Abdur Rahman Chughtai

Abdur Rahman Chughtai was a painter and intellectual from Pakistan, who created his own unique, distinctive painting style influenced by Mughal art, miniature painting, Art Nouveau and Islamic art traditions. He is considered 'the first significant modern Muslim artist from South Asia'[1], and the national artist of Pakistan. He was given the title of Khan Bahadur in 1934, awarded Pakistan's Hilal-i-Imtiaz in 1960, and the Presidential medal for Pride of Performance in 1968.


Chughtai was born in Lahore in 1897 in the area known as 'Mohalla Chabuk Sawaran', the second son of Karim Bukhsh, in a family descended from generations of craftsmen, architects, and decorators. Chughtai briefly learnt naqqashi from his uncle Baba Miran Shah Naqqash at a local mosque. After completing his education at the Railway Technical School, Lahore, in 1911, Chughtai joined the Mayo School of Art, where Samarendranath Gupta, a pupil of Abanindranath Tagore was Vice-Principal. After leaving the school, he made a living for a while as a photographer and drawing teacher. He eventually became the head instructor in chromo-lithography at the Mayo School.


In 1916, Chughtai's first painting in a revivalist 'oriental' style appeared in the Modern Review. He had his first exhibition in 1920 at the Punjab Fine Art Society. He also exhibited with the Indian School of Oriental Art during the 1920s, by which time he had become quite renowned. His work contributed greatly to Lahore's burgeoning modern art scene. Whilst he predominantly worked with watercolors, Chughtai was also a print-maker, perfecting his etching skills in London during visits in the mid 1930s. (See our previous exhibition 'Chughtai's Etchings: Editions of a Master' for more on this period).


In his sixty years of artistic creation, Chughtai produced nearly 2000 watercolours, thousands of pencil sketches, and nearly 300 etchings and aquatints. He also wrote short stories, and articles on art. He designed stamps, coins, insignia and book covers. He was also an avid collector of miniatures and other art. He published three books of his own work: the Muraqqai-i-Chughtai (1928), Naqsh-i-Chughtai (c. 1935) and Chughtai's Paintings (1940). The Muraqqa-i-Chughtai was a sumptuously illustrated edition of Mirza Ghalib's Urdu poetry, with a foreword by Sir Muhammad Iqbal. It is regarded as the most significant work of Chughtai's career and in its time, was considered the finest achievement in book production in the country.


After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Chughtai came to be regarded as one of the most famous representatives of Pakistan. Chughtai's paintings were gifted to visiting heads of states. Allama Iqbal, Pablo Picasso and Elizabeth II were said to be amongst his admirers.


Chughtai's early watercolours take from the revivalism of the Bengal School - his Jahanara and the Taj, for instance, show the influence of Abanindranath Tagore's painting The Last Moments of Shah Jahan[3]. By the 1940s he had created his own style, strongly influenced by Islamic art traditions, but retaining a feel of Art Nouveau. His subject matter was drawn from the legends, folklore and history of the Indo-Islamic world, as well as Punjab, Persia and the world of the Mughals.


Chughtai has extensively showcased his work worldwide. Numerous works of his are held in private and public collections all over the world.