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How B.N. Goswamy energised everyone into the cult of seeing

According to the art historian, seeing was longing and not merely a passive printing of the world on the senses.

Published : Nov 30, 2023 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

“Hiranyagarbha” (the Golden Egg) by Manaku of Guler, circa 1740.

“Hiranyagarbha” (the Golden Egg) by Manaku of Guler, circa 1740. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

There is an 18th century folio from the Bhagavata Purana series by Manaku of Guler, a Pahari painter. Floating in the black primordial waters—drawn like whirlpools of concentric amoebae, with white spaces between the black lines—is the glistening golden egg, the Hiranyagarbha. The egg almost leaps off the surface, like a projection, so carefully wrought are its edges, giving the impression of the egg’s shadow falling on the surface.

The late Professor B.N. Goswamy flashed this image during a lecture at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai titled “The Things We Do Not See” and posed a question. The primordial waters could be visualised in many ways, and Goswamy shows us examples of how different artists conceived and distilled the vision of these thick, fertile waters onto their respective surfaces. Why, then, did Manaku reach out to these concentric lines, floating about this way and that?

In his reply, Goswamy upheld both the humility (the sheer number of times he said “I don’t know”) and the adventurous spirit (the sheer number of speculative, sensuous throws of theory) that must be at the heart of every critical endeavour. To not know what Manaku intended and, yet, to not let that stop you from whisking theories into possibilities.

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Goswamy, looking at these shapes, is reminded of tree trunks being sliced, leaving bare their cross section with concentric rings, rings which remind us of time, of age. Suddenly, with this reading, Goswamy has produced within the painting a poignancy through meaning; look at how time leaks from one shapeless concentric plumpness to another. This he does by forcing us to do the very thing we have taken for granted—seeing.

Goswamy was instrumental in energising an entire patch of us into the cult of seeing, truly, seeing, what the author Amit Chaudhuri notes in his book Finding The Raga, that “through which [the eye] repeatedly steps out”, through which we lunge at the world, with desire, with a drive for possession. Seeing as longing and not as a passive printing of the world on your senses. Goswamy often spoke of the “visual illiteracy”—while conceding the oxymoronic nature of the phrase—that we exercise in our daily lives.

“How to stand in front of a painting and make it alive to the senses, how to turn context into consciousness, meditation into meaning—these are things Goswamy’s practice, his writings, his lectures, have offered pathways to.”

How to stand in front of a painting and make it alive to the senses, how to turn context into consciousness, meditation into meaning—these are things his practice, his writings, his lectures, have offered pathways to.

Part of this question is wondering where to see. It is not just a matter of surfaces to which he would draw our attention: the watermark on a mill-made paper; the “shiny, colourful labels that used to be pasted on cloth bolts” in Bombay textile mills; the “roughness of the skin of the knees” of one of the painted figures; the yellow derived from the urine of cows fed mango leaves; the green-blue “emerald brilliance” of beetle wings used to add glisten to jewellery in paintings; the Jaina artistic conventions of eyes projecting beyond the edge of the face; the way rain falls on a body, curving away before it hits the skin, like an aura; the yellow that Radha wears, the same yellow of Krishna, implying the post-coital nature of the image.

In Zurich, for example, where Goswamy was attending a Koodiyattam performance, he went backstage to note how the performers spend hours making themselves up. Recognising that these long hours are not just for the elaborate make-up but also to give performers a reprieve before they enter “the world of the gods”, Goswamy looks behind the scaffolding of the stage, the surface, to see where else art lurks and leaks.

Audacity to question

The other part is to have the audacity to ask questions of the art, knowing fully well you may fall short of certainty. Goswamy will, for instance, show us miniatures of Akbar, and wonder if Akbar truly sat for these paintings and speculate that he perhaps did not, then infuse the painting with the wonder that is the painter’s impression of the king, his memory of that perfumed presence.

These questions tend to the labour and the intention behind the art. That a manuscript is not the work of a sole soul who put out his artistry without context or cue; that it requires the skilled labours of the warraq (page maker), the jadwalkash (line drawer), the hashiya-kash (margin maker), the katib (scribe or calligrapher), the musavvir (painter), the mudhahhib (illustrator), and the mujallad (binder)—with many paintings being a collaborative creation, some artists painting the faces, some sketching, others applying the colours.

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As Goswamy said in an interview to The Caravan: “Thus, in an Akbar-period painting, the inscription at the bottom of a page might read: tarah-i-Basawan, ’amal-i-Mansur, meaning the drawing in this work was by Basawan and the colouring was Mansur’s work.”

It is this curiosity that propelled Goswamy to dive deep into the traditions, myths, and legacy of Pahari painting, with the artist brothers Manaku and Nainsukh. He foraged among the land settlement records—since many artists were paid in land—kept by priests from Martand and Haridwar to Banaras. Goswamy was looking at a different framework through which to see Pahari art. In Goswamy’s conception, the stylistic differences between sub-schools of Pahari painting—Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Chamba—were not related to patronage (as art historians generally believe) but to the families producing the art; the family and not the royalty was the foundation of style. Goswamy tilted the story, bestowing greater power through greater authorship on the painter.

This chafes against what Ananda K. Coomaraswamy asked: “How can the [traditional] artist’s primary act of imagination be spoken of as ‘free’ if in fact he is working to some formula, specification or iconographic prescription, or even drawing from nature?” Goswamy’s pursuit, then, can be seen as one for the artist’s freedom. Such were Goswamy’s “strategies of seeing”, of being alive to the world, to art. When a critic dies, they take with them their non-fungible, inimitable way of looking at the world, and of capturing it, too. What they leave behind are traces, such as Goswamy’s writings and lectures on Indian art, which then become essential to our education. May that education live on. 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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