Recording the past

Recording the past

Orchids,roses and blue irises crowd Neeru Misra’s living room on her 52nd birthday. Her favourite flower? For the Monet enthusiast,this is quite a poser.

After writing on Humayun’s Tomb,Neeru Misra turns her pen to Rajasthan’s paintings

Orchids,roses and blue irises crowd Neeru Misra’s living room on her 52nd birthday. Her favourite flower? For the Monet enthusiast,this is quite a poser. If life were the gardens of Giverny,Misra would be wallowing in the lily pond one moment,sprinting through the poppy fields the next,and sizing up the poplars in between.

For,Misra is a woman of varied interests. When she is not curating exhibitions and cataloguing for HabiArt and other galleries,she can be spotted leading wives of Indian Foreign Service officers on a guided tour of the erstwhile Neher-i-Bihist of Chandni Chowk,or admiring Atgah Khan’s tomb,hidden away in one of Nizamuddin’s less-frequented avenues. Or,for all you know,she may be writing another book.

A programme director with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations,Misra is the author of The Garden Tomb of Humayun: An Abode in Paradise (2003) and the soon-to-be-released Splendours of Rajasthan Paintings: Gulistan of Alwar School,apart from a handful of other books. “Culture has always been my backbone,” says the heritologist and art historian,who has dabbled in everything from museum administration to advocating ‘sports socialisation’ for women.


Her latest book on Gulistan,an illustrated manuscript of which was commissioned in Banni Singh’s atelier,in the kingdom of Alwar,six centuries after it was composed by the revered Sheikh Sa’adi,was born of a visit to the Alwar museum three years ago. “The museum captivated me. It has a rich collection of works that ought to be preserved,” Misra says. A Hindi translation of her book is also in the offing.

Misra’s thesis at Allahabad University was on Mughal leadership and succession. And when she moved to Delhi—a one-time Mughal capital—in 1987,she was drawn to the city’s heritage. Her book on Humayun’s Tomb was an offshoot of her fascination with the Taj Mahal,of which it was an eminent precursor. “My father hails from Mathura. As a child,whenever we visited Mathura,I would plead with him to take me to the Taj,” she says.

When Misra moved in to a Shahjahan Road residence,a stone’s throw from Humayun’s Tomb,she often found herself admiring its bulbous double-dome and its drainage system,accompanied by her son Tanay,whose photographs would later give shape to the book. “To understand the concept of the garden tomb,I studied the importance of a garden in the Quran,” says Misra,who has also edited Sufis and Sufism: Some Reflections.

She has worked with the UNDP for a decade on a human development project for parliamentarians,taught at the National Museum Institute where she trained in art history,and even been associated with the Sports Authority of India for three years as assistant director of a scholarship programme (she was a basketball and table tennis player in college). And in this variety of stints,what has remained constant is Misra’s love of art,history and art history.

The 13th to 18th centuries are her forte,but Misra is also concerned about the preservation of more recent structures. “Some of the state houses of the erstwhile princely states are in disrepair. Why must we wait for something to age hundreds of years before we start preserving it?” she says,and in this,one can sense the rumblings of a new book.

Even with her plate full,Misra says she feels like Isaac Newton must have felt when “he likened himself to a boy playing on the seashore,collecting pebble after smoother pebble while the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered”. Nonetheless,in the ocean that cascades through the remains of the past,Misra is an explorer on the decorated surfboard of history.