Ustad Mansur: Revered painter of Jahangir’s era
If I were to tell you that the artist of this painting, titled A Chameleon, was Ustad Mansur, would that ring a bell in your mind? Most likely not, unless you are deeply interested in the history of medieval Indian art. And that indeed is sad, this collective amnesia regarding some of the wonders of our past.
Who was Ustad Mansur?
Ustad Mansur was bestowed with the title of Nadirul’asr, Rarity of the Age, by Mughal emperor Jehangir. And the emperor in his memoir, the Jahangirnama, talks of his skill again and again. What skills? Well, wildlife photography is one of the key genres of the art in modern times. But what about pre-camera days? It wouldn’t be an exaggeration at all to call Ustad Mansur the greatest wildlife painter of his times, a rarity indeed. Great medieval painters around the world have dealt with a variety of subjects, but how many of them can we name who achieved greatness drawing birds and animals?
Ustad Mansur did. His works are preserved today in many of the most important museums around the world, including Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Royal Collection Trust, London, The British Museum, London, and the Indian Museum, Kolkata.
Let’s for a moment look closely, really closely, at the accompanying painting, A Chameleon, drawn four hundred years ago C 1612. The Royal Collection Trust informs us that it is drawn with brush and ink with green body colour on a small sheet of paper, 11.0 X 13.8 Cm. Then the modern experts of the Trust goes on to comment, “Mansur’s miniature is a scientifically precise depiction: he accurately recorded the pale stripe at the corner of the mouth, the line of white scales running along the underside of the body, and the unusual digitation of the chameleon – on each foot the digits are fused into two opposed ‘bundles’, two outer digits opposed to three inner on the forelimb, and vice versa on the hindlimb.”
Stunning details, isn’t it? Indeed, Mansur’s detailed careful depictions of animals, birds and plants and animals, avoiding any personal expression were not only matchless works of art, but also, to this day, continue to be extremely valuable for their scientific accuracy.
Ustad Mansur in oblivion
Look closely, now, at this other beautiful painting. It’s preserved in the Institute for Eastern Studies, Novo-Mikhailovsky Palace, Saint Petersburg. We see five different types of birds: On the upper left and right are a blue crowned hanging parrot (Loriculus galgulus), the western tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus), and on the lower left and right of the canvas are the bar-headed goose (Anser indicus), and the painted sandgrouse (Pterocles indicus). Beautifully drawn as each of these birds are, this particular painting is historic for its centrepiece: the Dodo. Drawn C 1625, this is the only accurate depiction of a Dodo, a flightless bird from the Mauritius region, which was hunted to extinction by Europeans by 1681.
Ustad Mansur was so famous in his times that fake copies of his paintings begun to be produced even during his lifetime. Yet we virtually know nothing about this great artist, besides the fact that he started his career during the reign of emperor Akbar and really shot to fame in Jahangir’s time.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)