The chameleon has the color of new fern leaves; she looks back, past the viewer, clutching the branch of a peepul tree, marking the passage of a butterfly. His claws clenched, probably in preparation for a strike. The painter captured her when her eyes light up with a predatory glow, just before she turns around, sticks out her tongue. She’s 405, and I had to absentmindedly scroll past her image a dozen times before I actually saw her.
It’s probably true for everyone that you stop seeing or paying attention to your surroundings after a while. Even the most beautiful and stunning landscapes or works of art lose their appeal over time as you get used to what was once a source of allure. The first time I walked around London, I must have driven even the most indulgent of my friends mad at the buildings and sights they took for granted. You make the transition from tourist to insider in one of the world’s great cities by earning the right to pass quickly and ignore what was once magically strange and new.
So it is with art. Mughal miniatures, Pahari paintings and Deccani art hovered in the background of many middle-class Indian homes, so familiar that at some point I had to stop looking at them, let alone discover the changing styles of artists through the centuries, now influenced by Syria. or Iran, now inspired by European travelers or Buddhist art.
There’s a group of medieval painters whose work I’m beginning to like, from Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi to Indian painter Pahari Nainsukh, but right now the adored object is Ustad Mansur, one of the great lights from the court of Emperor Jahangir. I’d chase him for autographs, I’d chase him for a while, like any celebrity junkie, except he lived and died in the 17th century and he’s safely out of reach of my paparazzi wishes.
Mansur took a long time to reveal himself. I was first drawn to the works of Bishndas, one of Jahangir’s court painters, famous for his ability to paint near-photographic portraits. In 1621, Iran and Mughal India broke up, but before politics intervened, the emperor sent Bishndas to Persia to draw portraits of the shah. I often thought of Bishndas’ journey; I wondered what he found exotic, or familiar, or hospitable, seeing Iran through Indian eyes.
Then I read a blog post by detective novelist Madhulika Liddle about Mansur’s painting of the dodo, made around 1625 and believed to be the first painting of this bird. She wrote that Emperor Jahangir posted an agent in Goa to scout ships for specimens of unusual flora and fauna, from zebras to birds, which were then sent to court to be marveled and painted.
Mansur seems to have started his career as a calligrapher, filling in the colors of more famous painters, but his eye for nature was extraordinary and he quickly rose through the ranks. If you google Mansur, his best-known works come to the surface first – an exquisite pair of sarus cranes, an alert lapwing, a nilgai with every plant in the foreground carefully detailed, a zebra, an exotic turkey sent by the agent in Goa, tulips done in a flamboyant shade of purple.
It might be different for professional artists or photographers, but I believe for the rest of us it takes time and patience to learn to see, especially when your digital life is awash with stream of images and gifs. There’s so much to see in the endlessly flowing present that you can completely lose sight of the past, like I did.
In 2014, art historian BN Goswamy published his monumental work, The Spirit of Indian Painting: Intimate Encounters with 101 Great Works (1100-1900). In his introduction he wrote, as a sort of instruction for beginners and initiates, “We must first invoke utsaha – the energy, the enthusiasm, the excitement of anticipation.”
On one occasion when I was consulting his book, I stopped as I opened the cabinet door and looked at an elephant thinking about this line. A few years ago, I had received as a gift a copy of the famous Padshahnama paintings, a collection of 44 rare works from Shah Jahan’s time. Not wanting the paintings to be hidden from view, I had Kanhaiya Lal, a skilled local carpenter, frame them within the frames of a closet door.
But once framed, they disappeared from sight; in the abstraction of daily writing and work, I had ceased to see them. That morning I knelt before Abd al-Hamid Lahori’s exquisite depiction of the emperor holding court, an elephant in the right foreground, and noted for the first time that the killer had been painted with a questioning look on his intelligent face, also a secret smile.
But it’s the chameleon that always catches my breath. I wonder if the Emperor commissioned a painting of such a lowly creature, so unlike the gazelles and elephants of most royal art. Perhaps Mansur himself was sitting at the foot of the tree, caught up in the drama of the chameleon and the butterfly, unaware of the predator’s interest. This is what Goswamy meant by “utsaha– the ability to let the smallest things, creatures so easy to ignore, hook your curiosity and anticipation, reigniting excitement in the living world far beyond the headlines.
Nilanjana Roy is the author of “The Wildings” and “The Hundred Names of Darkness” and lives in Delhi. @nilanjanaroy