B.N. Goswamy: The interpreter of miniatures

A pioneer who brought out the poetry in art, B.N. Goswamy passed away last week. In this interview to Lounge, a few weeks after the publication of his last book and some weeks before his death, he reflected on his lifetime’s work of putting names to Indian artists, and the role of the art historian

“May I call you by your first name?” asked B.N. Goswamy in his gentle voice during a phone conversation in late October this year. When I replied in the affirmative, he chuckled, “Given your name, you hail from Kalidasa’s period, don’t you?”

The conversation—like all his lectures and books—was revelatory not just about aspects of art history but also about the workings of his mind. Brijinder Nath Goswamy—born in Sargodha, now in Pakistan, in 1933, and based in Chandigarh till his death on 17 November at the age of 90—believed that his practice was shaped by happenstance and extraordinary moments that took place in the everyday, rather than a rigorous plan. His mind soaked up moments, conversations, poetry and visuals which had settled in his subconscious for years—often brewing quietly without him even realising it. Eventually, a trigger would bring those moments to the forefront, taking the form of a book, a catalogue or an exhibition.

Goswamy was best known for shining the spotlight on the figure of the painter, presenting him as a creative intellectual. Until the publication of his book Nainsukh Of Guler in 1997, miniature paintings had been viewed purely from the lens of the patron, often sifted into broad heads such as Pahari, Rajput or Kangra, essentially markers of geographies that the patrons belonged to. The painter remained in the shadows, a hazy, anonymous figure.

“To trace the life and career of a painter in India is somewhat akin to following the course of an earthen lamp on swift waters. The glow is bright and warm, and one can keep it within sight for a while, but quickly things turn and uncharted vastness takes over,” he wrote in the introduction of Nainsukh. First published in 1997 by Artibus Asiae Supplementum XLI, followed by an Indian reprint by Niyogi Books in 2011, this was the first book that concerned itself with an individual miniature painter from the past.

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It was an approach this Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer turned art historian and educator had been championing since the 1960s, first articulating it in a long essay, Pahari Painting: The Family As A Basis Of Style, published in the journal Marg in 1968. Goswamy focused on the families of painters rather than patrons. He attempted “to arrive at the style of this family with reference to this genealogy and the paintings reasonably attributable to one or the other members of this family,” stated the essay, The Pahari Painter: The Search; The Documents; The Context, from the book Pahari Masters: Court Painters Of India. The publication was authored by Goswamy and Eberhard Fischer.

Goswamy believed the understanding of Pahari paintings would be more meaningful if the distinctive styles of artist-families could be identified. The task was easier said than done. Unlike Mughal paintings, in which you can see the artist signatures in many works, the Pahari and Rajput painters left little or no markers of their identity.

Like a sleuth, Goswamy went about unearthing evidence of their lives from genealogical records kept by priests at pilgrimage centres such as Haridwar, and land settlement records compiled by the British, as The Pahari Painter essay states. He reconstructed the family tree of the prolific artist family of Pandit Seu, his sons Nainsukh and Manaku, and their descendants. Goswamy painted quite a personality of Nainsukh, one of the most prolific and original painters of the Pahari school, who painted everything from court scenes, hunting scenes, picnics, musical themes, tinted drawings, and “which he managed to invest with great elegance and sense of classical dance”.

Moments of luck combined with sheer hard work to find Nainsukh. Goswamy wrote in Nainsukh Of Guler: “The search for Nainsukh, and concomitantly for his best-known patron, Balwant Singh (of Jasrota), has taken me to unlikely places and an unlikely number of years.”

In 2015, Goswamy’s The Spirit Of Indian Painting was published by Allen Lane India. It continues to be hailed as a masterpiece and “one of the greatest books on Indian art”. “Goswamy has succeeded in reconstructing whole dynasties of previously obscure artists, given them names, and restored their identities and honour,” wrote author-historian William Dalrymple in a piece about the book in The Guardian. “What was important, Goswamy made clear, was not where a particular painting was produced, or who paid the bills, but which artist, or family of artists, was holding the brush. Court styles could vary hugely, depending on who was at work; but families had recognisable techniques and stylistic idiosyncrasies.”

‘Elephants, Wild And Tame, In A Landscape’, gouache on paper, c.1735-40, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Acc. No. 17.2626, Collection Ross- Coomaraswamy, From the book, ‘Nainsukh Of Guler’ by B.N. Goswamy, Indian reprint by Niyogi Books in 2011. Goswamy travelled far and wide to put together a portrait of Nainsukh, one of the most original and prolific of Pahari painters.

