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Abdur Rahman Chughtai

Pakistani Modern Artist
Born 1897, Lahore, India (Now Pakistan)
Died 1975, Lahore, Pakistan

Chughtai is a Pakistani artist with his distinctive style influenced by Mughal art, miniature painting and Art Nouveau. However his early watercolours show the influence of the Bengal School artists. His works have been displayed in national and international galleries and museums.




Mayo school (today's National College of Art), Lahore, Pakistan


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UNDERSTANDING Abdur Rahman Chughtai

His early watercolours are influenced by the Bengal School artists

At the outset of his artistic career, Chugtai was clearly influenced by the lyricism of Bengal School's visual idiom. He began training at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore in 1911 under the tutelage of Samarendranath Gupta, a pupil of Abanindranath Tagore . The Bengal School was in its own quest of identifying an indigenous frame, different from Western academic realism , in locating the medium of watercolours and a poetic style. Chugtai’s early watercolours address a revivalism of this Bengal School sentiment, recalling the tradition of the miniature and historical subjects specific to the sub-continent.

This influence can be seen in Chugtai’s Jahanara at the Taj. This watercolour can referenced to Abanindranath Tagore’s The Passing of Shah Jahan, with close architectural affinity, verisimilitude in motifs and decorations, and a nostalgic gaze of the subject(s).


Abdur Rahman Chugtai, Jahanara at the Taj, 1970, watercolour on paper.

Abanindranath Tagore, The Passing of Shah Jahan, 1902, watercolour on paper.

He created his distinctive style inspired by Mughal and Islamic aesthetics

Chugtai has been most prolifically influenced by the Mughal miniature tradition and the motifs and grandeur of Islamic art and architecture. His artistic association with the tradition as a historic sentimentality and also as a rich creative stencil gave him a unique identity among modern artists of the region. His subjects emerge from mythology, folktales, legends and history, drawing upon portraits of princes and princesses and courtly figures .

The choice for a subject and style rooted in the region’s past visual vocabulary alludes to a conscious departure from defining modernism along the lines of the avant-grade art of the West. The traditional instead gave him the foundation and vitality for a new modernist language. The Mughal Princess, 1959, quite eponymously, affirms his occupation with characters from the Mughal courts, albeit fictitious in this case; the watercolour is made in the form of portraitures found in Mughal miniature tradition.

Abdur Rahman Chugtai, The Mughal Princess, 1959, watercolour on paper, 22 5/8 x 18”.

There is a delicate and poetic rendering to his paintings

Chugtai’s style reminisce the richness and exuberance of the miniature tradition, albeit the scale and medium vastly differs. As a descendent of a family of craftsmen, decorators and architects, he evolved himself as a master draughtsman, decorator, print-maker and textile and jewellery designer. He was influenced by Art Nouveau to create a form that is all embracing- the style and formal qualities of architecture, interior design, jewellery and furniture.

His drawings and paintings exhibit a tender surface with luminal colours adding to the lyricism of the free-flowing lines. The figures have elongated anatomical features, almost fragile, to accentuate a delicate sensuality about them. The textiles and jewellery are rendered with a realistic refinement, putting all his trainings in a harmonious whole. 

Abdur Rahman Chugtai, Gloomy Radhika, wash and tempera. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

Chugtai's output is nothing short of monumental

In his expansive career he produced an astounding number of 2000 watercolours, thousands of pencil sketches, and almost 300 etchings and aquatints. Apart from his visual engagements he wrote short stories and pieces on art. His keen interest in poetry catalysed in illustrating the Urdu poetry of Mirza Ghalib and was published as Muraqqa-i-Chugtai, 1928, and the poetry of Allama Iqbal as Allama-i-Chugtai, 1968. He also published his own books-Naqsh-i-Chugtai, 1935, and Chugtai’s Paintings, 1940.

He worked as a photographer and designer for numerous projects including designing postal stamps of Pakistan and the logos of Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan.

A page illustrated by Chugtai for Muraqqa-i-Chugtai.

His paintings narrate some Hindu myths and legends

Apart from imagining an Islamic identity rooted in the tradition of Mughal miniatures and Islamic art, Chugtai has been in his early stage influenced by the Rajput miniature tradition and Hindu mythology and legends. He borrows from different episodes from Hindu epics and mythology, characters and legends, and recreates them with a narrative context. The treatment is of a similar nature as his later works with Islamic subjects.

Holi depicts the figures of Krishna and Radha playing Holi with each other surrounded by gopis, the figures entwined with each other, with a red and vermilion hue spreading over them and the background. Several of his watercolours depict these mythical lovers, projected with coyness and playfulness, and as a romantic ideal. Arjuna as a Victor, 1930, recalls the episode from the Hindu epic Mahabharata where Arjuna won the hand of his first wife Draupadi. The scene is in the court of Draupadi’s father-king where he successfully manages to hit the fish-eye to win the bride as the other failed suitors in the background look on.

Abdur Rahman Chugtai, Holi, watercolour on paper. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

Abdur Rahman Chugtai, Arjuna as a Victor, 1930, watercolour on paper, 22 3/8 x 17 7/8".