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Book Review

Book Review: B.N. Goswamy’s collection of essays revels in soulful conversations on art

Print edition : Jun 09, 2022 T+T-

Book Review: B.N. Goswamy’s collection of essays revels in soulful conversations on art

“Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages with 101 Themes & More” by B.N. Goswamy (Penguin, 2022)

“Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages with 101 Themes & More” by B.N. Goswamy (Penguin, 2022)

B.N. Goswamy’s latest book, a collection of 125 essays selected from his fortnightly column “Art and Soul” in The Tribune, takes one on a voyage of discovery into the world of art history.

B.N. Goswamy is one of those rare one-man universities of art history who can breathe life into even a seemingly inert, obscure and cryptic object. He can make it come alive with a hidden glow and luminosity hitherto unseen. While the gaze is penetrating, the voice is soft, always a feather touch, and words flow on gossamer wings, strung together like the beads of a rosary.

Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages with 101 Themes & More, his latest book, is exactly like that. One opens a leaf not knowing what voyage of discovery the venerable “Dr Sahib”, as he is fondly called, will lead one into. The journey, teasingly serendipitous, is a collection of 125 essays selected from his fortnightly column “Art and Soul” that was published in The Tribune over two decades.

As one who has grown up with the newspaper and never missed a column, I thought that the book would be a bit of deja vu. The surprise is that it turns out to be a uniquely new distilled avatar. I do not know whether this was because it was the act of reconnecting to a classical thought, whose expiry date never exists, or perhaps because the patina of time embellished the essays with a yet richer layer of timelessness.

As a polymath Goswamy connects art to other dimensions of human endeavour, creativity, and genius with ease and felicity. And always with a gentle, unhurried, unlayering of the palimpsests that veil gems hidden beneath in the deep that the ordinary eye misses. Whether it is a work of a Pahari miniature, a Renaissance classic or a Harappan seal, the stamp of his erudition and insights expressed in gentle poetics are mesmerising.

Whether it is a lecture for a discerning university audience, or an intimate round-table discourse, or just perhaps a fireside living room evening chat, his dissemination of knowledge never loses its crystal-clear cadences. His erudition, as the essays reveal, is formidable, yet accessible. In fact, anything and everything connected to the art world—collectors, connoisseurs, curators, cartographers, or museums—fall into his realm of sharing with the curious mind.

How it began

The genesis of the essays occurred in 1995 during a casual conversation Goswamy had one day with Hari Jaisingh, the then editor of The Tribune. Jaisingh told him about the paper’s desire to “expand the constituency of readership in art matters” but that it had nowhere to go. Anything, anything written free of jargon would be of value, he said. So the column was launched, and nearly 600 of them later, and still counting, it is keenly awaited every fortnight.

“The standing title I chose for the column was ‘Art and Soul’, taking two letters out of ‘Heart’ and adding soul....The addition gave me the opportunity to look at things around me and add a comment,” recalls Goswamy. They are, as he himself self-effacingly describes, “slight sketches of large things”. But they are a bit more than that I suspect. While aimed at the reader, they are also soliloquies to himself: ruminations, reflections and questions on the very purpose of art.

The first essay is appropriately a pen portrait of Anand Kentish Coomaraswamy, the unquestioned doyen of Indian art whose inspiring pioneering writings opened it to the world at large and also brought deep scholarship to its understanding. “He wrote like an angel. Who could match in brilliance or his insight?” His essay “The Dance of Shiva” and the disquieting thoughts he raises in the book Why Exhibit Works of Art are classics in the annals of art history.

Among the other greats of Indian art scholars and patrons are Goswamy’s essays on Karl Khandalawala, W.G. Archer, Eberhard Fischer, Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, and Mulk Raj Anand. Besides highlighting their tremendous contribution, Goswamy also spices up the character sketches with tongue-in-cheek tailpieces that reveal their human foibles and intellectual quirks, without any malice of course.

