Kalam. Wasli. Laaey. Safeda. The poetry in Heraa Khan’s work extends itself into her tools of the trade as well. She is a contemporary visual artist from Lahore, Pakistan. Often depicting a particular elite and oblivion class of Pakistani society in her works, she seamlessly blends traditional (medium) and contemporary (observations).
When I saw her works for the first time and then visited her website, more than being rapt by the intricate and absolutely beautiful work, I was instantly drawn to her method of working. And I knew ‘Things’ – a section dedicated to things/materials/inanimate muses that lie at the heart of an artist’s work or inspiration – had to start off with Heraa’s paintbrush, paper and paints. I requested Heraa to talk to us elaborately about these three main work materials, and she obliged.
TFM: Give us a bit of a background into how you started creating miniatures, and crafting your own materials in the process?
HK: I am a graduate from National College of Arts (NCA) with major in Mughal and Persian miniature painting. NCA is the only college around the world that offers a degree in miniature painting. It offers an extremely rigorous course that follows the same rituals, techniques and discipline used in the Mughal atelier system. I started learning the basics of the traditional technique when I was in my second year of college.
It was always quiet in the studio, eyes concentrating on waslis (paper), hands steady; one could hardly see the paintbrush move while rendering. The whole process seemed like some sort of meditation. This is where we were taught how to make our own kalam (paint brush) and prepare the wasli and paint. It was then that I knew I wanted to learn this unique technique and took it up as a major.
The miniature studio had a very different feel from the rest of the campus. The traditional rituals made it stand out. We would take off our shoes before entering the studio and were made to sit down on the floor against the wall, supporting our wasli boards on both our knees or on a low table specially designed for miniature painting.
Paintbrush made out of squirrel’s hair
It was always quiet in the studio, eyes concentrating on waslis, hands steady; one could hardly see the paintbrush move while rendering. The whole process seemed like some sort of meditation.
How intrinsic it is to create your own materials for your work process?
Each one of these materials plays a very important role in my art practice. They not only aid in creating precise details in the small-scaled work, but the tedious preparation also helps attain the discipline that is required for this form of art. My current work, however, is more experimental and contemporary. I am experimenting with the traditional technique in order to blur the boundaries of the old practice.
Could you tell us how the squirrel hair paintbrush is made?
The kalam is every painter’s prized possession and is one of the most important tools for miniature painting. It is important to have a flawless brush with a precise tip. In the golden era, the Mughals used hair from a squirrel and the Persians used hair from white Persian cats for making the kalam. I use squirrel hair- found easily in Pakistan. Once a squirrel passes away, with the help of a gardener I snip off some hair from the tail, ensuring that it is the right length; not too long, not too short.
To ensure that the kalam being made is of a good quality, the hair is placed on a piece of glass and is thoroughly inspected. Each strand is separated with a needle, in order to remove any split or broken hair. The hair is then fixed inside a quill from a pigeon’s feather. The process ensures that the kalam is of a very fine quality, which is essential for pardakht – minute feathered strokes, used for rendering (similar to stippling).
Heraa’s work materials
Tell us a bit about the special paper that you use for your art – wasli?
Wasli is prepared by pasting layers of 4 or 5 thin sheets of water absorbent paper with a bookbinder’s glue called laeey. Laeey is a gum made with flour and copper sulphate. After the wasli is made, I prepare the surface by burnishing it with a tiger cowrie seashell. The cowrie seashell provides a good grip and allows substantial amount of pressure to be applied without damaging the surface.
It is important to burnish the wasli before painting as it compresses all the fibres on the wasli and creates a smooth shiny surface. This helps in applying flat colors and makes the wasli less porous to pigment which helps in lifting and washing off paint.
Lastly, how do you go about creating the paint?
Traditionally, the pigments used in miniature paintings were natural minerals. They were prepared by grinding them into a powder, filtered with several washes to remove impurities and then they were mixed with gum arabic. Today however, due to the unavailability of pure natural pigments and their exorbitant prices, the same technique is used to filter white poster paint into a powder form later on to be mixed with gum arabic.
The white pigment, known as safeda is the most important pigment. A thin layer of safeda is applied to the surface as a primer and is mixed with other colors to create tones. I mix Winsor and Newton watercolours in my safeda to make opaque colours. Recently, I have started using Winsor and Newton gouache instead of the safeda. Keeping alive the Mughal tradition, I prepare and store my paint in mussel shells. They provide a comfortable container that nestles easily between the thumb and index finger.
Paints stored in mussel shells
In the golden era, the Mughals used hair from a squirrel and the Persians used hair from white Persian cats for making the kalam. I use squirrel hair- found easily in Pakistan.
Heraa at work
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All the photos have been taken by A Small Shutter. ©
The last two images are of artworks created by Heraa Khan. ©