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Updated: August 3, 2013 16:53 IST

A riot of shapes and colours

Zerin Anklesaria
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Wonders Of Nature: Ustad Mansur at the Mughal Court; Asok Kumar Das, Marg Publications, Rs.2800.
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Wonders Of Nature: Ustad Mansur at the Mughal Court; Asok Kumar Das, Marg Publications, Rs.2800.

A collection of Ustad Mansur’s natural history paintings is an invaluable addition to our knowledge of the miniaturist’s art.

The Emperor Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty was, by any standards, an extraordinary man. An outstanding military strategist and statesman he was also a poet and memoirist, a calligrapher and naturalist. Jahangir inherited his powers of observation and his passion for flora and fauna. He kept a large menagerie and an aviary and nothing pleased him more than adding to them with gifts from his courtiers and neighbouring rulers. His approach was both aesthetic and scientific. Specimens were often dissected to examine their innards, while his artists were commissioned to depict rare birds, animals and flowering plants in the minutest detail.

Among them, the foremost was Mansur whose talents so impressed the Emperor that he honoured him with the title ‘Nadir ul-Asr’, the Wonder of the Age. His name first appears as ‘Naqqash’, calligrapher or designer and decorator of book covers and margins. Later he assisted his seniors in splendid collaborative paintings illustrating historical episodes from the Baburnama and Akbarnama, and soon he started to work independently, distinguishing himself as a natural history painter.

Mansur’s best-known animal studies are those of the blackbuck and nilgai, favoured targets of the royal hunt, though he personally preferred smaller creatures: a saltwater fish or a chameleon clutching a curving branch, its body taut with concentration. ‘Every pore, wrinkle, and toenail is recorded’ and its predatory nature is brought out in its stance as it prepares to pounce on a butterfly.

‘Squirrels in a Chinar Tree’ is a rarity in Mughal painting, a composite showing different species of flora and fauna together in an idyllic scene. Everything in this superb picture is three-dimensional, alive: the magnificent tree with autumn-tinted, star-shaped leaves, branching out to fill the top of the page; the hunter climbing upwards; lovable squirrels frolicking in the foliage; and deer browsing in the shade. Mansur’s genius for detail is particularly evident in the birds. No larger than two centimetres in the original painting, six different species have been clearly distinguished. Undoubtedly ‘Squirrels…’ is the greatest natural history miniature from Jahangir’s atelier.

The peacock appears frequently in Mughal painting, as do mynas and pigeons. Mansur painted falcons and hawks, vultures and cranes and even imaginary birds in a riot of fantastic shapes and colours. The Emperor was much taken by the strange appearance of the turkey-cock and the way it spread its tail feathers and changed colour ‘like a chameleon’ during its mating dance. He ordered Mansur to paint its likeness for inclusion in his memoirs, resulting in one of the artist’s most admired works.

The same delicate brushwork distinguishes the study of the Siberian Crane, which came as a revelation to Abanindranath Tagore three centuries later. He felt as if the live bird was in front of him, its wrinkled leg-skin and the tiny feathers sticking to its claws so minutely depicted that they were visible only through a magnifying glass. He was speechless, dizzy, he said, and so inspired that he stopped using oil paint on canvas and turned to gouache on paper, the traditional medium, starting a wave of revivalism in Indian art.

Jahangir’s passion for flora found expression in odd, sometimes comical, ways. Seeing red and pink oleanders in full bloom while on the march, he commanded his soldiers and cavalry men to wear bunches on their heads, thus producing ‘a wonderful moving flower bed’. On a visit to Kashmir, Mansur painted more than a hundred species, but sadly only five are left. The cover picture of the blue iris and a painting of the red tulip show the magic touch of the master. Both are composed with utmost care. The positioning of the blossoms and buds, the graceful swaying stems, and the satiny texture of the tulip leaves are outstanding examples in their genre.

In his Preface the author tells us how he pursued Mansur’s paintings with single-minded devotion for half a century, tracking them down in museums and private collections dispersed worldwide, relying on hearsay and inputs from friends and fellow scholars, and persisting through setbacks and delays.

Dr. Das’s commitment and erudition are as admirable as his meticulousness. Each species of bird, animal, or flower has been identified by experts such as Harkirat Sangha, Dr. Salim Ali, and our famous lion-cheetah man Divyabhanusinh. With superb illustrations adorning almost every page, Wonders… is a visual delight, and an invaluable addition to our knowledge of the miniaturist’s art.

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