Literature and visual arts have always gone hand in hand, and in our times the role to bring art and literature together is taken over by art novels. Though many see visual art against the descriptive nature of literary works, art novels tend to break this unnecessary binary and contribute to both, the art of the colours and the art of the novel. Here we will look at three novels with interesting takes on the art world of the present as well as the past.
Artist, Undone by V Sanjay Kumar
The story begins when the protagonist Harsh Singh impulsively buys an expensive painting worth 27 lakhs and takes a sabbatical from his job in Mumbai which has kept him away from his family in Chennai. He expects that his wife and daughter will embrace and marvel at the painting he has bought. To his shock, his wife no longer wants him and after working for eight years in Mumbai, he has turned into a weekend husband and a weekend father.
Heartbroken with no money, he visits as many art galleries as possible to sell the painting. Gradually, he learns about the world of art and galleries that many people consider elitist and its market is nothing but irrational. This art novel talks not only about art but also about the current state of art criticism. It mediates on the questions, like what is the role of art? Is everything about art copied? What makes an artwork original? By exploring these questions, the author gives his readers a sense of what it takes to write and understand art.
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It is the first Indian novel that uses the artworks of many modernist painters like Jitish Kalat, Atul Dodiya, F.N. Souza, and Shibu Natesan to move the narrative forward. Discussions on art give the novel a surreal effect as reflections merge the present with the past. The setting of the novel resembles Mumbai of the 80s and 90s, a time of bomb blasts, riots and encounters. The life experiences of the author inspire the protagonist’s encounters with gangsters, businessmen, gallerists and artists. Overall the story is narrated with art and poetry wrapped around the drama of relationships, explorations, and unexpected experiences, which are served to us with a pinch of wit and humour.
Mansur: A Novel by Vikramajit Ram
Out of a hundred paintings Mansur had painted in his life, only a dozen are known to us. We know very little about the life of Mansur except for the fact that he marvelled at painting on themes of botany and zoology. He became the first Mughal artist to be awarded the title of Nãdir-al-’Asr (Unequalled of the Age) by the Mughal Emperor.
The title and the esteem with which the Mughal Emperor treated Mansur hints at the possibility of how rewards fostered rivalries and competition among artists. Not only that, Mansur also became the first artist to sign his paintings which marked a shift from collective art activity to individual works of art. This art novel engages with symbols and meanings coded in the Mughal paintings of the time. These coded messages in the paintings often asserted the sovereignty of the Emperor and made them a ground for power politics, as they were sent as gifts to other rulers and officials.
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When the novel begins, Mansur has just finished painting the bird Dodo, the rarest bird of his time. He then prepares for his summer trip to Kashmir where he has to deliver an illustrated book of verses to Nur Jahan. The Empress wanted him to create a lifelike butterfly on every page of the book of verses she had compiled for Jahangir. But the long delay from bindery fills Mansur with apprehension. The rest of the story follows upheavals in the court preceding the succession of Shah Jahan. The art novel is roman-à-clef and factual information is drawn from Dr. Asok Kumar’s book, “Wonders of Nature: Ustad Mansur at the Mughal Court.”
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
The story revolves around the murder of an artist whose suspects are the other three main artists of the Ottoman court. It is an art novel that perfectly fits into the genre of historical fiction and mystery. Though set in the Ottoman Empire, the art novel is relevant to Indian art lovers. Mughals and Ottomans constantly built connections between each other by exchanging gifts which also involved art. They both share tradition illustrating epics with miniature paintings.
To talk about a Nobel Prize-winning book in a few words and cover almost all aspects is impossible, so it is talking about a few observations. First, it amazingly explores art, creativity and the lives of the artists. Art is the ground where conflicting ideas come together and we can explore politics of representation, nature of reality, and ambition to reach perfection within the purview of religion, faith, and the everyday lives of the characters. Through the dilemmas of artists, the book depicts aesthetic differences between East and West and how art becomes a ground for conflict, individuality vs. community, immortality vs. death, and authenticity vs. imitation.
We can see this crisis between imitating the West and retaining the authenticity of artist tradition in how the murderer feels detached from his true self, his emotions and his present. He sees everything as a dream because he shudders to see others from the outside. Same with Shekure, who observes herself as if from a distance, transforming into another woman and how other selves haunt her. The murderer warns, ‘if painters succumb to the Frankish manner, “we might resemble ourselves, but we won’t be ourselves”.’ Therefore, the art novel explores the fluidity of self and identity, where human experiences closely intertwines with art.
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Art novels like My Name is Red and The Name of the Rose deal with pre-modern art, and have inspired many writers across the globe to explore art in historical fiction and see traditional art as something that reflects the threads that tie our society together. At the same time, another strand in art novels explores the absurdity of human life through the absurdity of abstractness in contemporary art. Both strands of writing novels on art have just entered Indian fiction. The more people engage with art and fiction the more popular art novels will become, and the more they will bring creative enthusiasts from different fields to engage with art criticism.