Around this time, Goswamy’s approach to artist lineages was celebrated in museums across the world. Masters Of Indian Painting 1100-1900 was published in 2011 to accompany the path-breaking exhibition, Wonder Of The Age: Master Painters Of India, 1100-1900, first held at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2011, followed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2011-12. It was produced under the direction of Fischer, Goswamy and Milo Beach, former director of the Freer & Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC.

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According to Naman Ahuja, a Delhi-based art historian and curator, Goswamy’s greatest contribution was to give, in what is called in academic parlance, agency to the artists. “Instead of making them part of a school or system, he said that these were thinking people, who elected to invest certain ideas in their artwork. They made choices, and now it is contingent on us, the readers of art, to be able to spot those qualities and expressions. And thus, Professor Goswamy ended up doing something very political. He made us think of artists—who today might be considered socially low-caste, non-brahmanical—and their pedagogy, production methods, and more, and created a subaltern history without calling it any of those fancy words,” he says.

Besides demystifying art history, Goswamy’s other great role was that of an art educator and administrator. This, perhaps, stemmed from his short stint as an IAS officer—a job he resigned from in 1958 to work on a PhD in history. He carried his administrative skills to art education when he started the department of fine arts at Panjab University, Chandigarh. His close association with artist Ghulammohammed Sheikh led him to shape the pedagogy for the department of art history at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, Gujarat.

This was the first book that concerned itself with an individual miniature painter from the past

This was the first book that concerned itself with an individual miniature painter from the past

Many young art historians and artists consider Goswamy a mentor. Ahuja was never a formal student, yet Goswamy was always ready with his guidance. He is full of admiration for the social and political dimensions that Goswamy touched upon in art history. “And he didn’t wear it in the way that a lot of modern historians do.”

Dalrymple, over a phone call, reflects on the books Goswamy wrote and the great exhibition in Zurich. “It was probably the greatest show on Indian painting ever mounted,” he says. He too counts Goswamy as his mentor, “in the sense that his work led me to Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting For The East India Company”, he says. The show, held in London in 2019, focused on the work made by Indian artists on commission by officials of the East India Company in the 18th-19th centuries. “In Masters Of Indian Painting, BNG (as Goswamy was fondly known) only touched upon company paintings. I took this on as a project, in a way, to complete his work,” he says. The exhibition and catalogue had sections organised as biographies of the different artists who worked for the Company: Sheikh Zain ud-Din of Patna, Bhawani Das of Calcutta, Ghulam Ali Khan of Delhi, Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah, Yellapah of Vellore. It tried to take the Masters Of Indian Painting model forward into the East India Company era. I totally owe my career as an Indian art historian to his generosity, way of seeing and writing about art,” he adds.

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A similar sentiment is echoed by artist Orijit Sen, who first met Goswamy in 2008 while working on the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab. Goswamy was a consultant on the project, and open to sharing his knowledge with Sen and his team. “As a result of his efforts, and that of Professor J.S. Grewal, a remarkable historian who passed away a few years ago, the museum acquired a certain look and approach,” says Sen.

As Goswamy shared anecdotes about artists like Nainsukh, and showed paintings, Sen and his team were able to see markers of individual artists, with their own preoccupations. A lot of the scenes Sen created at the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum were inspired by the miniatures Goswamy showed. “He had a very large collection of slides. The miniature art in the public domain is only a small fraction of the total. Some of it is in private collections and has never been shown; many masterpieces are lost,” says Sen. “But because Professor Goswamy was on the board of various museums across the world, and because he was a close associate of various collectors, he was able to rigorously document every example of miniature art that he came across, whether in public domain or not.”

Sensing the team’s interest in narrative imagery, Goswamy would interpret the images in the way the eye moved over them. He would point out how the painters used elements to evoke a sense of time passing. “For example, there is a classic scene of Radha waiting for Krishna. We see Krishna in several positions in the same image. While Radha is static on the terrace, Krishna is constantly moving in the background—through the forest, the garden and then at the door of the house. I learnt a lot about building narrative imagery from such conversations with Professor Goswamy,” he explains.

In 2015, Goswamy’s The Spirit Of Indian Painting was published by Allen Lane India. It continues to be hailed as a masterpiece and 'one of the greatest books on Indian art'.

In 2015, Goswamy’s The Spirit Of Indian Painting was published by Allen Lane India. It continues to be hailed as a masterpiece and ‘one of the greatest books on Indian art’.

Normally, when we think of a visual narration of a story, a cinema or a graphic novel, the framing of an image comes to mind. “But following conversations with Professor Goswamy, I began to understand that there is a way to build a visual narrative without framing. He would point out elements, which one might have missed or assumed existed only to provide decorative relief. He would show that none of the elements were superfluous. They were there to make a point, create a pause or to direct the eye from one thing to another,” says Sen. “You needed someone like him to show us that.”

