Painter, sculptor, and print-maker Zahoor ul Akhlaq was undoubtedly one of the most significant artists working out of Pakistan during the latter 20th century whose profound artistic and conceptual influence has shaped contemporary art practice for following generations, including Shazia Sikander and Rashid Rana. Zahoor was influenced by the master calligrapher Yusuf Dhelvi, whose work he was exposed to as a child and later underwent a Modernist phase under Shakir Ali when he was a student at the National College of Arts (NCA). Zahoor's extensive knowledge and interest in the indigenous vernacular and tradition, as well as contemporary Western thought led to his deconstruction and re-appropriation of the classical miniature allowing him to be classified as one of the pioneers of the neo-miniaturist genre. "In Lahore, Zahoor ul-Akhlaq brought Post-Modern ideas to the forefront in the 1970s and '80s. At NCA, he insisted on miniature painting's relevance and viability as a source for contemporary artists. His own paintings took elements from the miniature tradition and combined them with an abstract painterly style." (Ali, Atteqa. "Postmodernism: Recent Developments in Art in Pakistan and Bangladesh," In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pmpk/hd_pmpk.htm (October 2004).
Though influenced by sources as far-ranging from Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns to ReneDescartes, Zahoor was interested in interrogating formal traditions in Islamic arts (calligraphy, geometric abstraction, architectural structures, spatial perspectives). Zahoor uses the geometry of the grid to attempt a universal message through the distillation and abstraction of the pictorial image as he works out its very essence to reveal truth. This particular work was inspired by the well-known Mughal miniature, The Three Sons of Shahjahan by Bal Chand 1635, Shah Shuja Aurangzeb Murad Baksh in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum which Zahoor took notice of during his student years at London's Royal College of Art. Around 1980, Zahoor re-visited the theme as an exercise in analyzing the pictorial image. (M. Sirhandi, Contemporary Painting in Pakistan, Lahore, Ferozsons, 1996, p. 121). According to art historian, R. Connah, "One can apply a conventional picture analysis to this painting by Zahoor ul Akhlaq exposing the purposeful grid blurring both figure and ground, the perspective play as the artist sets up the calligraphic frames which he continued to dissolve throughout his career, on and off the canvas. The cage lines, the formation of the setup, the frame that begins all frames; the way to attack, control and then dissolve the canvas which is the Colonial legacy itself. Akhlaq led the way in suggesting how a re-occupation of history can be validated by replacing it. Here an unsteady and treacherous history becomes unsteadily shifting as the artist transforms his relationship to the original print. This, one of the best of Akhlaq's numerous variations on The Three Riders theme, indicates why the artist now occupies that significant and unique transitional space within Pakistani art." (Correspondence with R. Connah, excerpt to be published in Zahoor ul Akhlaq: A Critical Life, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2007). Speaking of the works produced under Jehangir, Zahoor states, "At first I looked at the linear image-because I had experienced etching, I tried to make the line important. But instead of concentrating on a particular object, I tried to create a total surface or environment, and to let the viewer decide how to react to it." (Y. Dalmia and S. Hashmi, Memory, Metaphor, Mutations : Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, p. 76.)
According to artist, curator, and historian Salima Hashmi, "Arguably the most signicant Pakistani artist of our times, Zahoor unravelled complex questions of meaning embedded in tradition. He was concerned with the marginalized networks, practices and forms which still lurked beneath the surface offering up memories beyond the colonial. Zahoor ul Akhlaq was never content with facile readings of the 'Islamic' in his heritage." (Correspondence, 18 July 2007.)