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  Books   17 Dec 2023  Book Review | Heady Mughal thriller combines intrigue and art

Book Review | Heady Mughal thriller combines intrigue and art

Published : Dec 17, 2023, 1:59 am IST
Updated : Dec 17, 2023, 1:59 am IST

There’s a good story here. With a little more research, much more depth, and mature telling, it could have been a masterpiece

 Coverpage of 'Mansur'.
  Coverpage of 'Mansur'.

The opening pages of Mansur call to mind Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, but the similarity disappears very soon. Art and faith and politics and humanity are all here, but at a very different level. This book is the chronicle of just one day that portrays Mughal artistic culture in microcosm.

At the heart of the story is a small book of verse – prurient for the times, detailed enough to redden the reader’s ears – composed privately by the Empress Nur Jahan. She has commissioned a competent calligrapher and master painter of animals, Mansur, to write and illustrate it with pictures of butterflies. Speaking chastely from behind a screen in an atmosphere heavy with the scent of jasmine, she tells him that the book must be ready by a certain significant date.

It is intended for the Emperor, a surprise and very private gift that must be kept secret. It has taken well over a year for the painter-calligrapher to complete his work. On the morning of 27th February, 1627, Mansur worries about whether it will be bound in time, for binding is a specialized job that he has assigned two old ladies, former ladies-in-waiting living out shabby-genteel lives lit by memories of well-being.

Mansur has reason to worry. He is due to leave on Monday for Verinag in Kashmir, with its beautiful springs, and has to have his production in hand when he leaves. The ladies assigned to bind the book have been delaying delivery: their page, a graceful Abyssinian eunuch called Jamal, has to tell Mansur each time he asks that they need more time. In truth, they have done their job, but can’t resist keeping the book for as long as they can, taking occasional peeks to remind them of what their lives were. Mansur doesn’t know this.

On this fateful morning, destined to be Mansur’s last, he is painting a dodo’s eye in his atelier – a studio – when in drops Bichitr, a painter of humans, who wants to collaborate with him on a portrait that involves people and animals. With art lessons going on elsewhere in the building and his worries eating at him – the book, his fading eyesight, and so on – Mansur turns down the proposal.

What follows is a story of office politics, resentment, jealousy,  and lust – of the forbidden variety, for a student lusts after his master. One flaw: its 160-odd pages are crammed with artists, students, administrators, rulers, eunuchs, servants, members of the royal family, and even a pet spaniel that dies. These characters come and go, leaving little trace of themselves in the reader’s mind afterwards. Some are memorable, of course, but most are half-baked.

Adding to the confusion are the titles bestowed on some of the major characters, and, of course, their hierarchy. Mansur, for instance, is Nadir ul-Asr, ‘Rarity of the Present’. There’s Abu’l Hasan, Nadir uz-Zaman, ‘Rarity of the Age’. There’s Abdu’r Rahim, Ambarul Qalam, ‘Perfumed Pen’, though this isn’t a formal title.

There are depictions of the culture of the day. The reader gets to know the minds of the royalty, though mostly at second-hand: the conversations between the Empress and Mansur are exceptions. Students practice drawing exercises: “spiral triangle tipsy square; up-arrow down-arrow ...”. Masters collaborate with each other to produce masterpieces, because each specializes in one sphere that isn’t sufficient for a complete work. Some of these depictions, sadly, come across as bits of knowledge intended to impress the reader with the depth of research.

There’s a good story here. With a little more research, much more depth, and mature telling, it could have been a masterpiece.

Excerpt (page 81, para 2 on):

“… and it’s a decade since your frontispiece for His Majesty’s life story.”

“I earned my title for it!”

“And what since then? The Shah Abbas allegories. The wish-fulfilling cycle. The Light Scattering Gardens-pavilion scene, and only because she ordered it. But mainly, overlaying colour to Frankish engravings. Hardly work befitting a Rarity of the Age, is it? Whereas Abid, who may well have benefitted---”

“I don’t believe this,” Abu’l Hasan snaps, springing to his feet. “I refuse to be insulted. Had I known it was I who were being graded---”

By Vikramajit Ram
Picador (Pan MacMillan)
pp. 165, Rs 599

Tags: shashi warrier, book review, book review 2023, mansur, vikramajit ram