With a fascinating gallery of images, quotes from texts, and poems and proverbs, this charming book is a cat lover’s dream.
B.N. Goswamy was an art historian who wore his learning lightly. In his conversations, he would joke about artworks, pointing out funny stories about them, in a way that spoke of his deep love for art. This is apparent in The Indian Cat, which turned out to be his last book. That an esteemed art historian would choose to write about this household pet is itself amazing: the surprise is doubled when one goes through the book, which is as charming as it is enlightening.
The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry and Proverbs
Aleph Book Company
Goswamy’s voice is playful throughout—right from the introduction (”Strictly speaking, I am not a cat lover,” he begins) to the stories he compiles and, most evidently, in his commentary on the paintings with cats in them. In the last section, he becomes a cat, speaking in her voice, saying solemnly: “I am tired of not being trusted. I have not given up hunting or eating mice, I should state, but I do not pretend any more. I am what I am. Be Thyself (or Myself), is what I believe in.” This precious book makes Goswamy’s loss seem more unbearable. I can think of no Indian art critic who would honour the humble feline this way.
Goswamy’s book compiles almost every reference to the cat in ancient Indian literature, sayings, and paintings. Even so, the book is quite slim, a little over 200 pages—which perhaps says something about the reluctance of Indian art and literature, unlike their Western counterparts, to sing paeans to the cat. But if there is a follow-up to the book, say, 20 years from now, that volume will be a brick and will probably have a chapter on the cats of social media that alone could run to 200 pages.
Staunch devotees of the cat will be outraged to learn from Goswamy’s book that the feline is not always the subject of unstinting praise in ancient literature. In tales from the Jataka and Panchatantra and in the Mahabharata, the cat is a symbol of deceit, as summed up by the proverb bilari vrata (literally, “cat’s vow”), a byword for hypocrisy. The proverb survives to this day in its Hindi variation, bheegi billi, or “drenched, sorry-looking cat” (I am sure it has its counterparts in other regional languages), which has the same connotation.
Goswamy elucidates: “A man who always displays the banner of righteousness and yet is greedy and deceitful, who deludes the world, who is given to violence, and beguiles everybody should be viewed as one who observes the ‘cat vow’ is how it is defined: a charge incidentally which, in the Mahabharata, Duryodhana lays on the far more upright Yudhishthira.” He follows this up with extensive quotes from relevant texts, where the cat is shown as pretending to be something it is not.
More interesting than the tales from “mainstream” texts like the Panchatantra are the folk narratives, which speak of simple joys and where, interestingly, the cat gets a positive character certificate. For instance, in a Warli tale from Maharashtra, a domestic cat teams up with a dog to reverse the misfortunes of the kindly couple who owns them. It features a jolly wedding of rats, who celebrate the newfound prosperity of the household by getting married, and frogs who make merry with the arrival of the monsoon.
In Islamic tales, the cat is treated like royalty, chiefly because the Prophet was fond of cats and owned one called Muezza. One of the Prophet’s chief companions was Abu Huraira, a nickname which means “father of kittens”—he too had a cat. Buddhists also had an indulgent attitude towards cats in spite of the Jataka Tales, where the cat is shown as opportunistic.
One of the joys of the tales quoted by Goswamy is that they expand in the mind, attaching themselves to things heard or seen in real life. For instance, on reading the story where Tenali Raman teaches King Krishnadeva Raya a lesson through the example of cats who would make the effort of hunting mice only if milk, which is the more easily available option, was not available, I recalled what the vet told me recently: adult cats are lactose intolerant and should be kept away from milk. All the adult cats in my experience routinely refuse milk. If Tenali’s story gets a modern retelling, perhaps milk for cats would have to be replaced with wet Whiskas (tuna flavour).
“That an esteemed art historian would choose to write about this household pet is itself amazing: the surprise is doubled when one goes through the book, which is as charming as it is enlightening.”
The best parts of the book are of course the pictures and the accompanying commentary. Goswamy collates a breathtaking gallery of paintings from various schools—Persian, Mughal, Rajasthani, Pahari, Company, Kalighat, modern—with cats in each one of them. Taken together, they tell a story more fluid than what is contained in the text, for one can interpret them in any number of ways. Here we see cats in the zenana, lolling around with lovely ladies; in deep thought alongside saints; in the Ayodhya palace or Ashoka Vatika, playing witness to the proceedings; as the vahana (vehicle) of the goddess of children and childbirth, Shashthi; as the accessory of voluptuous courtesans in the Kalighat pata paintings.
