Monday, November 17, 2014

Interview with Suhag Shirodkar

I feel very privileged bringing to you Suhag Shirodkar, the author of a book that I think every child (or grown-up!) interested in Indian history must absolutely read. 

This book, titled ‘Captured in Miniature: Mughal Lives through Mughal Art’, is one of my all-time favourites and I had reviewed it here on Saffrontree. Do check it out.

Hello Suhag! Thank you for agreeing to answer our many questions!
First of all, please could you tell us about what inspired you to write this lovely book?

Children enjoy things that are small, to their own scale. Our twin daughters (then about 7) took a keen interest in books we owned on Mughal miniature art. They loved the scenes of war, where elephants stomped and horses reared and enemy heads lay scattered on the dusty battlefield. The pored over the court scenes, fascinated by the faces and robes of emperor and courtiers and the bejeweled Imperial Throne. So I started writing little notes for them, pointing out interesting things to look for in a miniature and asking questions that would get them thinking about the context or setting of a painting. The book came out of that assembly of notes.

And aren’t we glad you decided to do so!
If you could go back to the Mughal period for a day, which emperor’s reign would you choose and why? What would you like to see?

Perhaps I would enjoy the reign of Jehangir best, the empire very much shaped by Akbar and the aesthetic pinnacle of Shah Jehan still in the future.
The streets of Agra would be a delight to walk through, thronged with people from across Central Asia and Iran and Turkey. Observing the people and their dress and hearing many tongues spoken...being a part of the milling crowd at the jharoka darshan, when Jehangir made his appearance...wandering the bazaars...oh, it would be a busy day!
I would like to see how Nur Jehan had rose attar made -- the roses picked at dawn and brought in to some wonderfully fragrant ‘factory’ I imagine -- many hands working and the attar being distilled, drop by drop.
And then to visit a kitabkhana - like the one that’s depicted in my book. It would be wonderful to talk to the artists and understand the kind of world in which they created their collaborative masterpieces.
Too much to see in a day, that’s for sure!

Some day, when time-travel becomes real perhaps!
Okay this could be a tricky one but let’s say you were asked to choose for yourself any of the miniatures created in this period. Which would you pick?

Several. All.
I particularly enjoy paintings showing ordinary people. Like Akbar Supervising the Construction of Fatehpur Sikri that’s in my book.
And compositions like Miskin’s below, combining real and imaginary animals.

Practically speaking though, it would be too heavy a responsibility to own a Mughal miniature. If one came into my hands, I’d turn it over to a good museum in India.

What do you like best about the Mughal culture?

Undoubtedly the visual aesthetic and sensual appeal. The Mughal aesthetic was stunning, permeating every aspect of royal and noble life. The luxurious carpets, the brocade robes, the gemstones and jewellery, the marble screens, the fragrant gardens with fountains and fish-scale waterfalls, the miniatures each a jewel in itself, the hilts of swords and scabbards of daggers, the poetry and was a refined pursuit of beauty on such a magnificent scale that it could not in the end support itself.

The Mughal emperors had unique personalities and interests. What jobs do you think each of them would have had, if he were to live in the present times? (like Jahangir could have been a biologist perhaps).

It is hard to pin the Mughal emperors, who lived in such splendor and grandeur, to a present-day profession, but let’s try..
Babur: A poet and writer.
Humayun: not sure of him. Definitely he appreciated the arts enough to bring
miniature painters back with him from Persia. Let’s say an art appraiser.
Akbar: A diplomat and senior statesman, or a strategist for the military, or the
head of a think tank.
Jehangir: Biologist and naturalist, yes, that’s a good possibility. Jewelry appraiser, maybe.
Shah Jehan: Architect or designer
Aurangzeb: An interpreter of the law or a craftsman.

Intriguing indeed! Please tell us, what do you like to do apart from writing?

Many things. I work as a technical writer at a biotechnology company. Which means I write documents explaining complex scientific equipment or processes. It’s a different kind of writing from what we’ve been talking about, but it still involves creativity and is very enjoyable.
I also make ceramic tile, which is another area that lets me play with the Mughal, and other Indian, aesthetic. You can see a few samples of my work at Walks in woods and by streams...making fermented foods like bread and dosa and kombucha...identifying birds in their natural environments...long list.

You are clearly multi-talented! What did you read as a child?

About the same as most other children of my age who went to schools wherein English was the medium of instruction...Ladybird Books, Enid Blyton, Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I wish I had read not necessarily more, but better. What you read is at least as important as how much you read.

Why do you think miniatures are no longer a popular style?

Well, a miniature is a very personal art form, meant to be observed closely, enjoyed within a book or portfolio. Also, many miniatures supported or enhanced text in a book. A miniature is not something that easily goes up on a wall for public display and cannot be enjoyed by several people simultaneously. So I guess that automatically limits its popularity. But that doesn’t mean beautiful miniatures are not being painted. For example, you can see the work of the Singh twins at

We have seen some fabulous interactive displays of miniatures in the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. How can we make our museums more visitor-friendly, especially for children?

For sure I’m not a museum exhibit designer, but many museums around the world create displays that keep children captivated. So surely one can learn some lessons from those. “Treasure hunts” in which children look for certain objects or aspects of objects within a collection would be useful.

We loved reading your book, because you have made the art form and its history accessible for children (and some grown-ups too!). How can we make more of this happen?

From what my publisher (Bipin Shah of Mapin Publications) tells me, the economics get in the way. For Captured in Miniature, the fees charged by each museum (in the West) for allowing reproduction were very steep. Considering that the paintings are the patrimony of India and the Indian museums provided rights for little or zero charge! Print runs in general, Bipin says, are small and initial costs high. But recently I read that the ‘young adult’ segment of the book publishing industry is looking up, so maybe things will get better!

Lastly, we want more books like these and hope there are some in the pipeline! Please say there are!

There are book projects in the works, and although not exclusive to children, they promise to be informative and entertaining for young audiences too. A guidebook to Old Goa, the capital of Portuguese India, is at Other projects are in progress. So keep checking

Thanks very much Suhag for your time, it has been a pleasure speaking to you! 

(Also thanks to Sandhya for putting me in touch with the author of this wonderful book).

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