How does it feel to have mansur Is it included in the JCB Award longlist? While writing the book, did you just want to finish it or were you also hoping for awards?
mansur It took five years to research and write. When you have a story to tell, you hope to tell it to the best of your ability and enjoy every step of the process. Like any long trip to a destination, it cannot be rushed. If writers were thinking about awards, we probably wouldn’t write much. A long list in the company of fellow novelists who have gone on their own long journeys is momentous in itself, and I am very grateful.
What attracted you to the life and art of mansur, whose patron was Emperor Jahangir? Did he come across Mughal art when he was a student at the National Institute of Design or later in his life?
My interest in art and architecture began long before I went to the National Institute of Design in 1985. Five years there gave direction to that interest. Designers and design students constantly examine how things were made, across timelines and geographic boundaries, to fulfill specific functions, whether images, buildings, furniture, textiles, everyday objects, etc. That the history of art and architecture – not just the Mughal era – is central to my fiction and non-fiction definitely owes a lot to my training and previous career as a graphic designer.
The research was extensive, if not exhaustive, and definitely exhausting! My focus was on a specific group of Mughal-era miniaturists who had worked for Jahangir and a story from his perspective. These men, and some women, had produced extraordinary books and paintings, which have long been recognized throughout the world as some of the finest works of Indian art. Although we know the names of these artists from their signatures and attributions and, in some cases, we can put faces to the names from portraits and self-portraits of artists, we know almost nothing about their daily lives, their families, their homes, their aspirations. …and simply because they had left no written personal records. My first source, therefore, was the miniatures they painted. Another invaluable source is that of Som Prakash Verma. Mughal Painters and Their Work: A Biographical Study and Complete Catalog (1994). While nothing compares to physically experiencing Mughal-era miniatures, in a museum, almost all of them can also be studied very closely, and at leisure, in the open access digital archives of virtually every museum with a important collection. As for the historical settings of the novel, Agra Fort being the main one, most are easily accessible and worth a visit, even if they have changed a lot over some five hundred years.
You have dedicated the novel to Asok Kumar Das, author of the monograph Wonders of nature: Ustad Mansur at the Mughal court (2012). How did it contribute to your understanding of Mansur’s choice of subject matter, his color palette, and his signature style?
Asok Kumar Das presented a fascinating illustrated talk on Mansur at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore on August 22, 2015. My engagement with Mansur and his paintings began that same evening. We have been in contact since then. His monograph on Mansur is essential for anyone interested in the era and his art. Leaving aside its magnificent full-color plates, the volume highlights a frankly pioneering spirit of scientific research that had led Mansur to realistic studies of the life of native and exotic flora and fauna.
Why was Mansur so interested in painting flora and fauna instead of humans?
Mansur had in Jahangir a patron very interested in the natural world. Jahangir had in Mansur an extremely talented flora and fauna documenter. While other painters employed by Jahangir were experts in painting birds and animals, Mansur was unrivaled in his ability to convey the vital breath and psychology of his subjects. It is for good reason that he finds mention of his name and the title that Jahangir had bestowed upon him: Nadir al-Asr“Rarity of the Present” – no less than four times in the Tuzuk i-Jahagiri, which is Jahangir’s memoirs. Both men had often made the same journeys, observed the same “wonders of nature” and recorded their findings in words and images, respectively. Mansur’s Kashmir Flowers and his portraits of a turkey, a falcon, a dipper and a zebra are particular examples. This was a unique partnership between an artist and his patron.
The precision of his work is so remarkable that I imagine his paintings are/were useful to botanists and zoologists, as well as people who study art history. Your novel begins with a scene in which he is painting a dodo. Which of his paintings are among your favorites? Because?
Jahangir records in the Tuzuk who had painters make images of a group of exotic creatures that had been presented to him, so that “the amazement that arose when hearing about them would be increased.” So, yes, these are the words of a “naturalist”, far ahead of his time. In addition to surprising us as much as they did Jahangir, Mansur’s natural history paintings are also an important index of the exchange of ideas, birds and animals included, between far-flung lands and the Mughal empire. The Mansur dodo, for example, painted from life around 1624, became extinct as a species in 1683. If I had to choose a “favorite,” it would be the clever green Mansur chameleon staring at a butterfly, painted around 1683. 1610, and about 11 x 13 centimeters.
How would you describe the relationship between Jahangir and Nur Jahan in the history books you read? What creative liberties did you take in treating them as characters?
Fiction allows the novelist to take infinite creative liberties. I think the key is to reimagine the lives of real people with empathy and in context with the historical frameworks they had occupied. I have been selective in my research. The Tuzuk i-Jahangiri is a fascinating read; Although her presence is palpable, the empress is not named in Jahangir’s memoirs. We have another feeling of her relationship in The life and times of Noor Jahan (1967) by historians Mohammad and Razia Shujauddin: Here is an extraordinary set of witty exchanges, in verse form, attributed to Noor Jahan and Jahangir. More recently, we have Corinne Lefèvre’s book Consolidation of Empire: Power and Elites in Jahangir’s India, 1605-1627 (2022).
Did you spend any time in Kashmir trying to imagine what the royal summer retreat in Verinag in Mansur’s time must have looked like and felt like? Or did it not seem necessary?
While it is helpful to walk through places where historical figures walked, it may not always be possible to visit all the places in the course of a single visit. Fortunately, a novelist can rely on imagination, based on some hopefully solid research done at home. Verinag is still on my list.
The language of the novel has a quality that is difficult to pin down but could be called musical for lack of a better word. What music were you listening to while writing this book?
That is a very kind observation. Since the birds in the garden provide ambient sound, you don’t need any other music.
Announcing the JCB Prize longlist, the jury called his book “a triumph of minimalist storytelling, in which every sentence shines with jewel-like clarity.” How did you hone your craft?
That line made me glow! I am ruthless when it comes to reducing my excesses as a writer. It all comes down to edit, edit, edit.
Among your huge cast of characters, which were the most interesting to write? Who did you have trouble empathizing with? Who did you feel very sorry for?
It was a pleasure to reinvent and write each one of them, main and secondary. My responsibility was to see each of them as flesh and blood people, quite similar to us, although with different clothes and environments, with different personalities and concerns. It wasn’t my place to feel sorry for anyone. They responded generously, quirks and all.
In the book, you write: “Mansur has come to understand that, of the innumerable emotions bestowed upon sentient beings, discontent is the exclusive domain of humanity.” How did you handle this emotion when incorporating your editor’s comments?
Zero discontent! Much of the joy of the writing process is editing. For the first time, after years of solitary work, you have a meticulous professional eye looking at a manuscript with the sole intention of providing constructive feedback. You value that material and work with it. There may be more rounds of edits. You and your editor will know when it will finally be finished. Shreya Gupta and I had a fabulous time with mansur from beginning to end.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.