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B.N. Goswamy: Master who picked up whispers from the past

As in his scholarship, so in his life, BNG remained a man of principles. His aesthetic approach was rooted in a commitment to honesty and openness.

Published : Dec 03, 2023 11:15 IST - 13 MINS READ

Hyperbole and a string of breathless and romanticised effusions of poetic analogies are entirely normal when one talks of B. N. Goswamy (BNG).

Hyperbole and a string of breathless and romanticised effusions of poetic analogies are entirely normal when one talks of B. N. Goswamy (BNG). | Photo Credit: Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi CLKA

Over two decades ago, a major exhibition of young artists at the Brooklyn Academy of Art in New York almost shut down within days of its opening due to a public uproar and fury over its cheeky, provocative, and irreverent content—particularly its “scatological and ungodly and un-aesthetic” exhibits. The nature of public and critical distaste was almost akin to a second Duchampian moment in modern art history.

Unperturbed, a revered philosopher and art critic, the late Arthur C. Danto, went to see the exhibition with his eight-year-old nephew. Face-to-face with the “offending” exhibits that the moralists, purists, and self-appointed censors were frothing over, the little boy stood wide-eyed and mesmerised, delightedly exclaiming “Gee” or “Wow”. The works spoke to him. A few days later, Danto’s review of the exhibition, for the prestigious The Nation magazine, began with a detailed description of the boy’s responses and posed a question to the larger art viewership—Why have you lost your own childhood sense of wonder? The influential critic’s voice turned the tide of adverse criticism, and the exhibition went on to be a landmark.

One is reminded of this story as one contemplates Prof. Brijender Nath Goswamy (BNG), among our foremost art historians, who passed away in Chandigarh on November 17, aged 90, and who too—for some five decades—taught his students and audiences to observe paintings with this intense sense of wonder and treat works of art as invitations to shed one’s own limited subjectivities.

The universe of the Indian miniature paintings, he used to say, is a universe of divine beings and magical events, in which time and space are no longer normal. One needs to look “into” the painting not “at” it as if it were some object. The rich world of miniatures, he contended, was not merely surface but something with a deep inner life. This is not unreal or fanciful, but a world of imagination and eternity.

We have to tread softly and enter this world with care. Just as BNG himself tripped on the “light fantastic toe” when he trod through the enchanting landscapes of lush flora and fauna, of animals and humans, of undulating promontories and arching architecture, of amorous lovers and princely warriors, of gods and demi-gods, of forests ablaze and waters aswirl, of acute ascetics and ecstatic bards, of snakes that cling like anklets around the abhisarika’s feet and trees that shed flowers in the shape of a ubiquitous—yet intangible—flute-player, inspiring uninhibited adoration in festive maids and moist-eyed cows. And, once in a way, as his most recent book The Indian Cat (2023) notes with a twinkle in the eye, intruding into this world of elephants, tigers, horses and parrots there is also a seemingly disinterested furry feline stretching in the corner.

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It is the universe of Indian narrative paintings from the 16th to the 19th century into which you cannot simply barge in but—as Ananda Coomaraswamy taught us—need to approach like a seeker, endowed with the “transforming eyes of love”.

A worthy acolyte of that early 20th century polymath, BNG not only stepped within the Rajput and Pahari and Mughal miniatures without causing a ripple, but waded slow and deep, pushing its frontiers outwards until, in no time, the miniature expanded before our eyes—like Alice on mushrooms—and opened the limitless expanse of our imagination. The paintings swelled in size and content under BNG’s forensic inquest into their terrain, offering us the limitless pleasure of repeated discovery, even as the dapper Professor with his silk cravat and the larzaan (quiver) in his erudite voice would put on a bemused look, slide a palm over his shiny pate, and innocently ask, “What is the artist trying to tell us here? What does all this mean”? It was an extraordinary, lifelong investment in enlarging the public imaginary.

Here was an academic in possession of a musician’s thahraav—the palpable restraint even while making a sumptuous offering. Like the mythological hansa pakshi (swan) with its legendary neera-ksheera viveka (ability to distinguish milk from water), BNG too was adept at discriminating the essence from the morass. It was particularly illuminating when he summoned his pitara (treasure chest) of knowledge of Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi poetry and applied it with telling effect to unravel, layer by layer, narrative knots in the paintings and thus amplify their resistant dimensions, employing the literary devices of metaphor and metonymy.

BNG has written, “I recall how miniatures of old used to be likened to couplets from a ghazal: terse, precious and filled with resonances”. He was fond of saying that to “read” a painting you have to visually enter that universe through all the parallel allusions and references you possess or assemble with research. And his research was of such astonishing range and investigative rigour that William Dalrymple christened him “the Sherlock Holmes of Indian art history”. Through all this, what was always evident was his Chekhovian humility and sensitivity and openness to fresh knowledge.

