Manaku of Guler

01 March 2013

ABOUT THE STORY Writers of both fiction and non-fiction have long been interested in descriptions of the rigours, epiphanies and mysteries of the life of the visual artist. It is as if, having always to turn the sights of the world into words, writers long to enter—even if vicariously, without leaving their own native medium—an artistic universe that is not as closely tied to literal and linear meanings as words are. In this story based on the life of the 18th-century painter Manaku of Guler, Sharmistha Mohanty brilliantly realises not only the religious-cultural world of a painting tradition, but also the development of an artistic sensibility even within a scheme where the individuality of the painter is not paramount.

Particularly revelatory is the contrast set up by Mohanty between Manaku’s art and that of “the Mughal courts below”; the sense of sexual love as something ordained, natural to any two human beings who begin to live together (“He is married, he falls in love”); and the discussions of the representation of light in the tradition practiced by Manaku. When we learn that the light in Manaku’s paintings is unchanging so that “what he paints is outside time”, that revelation is so powerful precisely because we learn it inside the world of story—which, being a narrative art, is almost never outside time and acquires its own power precisely by never being so.

This excerpt is from Mohanty’s forthcoming book Five Movements in Praise, a work of connected fictions.

Sharmistha Mohanty is the author of two previous works of fiction—Book One and New Life. She is founder-editor of the online journal Almost Island and teaches Creative Writing at the City University of Hong Kong.