In Vikramajit Ram’s eponymous novel Mansur, the master painter of Emperor Jehangir’s court is about to put finishing touches to the eye of a dodo when he is interrupted.
Mansur: A Novel
Very little is known about the life of Mansur (1590-1624) other than the fact that he excelled at painting the botanical and zoological specimens that the Mughal emperors, following the example of Babur in his Baburnama, were keen on recording. Whatever one might think of the series of invasions that periodically shook the Indian subcontinent, one of their valuable offshoots was the creation of a rich visual and textual archive documenting the diversity of the Indian landscape.
Ateliers patronised by the Mughals produced breathtaking paintings and manuscripts, some of which survive in different museums around the world today. But most of them are unsigned since painting was regarded as a regulated collaborative exercise rather than the individualistic effort of a solitary artist. Mansur is one of those rare artists who signed his work, and it points to his stature in the Mughal court.
Jehangir was reportedly an animal lover who had pet lions roaming around in his palace. He took a keen interest in the animals gifted to him. In 1612, he received a turkey cock from Goa that the Portuguese had obtained from the Americas. Due to a series of misreporting as images of the turkey passed through imperial courts of Persia and Turkey, it became popularly known as the Bird of India.
Jehangir himself described the turkey in the most exacting manner. And Mansur created what must be the definitive image of the turkey cock, which subsequent artists sought to reproduce, often with disastrous results.
The story of painting the dodo is similar: Mansur’s superb portrait of the flightless bird with beige and white feathers is considered to be one of the only—if not the only—representations of the dodo painted by observing a live specimen. The bird was already on the verge of extinction in its native Mauritius in the 17th century when Mansur painted it. The painting, where the dodo is packed together with other birds in the same frame, is now at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia. If you are able to access the image, you may discover what happened to the dodo’s eye.
Mansur was not just a painter, he acted as a roving scientific adviser to Jehangir, who tasked him with copying the botanical bounty of Kashmir, especially its valley of flowers. One of his best-known works is the exquisite painting of a red poppy. At the beginning of the story, Mansur’s title, following the Persian tradition of naming, is “Nadir-ul- Asr”, or “Rarity of the Present”.
His senior at the Ajmer atelier is Nadir-uz-Zaman, or “Rarity of the Age”, a painter of allegories. The atelier bustles with different categories of painters—those tasked with creating the decorative borders; those who fill the cartouches with fine calligraphic strokes; the master calligrapher, who is designated as the “Perfumed Pen”. There is also a keeper of manuscripts, a person of authority who controls how paintings are viewed.
The Mughal atelier was a competitive world of hierarchies and intense rivalries, with rewards and sinecures dependent on pleasing the emperor or his officials. The portraits we see today were often meant to be sent as gifts to other rulers and carried coded messages.
Ram mentions one—the famous “Jehangir and Shah Abbas embracing on a globe” (c. 1615-18) attributed to Abu’l Hasan. Here Jehangir looms over Shah Abbas, the fifth Safavid Shah of Iran, as the two are locked in a decidedly uncomfortable embrace. A large disc of the sun cupped by a sliver of the moon forms a halo behind them. An interesting detail is the Christian motif of the cherubs, who prop up the sun and moon. The painting is said to allude to the dispute between the two emperors over Qandahar (in Afghanistan), which was then under Mughal control.
The world of these paintings, wrapped up in mysterious signs and symbols, will be familiar to readers of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. However, Ram’s novella is more a roman à clef than anything as grand as the novels of Pamuk or Eco. Ram says he was inspired to write it after reading a monograph on Mansur by Dr Asok Kumar Das, “Wonders of Nature: Ustad Mansur at the Mughal Court”, which appeared in Marg in 2012.
But the novel enthralls nonetheless as Ram takes us inside the paintings created by Mansur and other artists of the Mughal court. Some of these are real, some fictional. Towards the end, he makes a list of the actual images that he has woven into his story, like the master craftsman spins muslin, the cloth “woven of air”.
“Mansur was not just a painter, he acted as a roving scientific adviser to Jehangir, who tasked him with copying the botanical bounty of Kashmir”
The interweaving is done so delicately that you do not know how much is a description of an actual work and how much is Ram’s recreation. Adding to the mystery is a mission entrusted on Mansur by Nur Jehan, empress and Jehangir’s consort. It involves a calligraphed sheaf of poems and miniatures that she intends to present to the emperor. Speaking from behind a fretted screen, she tells Mansur that each page must have a butterfly “rendered as only he could with the greatest fidelity to its reality”. She knows his worth: earlier, on their wedding day, Jehangir had presented her with Mansur’s painting of a chameleon. This is the emperor’s description of the chameleon as narrated by Nur Jehan: “They were green when calm, he said, and changed colours when they became excited. His Majesty was much taken by that ability, as was His Majesty of their way of turning each eye independently and of throwing their tongues a handspan’s length to seize their prey.” As anyone who looks at the painting will confirm, “The chameleon’s left eye is fixed on a butterfly behind its back. The butterfly does not know what is about to happen.” Following the Persian tradition, there is a hidden comment on the intransigence of life here.
Ram’s novel will inspire readers to look up the paintings and appreciate such fascinating details. One feels that the author opens the windows of the Mughal ateliers for that fraction of a second to let the butterflies in.
By tracing the provenance of Mansur’s paintings, he allows us to savour those evanescent moments of beauty that is our common legacy from a vanished era.
Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer, critic, and cultural commentator.
- The novel dramatises the life of Mansur, who was an important painter in the court of Mughal emperor Jehangir.
- Ram takes us inside the paintings created by Mansur and other artists of the Mughal court.
- The novel will inspire readers to look up the paintings and appreciate their fascinating details.