Of particular import is the by now legendary story of how BNG tracked down the genealogy of the most distinguished of Pahari miniature painters—Pandit Seu and his gifted sons Manaku and Nainsukh—by making several trips to Haridwar and poring through the bahikhatas(ledgers) maintained by temple priests that contained the histories and family trees of centuries of pilgrims who came to seek salvation in the holy city. Laboriously piecing together evidence gathered from the handwritten bahisin Takri, Awadhi, and Brajbhasha, BNG made a remarkable structural breakthrough, relevant for all future academic studies of miniatures, that these paintings should not be classified within regional or geographic nomenclatures, like Kangra, Mandi, Basholi or Mankot, but must be examined within the framework of the family ateliers that held and developed and transmitted a particular rendering style or colour palette or figurative nuance.

One of the brilliant fallouts of this perspective was BNG’s iconic book, Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State (1997). More joy was in store when BNG’s great friend and collaborator, the Swiss Indologist Eberhard Fischer, commissioned the always intriguing Amit Dutta to make a film on it. The 2010 film Nainsukh—co-scripted by Dutta, with Fischer and Ayswarya Sankarnarayanan—went on to win awards and has been described as one in which “every shot is an event” as the filmmaker brings to life the mystery and mastery of a miniature artist whose life and approach was reconstructed from the slightest of material excavated and amplified into a full biography by BNG. Appropriately, the 82-minute film is dedicated to him, and one could be forgiven for constantly feeling that the historian is an alter-ego of the painter.

It took BNG another 20 years to bring out an equally enchanting book on Nainsukh’s elder brother. Manaku of Guler: Another Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State (2017) astonished the art world with its assured scholarly sweep and its exquisite attention to the smallest detail. Here was an excursion into art history whose innocent charm left you with an unbearable aesthetic ache.

A natural successor to Coomaraswamy

Hyperbole and a string of breathless and romanticised effusions of poetic analogies are entirely normal when one talks of BNG. For many in the discipline of art history, he was a natural successor to Coomaraswamy, who had, with a slew of scholarly engagements, prised open early Indian temple architecture, the Ajanta-Ellora frescoes, Buddhist iconography, Chola bronzes, stone bas relief sculptures, ancient Sanskrit treatises on dance like Abhinaya Darpana, Indian handicrafts and terracotta, Rajput paintings of the Mughal period and, not least, schools of subcontinental philosophies, all of which made him among the primary interpreters of ancient Indian art to the West.

BNG might not have deep-dived into areas other than miniatures and textiles, but his range of interests was equally kaleidoscopic. From Abanindranath Tagore’s ‘Mother India’ to M.F. Husain’s ‘Saraswati’, from the art of silence in Kutiyattam to the Mohenjo Daro “dancer”, from Okakura’s Book of Tea to Samuel Bourne’s photography, from Islamic calligraphy to illustrated manuscripts from South India—all were worthy of his attention and inquiry. Never polemical, he dealt with the less savoury aspects of art practice and politics with carefully worded put-downs which, coming from him, were the equivalent of a tight slap.

However, among the 700-odd fortnightly columns he wrote over a quarter century in The Tribune newspaper from Chandigarh, there are many with which I could have personal quarrels. It was clear that outside the world of miniatures and manuscripts, his interest was cursory and often a byproduct of his main research. His response to modern Indian art was eclectic. His response to faux “classical” dancers was personalised and gushy. His analysis of the Mohenjo Daro “dancer” or the M.F. Husain “controversy” quite superficial and even ahistorical. But he never showed any hesitation in calling out cultural and religious bigotry or narrow interpretations of history. As in his scholarship, so in his life, BNG remained a man of principles and the core of his aesthetic approach remained a deep commitment to honesty and openness.

The universe of the Indian miniature paintings, BNG used to say, is a universe of divine beings and magical events, in which time and space are no longer normal. 

The universe of the Indian miniature paintings, BNG used to say, is a universe of divine beings and magical events, in which time and space are no longer normal.  | Photo Credit: Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi CLKA

One gets to appreciate BNG better seeing the delight and personal approval with which he recounts a scribal colophon on a manuscript: “Protect me Lord,” the note says, “from oil, from water, from fire, and from poor binding. And save me from falling into the hands of a fool.” He might as well have been saying this for himself.

