Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Miniaturist - Kunal Basu

The court of Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, supposed to be the best time for arts and culture filled with the best in the field of music, art and painting. It is considered as one of the golden era of medieval India. Set in his period ( 16th Century AD), Kunal Basu's second novel takes us on a journey with Bihzad a painter in the Akbar's court.

Born to the 'khwaja' ( the chief) of Akbars 'kitabkhana' ( the artists workshop), Bihzad was already a child prodigy in line with his fathers tradition. Persian descendent, who moved into India with the Mughals have already made India their home. His father had put him under the tutelage of an elderly painter, to bring some discipline in his drawing, only to be abandoned by the boy stating " I have nothing else to learn from him". Illiterate, he had to listen to the stories being narrated ( for which he uses his step mothers help) to reproduce them with all magnanimity, not to be rivalled. It was only natural, to have his name and fame to reach the royal ears. Soon, he was admitted to the 'kitabkhana' to be the rightful heir to his fathers post, when the father was elated to the post of a courtier. Akbar has moved his capital out of Agra to Sikri and moved his court and the ;kitabkhana' to the new city ,moving his wives and harem to the new place. His step-mother, with whom he now has developed a relation beyond the maternal limitations, has refused to leave Agra to join them in Sikri. Same, is the case with the paint-seller , who frequent kitabkhana feeding him with the raw material for his art as well as the local gossip.

The historians in the court are busy writing the biography of Akbar, and Bihzad was busy painting the corresponding sketches for the great book. While this is on there is a parallel life of Akbar the Great is being prepared, this time not as an all conquering Emperor, but in a human form. The admiration to the great ruler soon becomes infatuation from the painter. The pictures of Akbar, the lover boy with Bizhad has been stolen and was produced in the royal court by the detractors . Bihzad was promptly expelled ( the magic of the pictures have spared him his life).

Now in exile, Bihzad ends up in the deserts outside the hindukush , run by another exile , a eunuch fallen out of grace from the royal harems of Akbar. Agreeing upon not revealing their identity, Bihzad spents his exile days doing errands, listening to Sufi poets, Christian missionaries and other religions sects leaders. The luck takes his turn again as one of his paintings changes his life again, this time ending up in the courts of the local king, marrying his daughter. Forced to spent the time in the harems unable to win the trust of his wife, he escape the place. Tormented by his art and destroyed by his skill, he decides to put an end to this, blindfolding himself spending his life under a tree in the market. Abused, insulted and ragged, he was later rescued by some nomads selling eggs in the market. But the art, does not leave him.

Kunal Basu, true to the book, paints the picture of Akbars court amazingly. The palace, the ministers courtiers, his royal entourage and the hunting trips, the harems filled innumerous wives and other concubines each trying to win his attention and to be the first to produce the next emperor of the kingdom, the royal eunuchs guarding and taking care of the harem, the in-court rivalry .. each were produced to the magnificent effect. The omnipresence of the emperor was through out the initial pages.

The torments of the painter, famed and destroyed by the art he know and love, is painted pretty well by the author.

" Your gift is your curse. Your defect. It'll make you suffer. Even if you wanted to escape, it wouldn't spare you. It'll cripple you, even if you flee, it'll seek its revenge."

So was the admiration turned fantasy of a teenager, falling in love with his creation ( the emperor in this case). His effort to meet his sweet-heart was denied, so was his elevation to the post of 'khwaja' by the rivals leaving him further disturbed, the only solace being alcohol and the local whorehouse.

However, to me the book did not deliver to the expectation set in the initial pages. Kunal Basu is a good writer and has very good command on the language and the subject he in his treatment. The second half of the book takes an un-convincing turn, ending with a cliched cinematic finish.


The Miniaturist ( 2003 )

Kunal Basu


248 Pages


Other Reviews: Independent , Guardian

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