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Krishna Instructing Arjuna

Krishna Instructing Arjuna
signed 'Rahman Chughtai' and inscribed 'Krishana & Arjun' (on the reverse)
watercolor on paper
24 ¾ x 19 ¼ in. (62.9 x 48.9 cm.)
Executed circa 1930s
Acquired in Europe, circa early 1950s
Thence by descent
S. Kashmira Singh, Chughtai's Indian Paintings, New Delhi, 1951, pl. 10 (illustrated)

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Lot Essay

Abdur Rahman Chughtai is regarded as one of the great modern masters of Pakistan. He began his training at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore in 1911, where he was taught by Samarendranath Gupta, who was a pupil of Abanindranath Tagore. He was deeply influenced by aspects of the Bengal School of art, which is particularly evident in his wash technique. However, Chughtai soon developed a distinct style that rivaled the Bengal School, and emerged as one of the leading practitioners across the subcontinent. His works illustrate a combination of influences including Mughal miniature painting, Islamic calligraphy and aspects of the Western Art Nouveau movement, but remain grounded in the diverse mythological traditions of the Subcontinent, both Hindu and Islamic.

The Tutor (lot 686) is a rare example of the artist working in gouache on a small scale. A line drawing version of the same subject appears in the renowned 1928 publication on the artist's work, Muraqqa-i-Chughtai. In this lot, the master draughtsman shows off his skill in the exquisite rendering of a stunning lattice window and the embroidered drapery. Chughtai's use of bright color in this perfectly considered composition glows, giving it a jewel-like quality. With close attention to Mughal aesthetics, the unique style Chughtai developed in works like this one has been called ‘Persian-Mughal mannerism’ (I. ul Hassan, Painting in Pakistan, Lahore, 1991, p. 37), and also seems to bear the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings that the artist encountered on his travels in Europe. “[Chughtai] retains the distinctive mood and posture of the Persian tradition but gives his paintings a special quality of his own in lovely color combination, in delicious lines that seem to be less lines of painting than of some inaudible poetry made visible, in folds of drapery that are never mere coverings to or discoverings of the human body, in the decorative backgrounds that call the imagination away from the tyranny of the actual, into free citizenship of the realm of romance” (J. Bautze, Interaction of Cultures: Indian and Western Painting, 1780-1910, Virginia, 1998, p. 137).

Chughtai also worked with watercolors on a slightly larger scale. In these works, the artist's attention to detail and his skill as a draughtsman is not lost but merely supplemented by his lyrical sweeping lines and mesmeric use of a layers of translucent colors. These paintings are largely narrative, and based on subjects ranging from Buddhist stories and Hindu epics to Islamic history, illustrating episodes from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Ghalib’s poetry and the Mahabharata among other historic works of literature. In Krishna Instructing Arjuna (lot 687), Chughtai depicts the legendary archer Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers and the hero of the Mahabharata preparing for battle. Unsure about fighting members of his family, he turns to his guide and charioteer Lord Krishna for advice. This exchange between the two is recorded as the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most significant scriptures that continues to resonate across time and context offering counsel on ethical, spiritual and philosophical fronts. This is the critical moment that Chughtai has chosen to represent in this extraordinary painting.

One of the artist's most important works, this large painting was last seen in the 1951 monograph Chughtai's Indian Paintings, and is being shown in public after being held for more than seventy years in a private collection. "This picture vividly recalls the great war of Mahabharata. Before the war, Arjuna waited upon Sri Krishna, in a dejected and disheartened mood. He could not fight with his own Kith and Kin. Krishna stands firm like a huge pillar. His majestic post is a fitting symbol of his towering personality. Chughtai has painted Arjuna in the colour of Sri Krishna and Sri Krishna in the colour of Arjuna, because Sri Krishna, by his magic touch, has infused his own personality in Arjuna and made him invincible, while he himself has taken the peaceful role of a charioteer. Colour combination, haughty lines, control of space, faultless technique, impart strong vitality to the picture" (S. Kashmira Singh, Chughtai's Indian Paintings, New Delhi, 1951, unpaginated).

Another painting from this remarkable series of works, Arjuna as a Victor, holds the world auction record for the artist.

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