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Untitled (Moths to a Flame)

Untitled (Moths to a Flame)
signed in Urdu (lower right)
ink and watercolor on paper
23 3/8 x 19 3/8 in. (59.4 x 49.2 cm.)
Acquired by Juliet and Mohammed Khurshid, former Secretary of Defense of Pakistan and first Pakistani Ambassador in Bangladesh, until 1979
Thence by descent

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Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari

Lot Essay

Abdur Rahman Chughtai began his training at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore in 1911, where he was taught by Samanendranath Gupta, a disciple of Abanindranath Tagore. He was deeply influenced by aspects of the Bengal School of art, which is particularly evident in his wash technique. However, during the following decade, Chughtai developed a distinct style that rivaled the Bengal School, and emerged as one of the leading practitioners across the subcontinent, with particular patronage in Hyderabad. His works illustrate a fusion of influences including Mughal miniature painting, Islamic calligraphy and Art Nouveau, but remain grounded in various mythological traditions of the Subcontinent, and particularly the ideas of Urdu writers and poets like Mirza Ghalib.

Chughtai is known for his delicate renditions of female figures, usually depicted in elaborate clothing and ornamentation. In lot 172, he has used a soft, meditative palette and sinuous, flowing lines to portray a contemplative maiden holding a small oil lamp in her hand as she gazes pensively into the distance. The flame attracts a few moths that hover dangerously close to it, hinting at themes of beauty, unrequited love and fatal attraction, which the artist often explored in his work.

With close attention to Mughal aesthetics, the unique style Chughtai developed has been called ‘Persian-Mughal mannerism’ (I. ul Hassan, Painting in Pakistan, Lahore, 1991, p. 37) and seems to also bear the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings the artist encountered during 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)

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