Letter from Mall Road — From the October 2015 issue

Pakistan in Miniatures

Can the artists of Lahore keep violence at bay?

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Pakistan’s National College of Arts, a redbrick building pushed back from Lahore’s busy Mall Road, is a somehow pleasing Orientalist mash-up built in 1875 by Rudyard Kipling’s father. The central quadrangle is surrounded by a colonnade that serves as both passageway and common room. When I visited in 2013, students leaned against the walls and sat on the floor with their laptops and phones. They were studying architecture, design, musicology, sculpture, and painting. Men and women wore jeans, kurtas, and loose sandals that made soft flapping sounds as they walked. The few women who covered their heads did so with pretty, patterned scarves. The conversations were easily, casually, coed.

Interviews with N.C.A. students and teachers were hard to arrange from New York; I wondered whether they were worried about talking to an American. Once I arrived, I realized the reason was much simpler: as on any college campus, everyone was always busy. But they were also always ready to talk. I was allowed to roam freely through the school.

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Moderate Enlightenment, 2009, a gouache painting with gold leaf on wasli paper, by Imran Qureshi. Collection of Amna and Ali Naqvi.

Lahoris think of their city as a safe place in a dangerous country, and within Lahore, N.C.A. is a special refuge. The Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid described it as “a microcosm of Pakistan, but a creative Pakistan, an alternative to the desiccated Pakistan.”

The beating heart of the school is the miniature-painting department. Miniatures originated in Persia and were brought to the Indian subcontinent when the Mughals conquered it in the sixteenth century. They could take on almost any subject: landscapes or portraits; stories of love, war, or play. The British were eager collectors of the paintings, which could be as small as ten by four inches and usually incorporated gold and other valuable pigments. They founded N.C.A. in part to keep the tradition alive.

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