Having had the privilege of many close encounters with BNG (he was always ‘Brij’ to me and I ‘Sada’ to him) over three and a half decades, I had a certain familiarity with his public method. For example, during a lecture, he loved pausing at some sort of visual or cognitive conundrum in a painting and exclaiming, “We do not know anything about what is implied here. I’d be grateful for any thoughts or clues you might be able to provide.” This was just a strategy. He knew precisely what it was and was merely teasing you. You had to be naïve to fall for that gambit, as I did on a couple of occasions.

In the late 1990s, at a seminar anchored by Brij on Pichhwais, at the Sarabhai Foundation in Ahmedabad, he pointed to a series of the painted textiles that are used as hangings behind the icon of Shrinathji at Nathdwara, which depicted the deity Krishna with head facing front, but feet splayed backwards or sideward. Then came the innocent question, “What might the painter be trying to convey here”? Oblivious of the trap being set, I shot off that it was perhaps the depiction of a dancing Krishna pirouetting at rapid speed and producing the optical illusion of face forward and feet backwards. Some participants applauded and others grunted in assent. After a dramatic pause, Brij said, “There are people who have not carried out an iota of research and think they can offer explanations without any humility or self-doubt. Inevitably their conclusions will be way off the mark”. It was a rap on the knuckle that still hurts.

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There were many other symposiums and conferences in which we were together, and they always offered up lasting pleasure. Much to his delight, my team at The Economic Times, when I was its Arts Editor, carried full-page features of his book Indian Costumes in The Collection of the Calico Museum of Textiles. We had just started a weekly page on “design” and his work fitted right into it. He always described the collections in that museum as well as its structure and methods of display as being “imbued with an Indian sense of design”.

This Indian sense of design was something that interested him deeply, and he tried to develop the idea in several recorded conversations he had with his friend and colleague, the artist-designer Dashrath Patel. BNG kept probing him to “define an Indian way of seeing and how it is different from other ways of seeing”. And he seemed to concur with Dashrath’s design theory of the Indian painter/sculptor having a specific ability to animate the negative space in a field, thus highlighting an object or figure. Also, the very particular sense of Indian colour that is closely linked to the varying quality of light and luminescence in the Indian landscape.

The period I got to know BNG from close was when we worked together on the Apex Advisory Committee of the National Museum from 2010 to 2015. He was the Chair of the small five-member committee, and it was in its meetings, in the company of trusted confreres, that BNG felt free to open up.

One got to see that he had three main preoccupations—to address the rampant visual illiteracy about Indian art; to remedy the existing academic inadequacies in the discipline of art history; and to combat what he thought was unforgivable institutional idiocy. The raison d’etre for accepting to be on the committee was the last one. He bristled at the manner in which the National Museum, along with scores of others across the country, had been run aground. There was a fire-fighting urgency in the way he expected the rest of us in the committee to deliver solutions even as we came face-to-face with the rocky façade of Indian bureaucracy. At the end of each meeting, he would with characteristic gesture run a hand over his head and say in his rich and measured voice, “Well, we tried didn’t we”?

After almost a decade of vacuum at the top, the National Museum Advisory Committee managed to find and appoint, in 2013, a competent Director General, who rapidly brought about much needed changes. But soon the government itself changed. A crisis built up in May 2015, when the DG, a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Culture, was arbitrarily shifted to the Sports Ministry. A highly distraught BNG, on behalf of the committee, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi questioning this unwarranted move by the government. The National Museum, BNG wrote, “was just coming out of a long winter of neglect” and requested PM Modi to reverse the decision. Concluding on a note of caution, he said, “Culture, as we all know, is a delicate flower and needs to be handled with care and sensitivity”.

Unfortunately, not only did the government take no action then, but they are now in the process of dismantling the National Museum itself. BNG’s lament in an email shared with us in 2015 remains poignant: “In the present scenario we might as well abandon any hopes that we might have entertained”.

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Another potentially exciting project we were in together in 2013 and which we tried hard to get off the ground was the planning and execution of Le Corbusier’s unbuilt Museum of Knowledge at the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh, a project conceived by the maestro in the mid-1950s, and which had remained in limbo for almost 60 years. Here too, despite several engaged meetings of the Expert Committee over tea and cashew nuts, the administrators proved a harder nut to crack. A decade later, the project still remains in suspended animation. As the saying goes, it’s difficult to sew a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

However, my profit in all this was the opportunity of long and memorable conversations with a poet masquerading as a scholar who “picked up whispers from the past” and saw his own function—as an intermediary in the reception of art—being to enable a childlike stirring in the viewer’s heart, nudging her to recognise with wonder the rainbow of rasa revealing itself from within a shadowy cave of visual experience.

The rainbow might have just faded.

Sadanand Menon is a Chennai-based writer.

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