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Riot of colours

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The Emperor Babur 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 minutes detail.

Among them, the foremost was Ustad 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.

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.

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

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 January 2014 on page no. 21

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