For Dalrymple, it was the greatest privilege to see Professor Goswamy on stage. “People think of BNG as very much the scholar, writer, teacher—he was all of that—but he had a particular gift, and that was as a communicator of art,” he says. While Goswamy could read takri inscriptions and work out the genealogies of artists, he was equally at ease standing on stage and speaking to a gathering. “Often, the gathering would include people who had no interest in art, or young students, who would rather have attended sessions on maths and science,” he says. But he could transform even an audience like that.

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There would be silence as he talked and recited Urdu and Persian poetry. “He created around those paintings a sort of reverence, an excitement. Every year, I would invite him to the Jaipur Literature Festival and he would be the star. He was always so well turned out, with his clipped moustache and cravat, and people listened to him transfixed. He had real magnetism,” says Dalrymple.

Goswamy’s last book—a most unusual one at that—titled The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry And Proverbs, published by Aleph Book Company, was a culmination of his varied experiences: a conversation with the Sanskrit scholar C. Sivaramamurti, then director of the National Museum in Delhi, about marjara-nyaya, a concept in Vaishnava bhakti when a devotee approaches God in absolute surrender, much like the kitten who passively submits to its mother as it is picked up by the scruff of its neck; of memories of Katja, a stray that was taken in by his son, Apu, as a child; and of being admonished by his friend in Zurich, Ursula Dohrn, “You are an art historian, Brijender, are you not?…Then, you should love cats: all art historians do.”

What stayed constant with The Indian Cat, as with his books, was the rigour of research. It’s really quite a feat that he managed to illustrate all the varied ways in which cats were represented in art, literature, speech and cultures. Besides a selection of paintings, the book features poetry by Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Ghalib and Vikram Seth, and a set of delightful idioms and proverbs. In this last conversation with Goswamy, we discussed many things, from the importance of the figure of the painter in his work and gaps in the scholarship on miniature painting, to his favourite poem on cats by a poet called S. Ganapathi, “A cat is not a cat/ a cat is a fallen piece of cloud/ rolled up in wakeful sleep./ A mixed metaphor descending the stairs with a questioning tail.”

‘Princess Watching A Maid Killing A Snake’, by Mir Kalan Khan, Lucknow c.1770, (collection: British Library; Johnson Album 15, no 8).  From the book, ‘The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry And Proverbs’ by B.N. Goswamy, published by Aleph Book Company. The publication highlights the varied interests Goswamy had and presents a meticulously researched selection of paintings, poems and stories on cats in our society.

‘Princess Watching A Maid Killing A Snake’, by Mir Kalan Khan, Lucknow c.1770, (collection: British Library; Johnson Album 15, no 8). From the book, ‘The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry And Proverbs’ by B.N. Goswamy, published by Aleph Book Company. The publication highlights the varied interests Goswamy had and presents a meticulously researched selection of paintings, poems and stories on cats in our society.

Edited excerpts from the interview that will always be memorable for Goswamy’s depth of scholarship, which he wore lightly, and his subtle flourishes of humour, which put everyone at ease:

You have mentioned in the book that cats have never been a mainstay in your life but have always lurked in the background. Then how did this book begin to take form?

The book took root in my subconscious about 20 years ago. However, the idea began to fructify only two years ago…. It was C. Sivaramamurti, a great Sanskrit scholar and mentor, who got me thinking when he mentioned something like the marjara-nyaya and marjara-vrata (marjara being the Sanskrit word for cat). I was very fond and respectful of him. He was the director of the National Museum and I was a youngster at the time. I took everything he said seriously. Those philosophical underpinnings from the great mentor stayed with me. And two years ago, when I started exploring the idea of the cat in Indian thought, his words came back to me. These things don’t happen according to a plan. Sometimes it is circumstance, other times happenstance, and often it is just a piece of luck.

I was reading an earlier interview in which you said that even though you had dealt with Indian paintings for a major part of your life, when you closed your eyes, you could not recall seeing cats in any of the works. How did you end up finding this treasure of paintings featuring the cat?

Like for all books, one taps different sources: friends, museums, sales catalogues. You will be surprised at how lucky one gets while looking at these sources. For instance, my long-time friend, Francesca Galloway (one of the foremost gallerists in the UK dealing in Indian paintings and courtly arts), was of huge help. Her assistant was a cat lover. When I asked her about cats in paintings, she sent me an image. Her assistant got to know, started looking around on her own, and located one painting in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. I would never have dreamt of it. One sometimes gets lucky but you also have to work hard. The selection of 58 paintings in the book is just a sample. There must be many more lurking around. The ones published represent a range of styles, from Mughal and Rajput to Pahari, Deccani and Konkani.

