Interview: Vikramajit Ram, author, Mansur - “It all comes down to edit, edit, edit”
On the historical novel set in the Mughal era that’s on the longlist for the JCB Prize for Literature this year
How does it feel to have Mansur longlisted for the JCB Prize? While writing the book, did you simply want to finish it or were you hoping for prizes too?
Mansur took five years to research and write. When one has a story to tell, one hopes to tell it to the best of one’s abilities, and to enjoy every step of the process. Like any long journey with a destination, it cannot be rushed. If writers were thinking about prizes, we probably would not get very much writing done. A longlist in the company of fellow novelists who have made long journeys of their own is momentous in itself, and I am very grateful.
What drew you into the life and art of Mansur, whose patron was Emperor Jahangir? Were you introduced to Mughal art as a student at the National Institute of Design, or later in life?
An interest in art and architecture began long before I went to the National Institute of Design in 1985. Five years there provided direction to that interest. Designers, and students of design, are constantly examining how things were done, across timelines and geographic borders, to serve specific functions, be it images, buildings, furniture, textiles, everyday objects, and so on. That art and architectural history – not only of the Mughal era – are central to my fiction and non-fiction definitely owes much to my training, and former career as a graphic designer.
Tell us about the research that went into writing this historical novel. What books did you read? Which museums and monuments did you visit to immerse yourself in the 17th century, the lives of Mughal royalty, and settings like ateliers, libraries and zenana quarters?
The research was extensive, if not exhaustive – and definitely exhausting! My focus was a specific group of Mughal-era miniaturists who had worked for Jahangir, and a storyline from their perspective. These men, and some women, had produced extraordinary books and paintings, which have long been acknowledged the world over, as some of the greatest works of Indian art. Although we know the names of these artists from their signatures and attributions and can, in some cases, put faces to names from artists’ portraits and self-portraits, we know next to nothing about their everyday lives, families, homes, aspirations – and simply because they had left no personal, written records. My first source, therefore, was the miniatures they painted. Another invaluable source is Som Prakash Verma’s Mughal Painters and Their Work: A Biographical Survey and Comprehensive Catalogue (1994). While nothing compares to experiencing Mughal-era miniatures physically, 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 significant collection. As for the novel’s historical settings, Agra Fort being the main one, most are readily accessible and reward a visit, even if they are much altered 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 he contribute to your understanding of Mansur’s choice of subjects, his colour palette, and his signature style?
Asok Kumar Das presented a riveting illustrated talk on Mansur at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore on 22nd August 2015. My engagement with Mansur and his paintings began that very evening. We have been in touch ever since. His monograph on Mansur is a must for anyone interested in the period and its art. Its gorgeous full-colour plates aside, the volume brings into focus a frankly pioneering spirit of scientific inquiry that had led to Mansur’s realistic life studies of native and exotic flora and fauna.
Why was Mansur so deeply interested in painting flora and fauna rather than humans?
Mansur had in Jahangir a patron who was keenly interested in the natural world. Jahangir had in Mansur a supremely talented documenter of flora and fauna. While other painters in Jahangir’s employ were skilled at painting birds and animals, Mansur was unmatched in his ability to convey the life-breath and psychology of his subjects. It is for good reason that he finds mention by name and the title Jahangir had bestowed him – Nadir ul-Asr, “Rarity of the Present” – no fewer than four times in the Tuzuk i-Jahagiri, which is Jahangir’s memoir. Both men had often made the same journeys, observed the same “wonders of nature”, and respectively recorded their findings in words and images. Mansur’s flowers of Kashmir, 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 in his work is so remarkable that I imagine his paintings are/were useful to botanists and zoologists in addition to people studying art history. Your novel opens with a scene where he is painting a dodo. Which of his paintings are among your favourites? Why?
Jahangir records in the Tuzuk that he had painters make images of a group of exotic creatures that had been presented to him, so that “the amazement that arose from hearing of them might be increased”. So, yes, these are the words of a ‘naturalist’, way ahead of his time. Aside from amazing us as much as they had 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. Mansur’s dodo, for example, painted from life c.1624, was extinct as a species by 1683. If I were to pick a “favourite”, it would be Mansur’s clever green chameleon eyeing a butterfly, painted c. 1610, and approximately 11 x 13 centimetres.
How would you describe the relationship between Jahangir and Nur Jahan in the history books that you read? What creative liberties did you take while treating them as characters?
Fiction allows a novelist to take endless creative liberties. The key, I believe, is to reimagine the lives of real people with empathy and in context with the historical frameworks that they had occupied. I have been selective in my research. The Tuzuk i-Jahangiri makes for fascinating reading; although her presence is palpable, the Empress is not named in Jahangir’s memoir. We get another sense of their relationship in The Life and Times of Noor Jahan (1967) by the historians Mohammad and Razia Shujauddin: Herein is an extraordinary set of witty exchanges, in verse form, attributed to Noor Jahan and Jahangir. More recently, we have Corinne Lefèvre’s book Consolidating Empire: Power and Elites in Jahangir’s India, 1605-1627 (2022).
Did you spend some time in Kashmir to try and imagine what the royal summer retreat in Verinag must have looked and felt like in Mansur’s time? Or did that not seem necessary?
While it helps to walk in places where historical figures had walked, it might not always be possible to visit every locale in the course of one visit. Thankfully, a novelist can rely on imagination, based on some hopefully sound at-home research. 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 want of a better word. What music were you listening to while writing this book?
That is a very kind observation. With garden birds providing ambient sound, you do not need any other music.
While announcing the JCB Prize longlist, the jury called your book “a triumph of minimalist storytelling, every sentence shining with a gem-like clarity”. How did you polish your craft?
That line made me glow! I am ruthless in cutting my writerly excesses. It all comes down to edit, edit, edit.
Among your huge cast of characters, which ones were the most interesting to write? Whom did you have trouble empathizing with? Whom did you feel terribly sorry for?
Every one of them, principal and subsidiary, was a treat to reimagine and to write. My responsibility was to see every one of them as flesh and blood people, rather like ourselves albeit in different clothes and settings, with distinct personalities and concerns. It wasn’t for me to feel sorry for anyone. They responded, generously, quirks and all.
In the book, you write, “Mansur has come to understand that, of the myriad emotions granted to sentient beings, discontent is the exclusive preserve of humankind.” How did you deal with this emotion while incorporating feedback from your editor?
Zero discontent! Much of the joy of the writing process is the 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 might be more rounds of edits. Your editor and you just know when it is finally done. Shreya Gupta and I had a fabulous time with Mansur from start to finish.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.