“Mansur” by Vikramjit Ram

Detail, Mughal miniature, 17th century Detail, Mughal miniature, 17th century

Vikramjit Ram’s novella Mansur re-imagines life amongst artists working in the imperial atelier of Mughal India. The emperor Jahangir had a deep interest in flora and fauna and dispatched agents far and wide to acquire exotic creatures that may delight him. It was the imperial painter, Mansur who was credited with capturing the sensitivity of these creatures. Such was the admiration of his works that the title “Rarity of the Present” was bestowed upon Mansur by the emperor.

Empress Nur Jahan has commissioned Mansur to illustrate a book with butterflies as a surprise for the Emperor Jahangir and to be presented to him at the Mughal summer residence in Kashmir. Rivalry among the artists and intrigue soon follow as the painter races to complete the masterpiece in time.

Ram’s eloquent prose transports the reader back into time:

 

He had been painting the blue poppy in the pavilion to which the Kashmiri guardswomen had shown him. The painted and gilded structure stood to the west of the octagonal Water Palace, giving onto a four-squared terraced Garden of Paradise. A pierced wooden screen, carved with finches on the wing amidst honeysuckles vines, fronted a trellised passage, connecting the pavilion to the palace. The floor of the pavilion was covered with blue-and-red flowered silk carpet; the guards had instructed Mansur to take the plain rug overlaid to it.

 

Mansur, Vikramjit Ram (Pan Macmillan India. November 2022)
Mansur, Vikramjit Ram (Pan Macmillan India. November 2022)

The novel interweaves stories of rivalry among the artists with the tale of two ladies in-waiting who work as book-binders:

 

snugly bound in pomegranate-red silk, worth a double-line edging of mulberry-red embroidery. Embroidered in the middle of the back is a mulberry-red dragonfly and on the front, a butterfly. A carmine silk tape through the spine loops around the covers to keep them from opening. The ladies had been assigned the book’s making to supervise: two seamstresses for the cutting and embroidery; and for the binding, a member of the Qur’an bindery in the quarter, not the atelier. Antique they may be, but still relevant to such matters as these.

 

Descriptions invoke the beauty of the once bound, illuminated manuscripts that are now in museums and private collections all over the world.

 

The sunburst is composed of intertwined arabesques and vine- and flower-filled lozenge shapes, all gold, red, blue, yellow, brown and green. The translucent paper on which it seems to float as though it were a physical ornament is itself patterned in watered gold washes with a swirling-cloud motif.

 

From Mansur, the reader gleans the politics and jealousies of a Mughal atelier at the height of production under the patronage of Jahangir, emperor of the wealthiest empire of the time. While there are excellent scholarly works that examine Mughal paintings, there are few good works of fiction on this area. Mansur successfully re-imagines an illustrious past; its strength is in its prose, although Ram has populated it with more characters than the book’s 150 pages can accommodate.

Ram has previously published Elephant Kingdom: Sculptures from Indian Architecture and two travelogues, Dreaming Visnu’s: A Journey through Central India and Tsa and La: A Journey in Ladakh, 2012. Mansur, shortlisted for the 2023 JCB Prize, will draw readers in and may compel them to seek out these truly magnificent paintings that are an important visual testimony to an extraordinary fusion of Indian, Persian and European painting styles that characterize Mughal painting.


Farida Ali @farida_art is an art historian and writer. Her work has appeared in Scroll and elsewhere.