It is fascinating that Goswamy managed to painstakingly bring together all these images from across centuries with cats in them; a casual observer would have missed the feline in the corner had Goswamy not pointed it out. The stories he weaves around them are as compelling. The production quality of the paintings is also top-notch, adding to the pleasure.
After the paintings come the poems, many of them translated from Urdu by Goswamy. Cat lovers will be delighted to learn that Ghalib belonged to their tribe, as does Vikram Seth, whose dancing cat (in the poem, “The cat and the cock”) seems to be a cousin to Eliot’s Jellicle Cats, who pirouette by the light of the Jellicle Moon.
In the poem “Mohini, the cat” (translated by Goswamy), Mir Taqi Mir summarises the story of most catstruck people, whose love story begins when they discover one fine day that a cat has adopted them, changing their lives forever:
There was once a cat that bore the name Mohini—
‘Enchantress’—you might say.
How do I know her? She just strayed into our house one day
And, simply, decided to stay.
The last section has cats explaining idioms and proverbs involving them in their own voice: the flip in perspective results in delightful observations that put presumptuous humans in their place.
I can go on and on about the book, but will stop here. I leave you with an extract from one of the opening chapters where Goswamy talks of the depiction of cats in Indian paintings:
“A possible source to which one can turn for getting the ‘Indian view’ of cats is—apart from texts of course—paintings. Interestingly—oddly perhaps—one does not even think, ordinarily, of cats as a subject for painters in India, very unlike the Western world where, the Renaissance onwards, one can be smothered by material: young girls playing with or having themselves portrayed hugging cats; cats roaming around in plush interiors, unconcerned; witnessing the alltag of life with curiosity; providing company to seniors; hiding, getting up on rooftops, climbing up and climbing down stairs, clambering onto shoulders. But, with effort, one can put together at least a small gallery of works in which they are there, virtually unnoticed but there. Very rarely do we see them ‘in profound meditation’ here, or ‘engaged in rapt attention’ as T.S. Eliot often thought he saw them. But they are seen, from time to time, in ‘illustrations’ of stories woven around their character, or in paintings in which they figure: planning, strategising, pretending, thieving; or, at other times, keeping watch, nestling against soft bosoms, reading their masters’ expressions.
Of great interest in this context, and not easily explicable, is the fact that we see them often in copies of European paintings, especially of Biblical themes, that Mughal masters made in numbers. The original of which a copy, or version, was made might not have even a trace of a cat and yet, when that copy, or version, was made, a cat comes in: soft-footedly sometimes, brashly at others. The Madonna might be feeding the child Christ at her breast and a cat would be looking; David and Bathsheba might be having a conversation under a tree, and a cat could be seen brushing one person’s leg or another’s; preparations might be in the process of being made for taking the infant Jesus on the fortieth day to the temple at Jerusalem, and a cat might come in, becoming with perfect ease a part of the group; and so on.
This leaves one a trifle puzzled for if the painters were really interested in cats per se, why would they not paint them as subjects proper, much as a deer or a sheep, a hawk or a zebra were? At the same time if cats were not ordinarily parts of royal households for which the painters often worked, where might they have seen and studied them? It has been suggested that while copying, or producing a version, of a painting with a Biblical theme, they might have thought of changing things a bit, even ‘stating’ that cats roaming around exalted figures would make those scenes look more natural, as if what was happening was not up in the heavens somewhere but it happened here, around ourselves. Where—another question—might the painters have had the chance to observe domestic cats? Around priests in Christian monasteries—in Agra or Lahore or Goa—to which they might have secured access through their royal patrons for going and seeing original European works? It is hard to know.
“In more recent times, there is some turning to cats for ‘portraying’ them. The painters of Kalighat—ever keen on capturing scenes from ordinary life—apparently found them rich material: very often rendering them as having stolen a fish or a prawn and then shown sitting boldly, wearing a sacred tilak mark on their forehead, in a veiled reference to holy men wearing pretence as a garment. Many others followed, of course.”