July 1618 – The Jahangirnama
‘[Abul Hasan] is truly a rarity of his age. So is Ustad Mansur, the painter who enjoys the title of Nadirul’Asr [Rarity or Wonder of the Age] In painting, he is unique in his time. During my father’s reign and mine, there has been and is no one who could be mentioned along with these two.’
The fate of one of India’s greatest painters, Ustad Mansur, was closely tied to the great patron of the arts of his time – Mughal emperor Jahangir (1569-1627 CE). Mansur had supported Jahangir quite early when Jahangir had rebelled against his father, Emperor Akbar (1542-1605 CE). This is evident from his dated and signed painting depicting Jahangir as ‘surat badshah’ even when Akbar was alive and Jahangir was still a rebel Shahzada Salim in 1600-1601 CE!
It is unfortunate that we know almost nothing about Mansur’s life beyond his work in the Mughal atelier. Mansur began his career at the Mughal Court in 1589, and one can find his work in the paintings of Akbarnama, commissioned by Emperor Akbar. The Mughal atelier, established by Emperor Humayun (1508-1556), reached the height of its glory under Emperor Akbar, who commissioned some of the most spectacular works such as Hamzanama, Akbarnama, Anwar-i-Sohaili and even translations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
But working under Akbar while Mansur was not a master painter or ustad, one can see the superb borders and illuminations he had put together for other major artists’ works. Mansur’s personal contributions seem to have been a precise, warmly observant description of the subject and a tightly controlled, obedient technique that was more colored drawing than painting.
Mansur shot into the limelight during Jahangir’s reign. As mentioned earlier, Mansur was a supporter of Prince Salim when he had rebelled against his father, and Mansur’s status rose when the rebel Prince became Emperor Jahangir, on the death of his father in 1605 CE.
From grand scenes and fantasy tales depicting aspects of Akbar’s life, Mughal painting took a very different turn towards realism under him. Emperor Jahangir was a lover of plants and animals and in his autobiography Tuzk-i Jahangiri, he writes firsthand about what motivated him to commission these paintings. Jahangir writes about the curiosities from Portuguese-ruled Goa:
In the above lines, Jahangir is describing a turkey bird that the Portuguese had brought from South America. The painting of the turkey done by Ustad Mansur for Jahangir has survived and one can see how the description given by Jahangir in his autobiography matches the artwork.
Mansur’s most brilliant portrait was his contributions to the Muraqqa-I Gulshan, the great album that Jahangir started assembling while he was still a prince.
Mansur was able to capture not only the physical texture of living breathing birds and animals, but also a sense of their inherent nature.
Jahangir noted in his memoirs that the chameleon ‘constantly changes colours’, a peculiarity which is perhaps hinted at in this painting of the small, slow-moving reptile with the turquoise-green tones of its skin used again in the leaves of the branch where they merge with yellowing hues. In addition to his acute powers of observation, Mansur is celebrated for his extraordinary handling of paint, here demonstrated in particular by the tiny impasto dots simulating the surface of the chameleon’s skin. On very close inspection, a gold crease is visible, creating a glint in the reptile’s eye.
Under 31 October 1619, in Jahangirnama, we find Mansur again.
Today we find the painting of the falcon in the British Museum.
One of Mansur’s paintings – the Siberian Crane – is a valuable record of natural history as this bird is no longer seen in India today. The painting, somewhat damaged, is signed by Mansur at the bottom (‘Amal Ustad Mansur’)
Towards the end of Jahangir’s reign, we see a superbly depicted zebra by Mansur with a note in Jahangir’s own handwriting.
After Jahangir’s death in 1627 CE, we no longer find any works of Ustad Mansur. All curiosities of nature in paintings were replaced by the hierarchical, grand paintings showing off the architecture and wealth of his successor Shah Jahan. It is unknown how Ustad Mansur died – all that survives today is his great works scattered across museums all over the world, where one can enjoy and marvel at his works – he was truly a ‘wonder of his age’.
Manoj Dani is a independent researcher of art history based in California and is currently working on classifying the art treasures of BISM, Pune.
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