Using narrative techniques in art

When one looks at old manuscripts, be it Indian or European, one finds that they were often illustrated with images reflecting the content of text of the manuscripts, these were called illuminations as they threw light on the written sections for those who could not read.

The Mughal emperors were great patrons of the arts and they had folios painted to illustrate their lives and times. The trend at the time was to tell an entire story in one tableau. This was one of the early ideas of narratives. This of course continued into books and finally onto comics and cinema today.

Art is a way of communicating and the narrative was the perfect technique to highlight different aspects of a point, even the great Ravi Varma, used mythical tableau, drawn from classical literature as the subject matter for his paintings. He was the first Indian artist to bring in a human anthropomorphic form as a point of reference.


In Baroda from the faculty of fine arts, the most illustrious school of art in the country, Gulammohammed Sheikh championed the revival of the narrative with reference to the Indian miniature traditions. The idea of many parallel events in the same canvas using different perspectives in the same frame, while moving images out of the frame or cutting the image with the frame were ideas taken from the many historic miniature schools, the subjects and scale were different from that of the miniaturists.

In Pakistan, the Lahore school of art, under the tutelage of eminent historian, Salima Hashmi, saw a dynamic contemporary version in this similar revival as well. They went back to the craft of the miniaturists but adopted a strong political contemporary idiom that gave this trend, great strength.

From both Baroda and Lahore the strength of the narrative traditions made a lasting impression on the new generation of artists from the subcontinent. Artists began to look around them, from the newspaper stories found in the large canvases of Jitish Kallat, to the photographs of the moment in time, of Dayanita Singh onto the imagery of historic stories that photographer Pushpamala used, artists began to communicate their own ideas in the tales their works told.


Using popular culture, Chitra Ganesh, a diasporic Indian artist and Sarnath Banerjee are two artists who looked at the illustrative medium of comics to bring into their world, the technique of using a seemingly light craft to bring home their ideas.

The popular culture stemmed from folk traditions of simple imagery that was adapted by many of the traditional scroll painters.

A dynamic young artist, Uma Shankar Pathak is another relatively unknown youngster of immense talent who uses fantasy and the narrative technique in his new series of dramatic canvases.

The newer forms of using the narrative are best illustrated today with artists who use the moving image and new media in their work. Looking at the work of Shilpa Gupta, Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Surekha and Ranbir Singh Kaleka, one sees the creativity of the artists’ minds, combined beautifully with technology in bringing forth lovely images in rich visuals of a trend of art combined with the popular cinema culture in terms of technology and of course the idea of the narrative. They combine the drama of the image with the element of moods created by sound and seamlessly stitch the image with modern digital tools.

It is certainly a trend today to communicate an idea and a point of view with a story. Be it a fantasy, a fact or a fragment of an imagination, what better than the narrative technique to bring home a point.