It is not just the art but the stories from across cultures that are revelatory—from the ones in the Jataka Tales and Persian translations of the Panchatantra to a folk tale from Madhya Pradesh….

Do I like cats? No, but I see them around and have no animosity towards them…. I wanted to explore how we really view cats. The idea of the cat is important to me—it is always in the periphery of our vision. Sometimes it upsets some domestic chore or object. And yet, billi is a mausi or a pishi. “Billi mausi aayegi’ are pet words across households. So, we are open to the idea of the cat. If you go to the last section—the wittier part of the book—you will see that I give the cat the right to speak. She has been vilified and wants to clarify. I wanted the cat to have a say. With this book, I have had fun, difficulties, a doubt here and there, but I have also got my doubts clarified. The book has philosophy—from the Jatakas, in which the cats come off very badly, and the Persian translations of the Panchatantra, in which they emerge smelling of roses. I must say, I have felt a great sense of satisfaction now that the book is done and published.

 ‘David And Bathsheba’, Mughal, later eighteenth century, collection: Franz-Josef and Brigit Vollmer (Gundelfingen, Germany). From the book, ‘The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry And Proverbs’ by B.N. Goswamy, published by Aleph Book Company.

‘David And Bathsheba’, Mughal, later eighteenth century, collection: Franz-Josef and Brigit Vollmer (Gundelfingen, Germany). From the book, ‘The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry And Proverbs’ by B.N. Goswamy, published by Aleph Book Company.

If one were to reflect on the past a little, how did the shift from civil services to art history happen?

I used to be in the Indian Administrative Service but didn’t stay for too long. I got a bit tired of it, resigned in 1958 and started to work on a PhD. I was a student of history, as there wasn’t a dedicated art history department in our country at that time. I wanted to focus on the social aspects of history rather than the economic or the political. I had once read an introduction to Kangra painting (by M.S. Randhawa, a senior Punjabi civil servant) and decided to work on the social background of the same. What kind of society threw up art like that? What were the relationships between class, caste, patron and painter? Art was in the background to it all. Then, when I went abroad to teach, I decided to focus on art history. Slowly what was in the background came to the forefront. And here I am. I have not attended a single class in art history. I am completely self-taught—which comes with its advantages and disadvantages—but I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have done so far.

What is the role of the art historian in helping a viewer read a painting?

Visually, we are illiterate; in words, we are not. We see remarkably little. And that’s where the eye of the art historian comes in—they need to point out that “look at this and that”. I don’t know if you are familiar with Urdu poetry but the great poet Mirza Ghalib once wrote, “Sad jalwa ru-ba-ru hai, jo mizgaan uthaiye, taakat kahaan ki deed ka ehsaan uthaiye.” This essentially means that there are a thousand sights to see, if only you were to lift your pupil a little. All you need to have is the eye to see and penetrate. We don’t let the not so obvious around us breathe—we let it escape us. It is the task of the art historian to bring the reader or the viewer in close context with what he is looking at.

In the past, paintings had been viewed through the lens of the patron or the tradition. But through your pioneering scholarship, you shone the spotlight on the painter. You have often talked about feeling akin to a sleuth, piecing information together, to bring figures such as Manaku and Nainsukh to life. If you could talk about this journey…

When I wrote the book, Nainsukh Of Guler, it was the first such book on an individual Indian painter from the past…. The patron and the location is important but the creativity comes from the painter. He is the one who has gotten into the soul of an object, a scene, an episode or a book. That is the point of view to look at a work from. A patron can do only so much. A painter is like a kavi—the word doesn’t just mean a poet but a philosopher as well. When I wrote my first treatise in 1968—you must be wondering how old I am… I am 100 years old—I titled it Pahari Painting: The Family As The Basis Of Style. It is not the state, riyasat, nawabdom where art flourishes. It flourishes in the mind of the painter, who happens to live in that area and takes advantage of patronage, but does his own thing essentially. So, I am all for the painter. I am Nainsukh.

Portrait of Manaku of Guler, National Museum, Delhi. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Manaku of Guler, National Museum, Delhi. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Are there gaps in the scholarship around Indian miniature painting that need to be addressed?

I think the era of Sultanate painting, which is older than the era of the Mughals…. A great deal of art flourished in that period, some of which has been noticed. But it needs to be explored far more deeply than has been done so far.

Is this something you will be writing about?

I am taking a long sabbatical. Currently, I am working on a Ramayana from the Mysuru area, and will be happy if it comes out while I am still around.

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