Think of a silk so delicate that it could be damaged by one rough touch. What if, instead of this fine fabric, its threads were spun into a novella? I imagine it would be one like Mansur, which takes place in the royal atelier in Agra over the course of a single day, as the sun shines radiantly in this early 17th-century courtyard. Busy with painters, students, library officials, accountants and buzzing with activity, it is the Saturday before the official invitees leave for the Mughal royal family’s annual summer retreat to Verinag in Kashmir.
Nur Jahan, the empress of the Mughal empire, has commissioned a present for the emperor that must remain secret: a book of intimate verses that the two recite to each other, every verse accompanied by an illustration of the different butterflies in the Mughal gardens. It should be seen by nobody but the emperor and the illustrator, and if it falls into the wrong hands, royal wrath will be incurred. She has tasked Mansur with the responsibility to see that it is ready in time and travels with him to the summer retreat, so that it can reach her without mishap. Chronicled Rarity of the Present – Nadir al-Asr – by the emperor, Mansur is an expert at bringing to life fauna on paper; among his most valued works, in fact, is the emperor’s wedding gift for Nur Jahan, a green chameleon on a tendril, vibrant and lifelike.
Sahifeh Banu and Nadireh Banu are his co-conspirators, two women now in the twilight of their days. Installed in quarters where every corner reeks of lack, they are relics of a bygone era – one whose memories they quote back to each other to spend their days. Tasked with the binding of this secret book, any opportunity to admire the verses and illustrations that populate its pages is for them like a stolen moment from their past: close to eminence, with hidden promise.
Though the painters have their separate workshops, sometimes they collaborate with each other on the emperor’s command to depict allegories or preserve a memory, the regard they hold each other is depicted as a curious cocktail of respect and pettiness. In our conversation, Ram told me that while almost all his characters were once real people whose names now lived in historical records, their interpersonal relationships were the uncontested playing field of his imagination – a luxury he uses to interesting effect.
As the day progresses, so does the long arc of history – in the endless present of their lives, they move about their work without giving much thought to who they will be known as in the centuries to come, or how their work will play a role in making this future.
In the royal atelier on this Saturday is also Abul Has’n, master painter of portraits and the Nadir al-Zaman, or Rarity of the Age, in the courts of Jahangir, and one of the teachers training the next generation of painters for the service of his majesty. Like Mansur, he too has been invited by the emperor to be a part of the royal entourage as it sets off for the summer retreat, and Abul Has’n knows that he will be assigned one of these students as his apprentice, who will accompany him on his travels to learn from his techniques.
One of these students is Mirar, talented, ambitious, and all of fourteen: not yet old enough to know envy from admiration. Has’n has seen his genius but refuses recognition – a kind of teacherly reticence – evoking in Mirar an emotional response that is as confusing to himself as is invigorating. In his dreams, he imagines the two of them in the midst of stories that baffle him, and he spends his time trying to translate this charge in their relationship onto paper with charcoal.
Beauty and tenderness
Desire thrums beneath the surface, most alive when there is no vocabulary to articulate it. Ram is alert to the fact that what is touched by language is also changed, and so does not force the current in the air into any boxes made of modern understanding. Instead, he does his characters a favour: he lets them peek, linger, and sometimes reluctantly look away. He lets them live.
Some of these paintings mentioned in Mansur are now held in private collections, others at museums across the world. Our fortune, living in the age of the internet, is that several of them are available for online viewing, and one of Mansur’s strengths is that these paintings are rendered with such richness in Ram’s words that upon reading them, it is easy to forget that what you are doing at the moment is wandering in the mental museum of your own imagination, and not one where the actual painting is housed.
Despite the wealth that flows in its creative economy, Mansur is a book about beauty, not opulence. Ram handles this world of strict propriety and immense wealth with tenderness; it is an empire known for its forts and its might, but in their pursuit of artistic possibility and its ample patronage, you also glimpse what it is well on course to becoming – an empire that will be known for its prolific aesthetic legacy.
Mansur is a rich novel about beauty and want, immersing its readers into a world of delicacy so sublime, that you will want to return to its pages again and stay a while. Like all precious silk, it relishes the senses, polished and smooth, demanding both attention and restraint.
Mansur, Vikramjit Ram, Pan MacMillan India.