Conversations is replete with journeys to the gracious era of fine arts. In “A Lamp of Wisdom”, we are taken back to pages of A’in-i-Akbari, the magnum opus that Abu’l Fazl wrote for Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. Goswamy quotes from the chapter on the “Art of Writing”: “The spoken word goes to the hearts of such are present to hear it; the letter gives wisdom to those near and far.” Alas, the fine art of calligraphy is becoming extinct in the present digital era. Islamic calligraphy is “a garden of delights” that needs to be explored and cherished.

Closely linked to painting and literature is the invention of paper, the medium for documentation and art. Much before the creation of paper, ancient texts, legal documents, royal decrees, etc., were recorded on palm-leaf ( bhurja-patra) and birch-bark ( tada-patra) in India, and on papyrus, kaghaz, or parchment in the Arab and the Western worlds. Paper as we know it came from the Chinese, but the process to make it remained a secret with them. In India, the spread of paper was fast, and major centres of production came up in Kashmir, Sialkot, and Daultabad (in the Deccan). Zafarabad in Uttar Pradesh produced so much paper that it earned the sobriquet of kaghazshahar.

There is nothing connected to art and its experience that escapes Goswamy. Beyond the Western models of museums and their display configurations, he poses the question, that if it was possible to identify the uniqueness of the Indian sense of design, would it be possible to reflect it in an Indian museum? The closest that one gets to this, he says, is the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The vision of Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, the museum’s founders, to display the richness of Indian textiles in a unique indigenous setting of carved wooden facades and mud plaster imparts a sense of design integrity and provides a uniquely Indian experience.

Talking of museums, their main source for new acquisitions are art dealers. Goswamy has a story about that too. Recalling an earlier time when there was an abundance of Pahari paintings and manuscripts in Punjab, most of the dealers were based in Lahore. Leaving aside regular art dealers such as the Hungarian Imre Schwaiger, there was the famous dealer S. Bahadur Shah, who ran an establishment with the grandiloquent, if misspelt, designation “Dealer in Qurosities”. Many dealers of yore were remarkably ignorant of their collections and some even absolutely illiterate. But they had a sharp eye for the precious. The art connoisseur Karl Khandalavala called one of them, Radha Krishna Bharany of Amritsar, “the prince among art dealers”.

Living tree

Just like most people engaged with the art world, the “Tree of Life” motif intrigues Goswamy too. A symbol that appears in some form or the other in every part of the world, from 15th century Indian bronzes to the Persian carpet to the Mughal painting of the “Speaking Tree”, its roots go deeper in time. It originates from symbolism in the Mayan civilisation representing the axis mundi, the stable centre of the world. In the Egyptian and the Jewish tradition, it attains its own meaning, but its ubiquitousness is all pervading in the human imagination. In fact, in the Indian subcontinent, it resurfaces again as the “The Tree of Life and Knowledge” in a 17th century bronze.

The “Tree of Life” motif on Kalamkari art wall hangings.
The “Tree of Life” motif on Kalamkari art wall hangings. | Photo Credit: T APPALA NAIDU

The most poignant work of art in the book is “The Intimations of Mortality”, which Abu’l Hasan did for Jehangir’s atelier. It is a rendering of “an old bare footed man who leans on his staff and makes his way forward. The body bears the marks of the ravages of time: the bent back ... lean desiccated frame. But the mind like the eyes, is still keen ...,” writes Goswamy. The work is technically brilliant, but the painting goes far beyond that. It conveys a universality of the human condition: the intimations of mortality, yet the commencement of a new beginning. He quotes the great Urdu poet Sardar Ja’fri and his great poem “Mera Safar” to convey the existential conundrum: “the coming of day when the eye will grow dim, the lotuses of the hand will wilt, and all the butterflies of sound … on my tongue shall fly away”.

The passage is an apt one on which to close Conversations for now; yet one will want to go back to it again and again.

Rajnish Wattas is a former principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture and former Vice-Chairman of Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi. He has co-authored Trees of Chandigarh and Sukhna: Sublime Lake of Chandigarh.

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