artists, both local and international.

Various artists have depicted their perspectives on the poignant chapter of Shah Jahan’s life.

Notably, the clash between Abanindranath Tagore and Abdur Rahman Chughtai adds a layer of historical significance to this narrative.

Chughtai, in particular, contested Tagore’s portrayal of Shah Jahan, asserting that it resembled more a washerman surrounded by laundry attendants than a regal king.

However, in Shah Jahan’s final moments, Chughtai strips that royalty away himself and portrays the essence of family, love, belonging and home as real wealth. 


Abdur Rahman Chughtai: The Paintings of a Pakistani Pioneer

Chughtai was an immense illustrator and could capture the essence of South Asia’s landscapes incredibly well. 

Usha is another example of the painter’s obsession with women and giving them the spotlight. 

Holding a lotus flower and in a deep gaze, the woman personifies Pakistan’s love for nature as she seems to render her enjoyment of her surroundings. 

The glowy greens of the backdrop and the vivid yellow of the woman’s sari fuse well. 

Additionally, the painting shows the vast greenery and thriving environment Pakistan has and indicates a time of prosperity before industrialisation. 

This painting is another example of just how pioneering the painter was in revolutionising contemporary Pakistani art. 

Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s journey remains a cornerstone in the chronicles of South Asian art.

As the author S. Kashmira Singh writes in one of his monographs: 

“For his characteristic style, perfect technique and universal appeal he has been described as the artist of all Nations.

“Posterity will remember him as the greatest exponent of the spirit of Indian art in Modern Age.

“Chughtai is a shared heritage of India and Pakistan.”

As the echoes of his legacy reverberate through contemporary Pakistani art, Chughtai’s dream of a distinct artistic identity continues to materialise.

Balraj is a spirited Creative Writing MA graduate. He loves open discussions and his passions are fitness, music, fashion, and poetry. One of his favourite quotes is “One day or day one. You decide.”

Images courtesy of Mutual Art, Grosvenor Gallery, Artnet & Bonhams.

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