Wednesday, July 23, 2003

the god in the artist

The Miniaturist by Kunal Basu. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. £12.99 ($21.84)

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2003).

THE MINIATURIST, Kunal Basu's second novel, is a peculiar book--something all too rare these days.

Set in 16th-century India, it traces the career of the era's greatest artist from the imperial court of Akbar, the third Mughal ruler, into exile for an unthinkable crime.

Against the unfamiliar backdrop of the Mughal Empire, Basu writes of the struggle of the artist to burst the confines of conventional morality and contemporary aesthetics "to show what the eye cannot see." Like his artist hero, the writer does just that, unveiling a story behind the plot; the "unseen" struggle of the creative mind, its passions and almost religious ecstasy.

Toward the end of the century, India's greatest emperor, Akbar, commissioned two enormous projects. He ordered the imperial capital moved from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri, and commissioned work to begin for the illustration of his autobiography, the Akbarnama. It is the great ambition of the young artist Bihzad, the hero of The Miniaturist, to paint the emperor's life and become the master of the imperial library. But long before Bihzad can win the commission, he begins to draw portraits of the emperor. He dares to draw himself and the emperor as lovers.

Banished to the desert for that crime, Bihzad discovers the true nature of his art, creating a painting called "The Lady" that is revered as a goddess in the remote area. A string of tragedies forces Bihzad to confront the impotence of his art. He ties a blindfold over his eyes and vows never to paint again. Not until years later, when he returns to Agra as a penniless "blind" beggar does he discover that Akbar has forgiven him and recognized his genius. "You are not an artist," Akbar tells him. "You are a saint, Bihzad. Only a saint is truly blind, seeing none but the God inside him."

Bihzad's final painting of Akbar on his deathbed brings the revolutionary techniques he pioneered in the desert to light in the land's greatest court.

The Miniaturist is an excellent counterpoint to Basu's well-received first novel, The Opium Clerk. Like most fiction about India, that first effort was set during the period of history which most fascinates English readers: the time of the British Raj.

The Miniaturist is that much more intriguing because it deals neither with that pet subject, nor with contemporary India or Indians living abroad. By writing about the distant past, Basu has managed, paradoxically, to say something new. In this he has few antecedents, among them Robert Graves' wonderful I, Claudius.

Like the miniature paintings of the Mughal court, this novel deserves a careful perusal. Basu's every word is carefully chosen, and his every image resonates with meaning.