He signed his emails “Brij”. I was too much in awe of him to address him as anything but “Dr Goswamy”. When he died, I sat down and read his emails again. He wrote as warmly and elegantly as he spoke; and he spoke as lucidly as he thought. Reading his emails was a way to feel his presence before accepting the fact of his going.
Dr Brijinder Nath Goswamy, art historian, world authority on miniature paintings, eminent teacher, scintillating orator and author of 27 books passed away on November 17. He had completed 90 years in August and published his 27th book, The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, Proverbs, in October. When he called to say he was sending me a copy, he sounded tired. “How are you feeling,” I asked, concerned. “Not well,” he said. “Not well at all.”
He had clearly not been well even when he gave what was to be his last illustrated talk in Mumbai on August 30, 2022. His subject was Radha: Companion; Beloved; Aradhya. Although it was, as always, an illuminating talk, his voice had lost its resonance, his posture its quiet assurance, his articulation its precision. The audience gave him a standing ovation. But all was not well. He called next day to say he had felt disoriented. These, however, are not thoughts I want to dwell on. They are matters of the body. A lung infection, hospitalisation, and his body gave up. But the spirit. That remains alive for those of us who were fortunate enough to hear him speak, and for others, within the covers of his books.
His talks were a thing of delight. Stimulating, yes. Scholarly, yes. But also finely honed performances in which the subtle modulations of his mellifluous voice, his significant pauses, minimal gestures, and unforced humour, aided by his debonair looks, played their part. His erudition sat lightly on his shoulders. He was never the scholar who knew it all. He was a rasika like us, reading his most captivating, his most intriguing miniature paintings for us, to discover and reveal their hidden meanings.
“Miniatures are not to be seen from a distance,” he said. “They are to be held in the palms of the hands and studied with close attention.” It followed that only he, who had held and studied them in this manner and who knew the language of their symbols and signs, their contexts and histories, could read and understand what they said. But he always allowed us to take a long look at the projected paintings first, before drawing our attention to detail.
Take for example the miniature in which the dim shapes of trees articulated the space of a dark landscape, forming the background to the luminous presence of Radha and Krishna in the foreground. The lovers stood close together, lost in each other. “Look at the trees in the background,” Dr Goswamy said. “Notice that each of their trunks is split into two diverging branches. Now look at the two trees in the foreground, directly behind Radha and Krishna. What do you see? The trunks are not split. Not only are they whole, but they are entwined gracefully together like the divine lovers themselves. Even their colouring matches the lovers. One tree is dark like Krishna, the other light, like the golden-skinned Radha. That is how the mind and imagination of a painter works.”
Sometimes, when the full meaning of a painting was not revealed in the painting itself, Dr Goswamy brought his prodigious knowledge of languages to bear on it. His path to the study of Indian miniature painting had lain through Persian miniatures which later influenced Mughal, Pahadi, and other schools of art in India. He had studied Persian, Urdu, and Sanskrit to help him plumb their depths, paying special attention to poetry, with which miniature paintings had a symbiotic relationship.
He once showed us a painting depicting a mushaira. “Here on the left is the poet,” he said. “Next to him is the rasika. On the other side are the musicians. The rasika has thrown up his arms in a gesture of ecstasy. What could have made him so ecstatic?” Curious, Dr Goswamy had peered behind the painting for a clue and found there, a verse in Persian. “I shall recite the poem to you in full,’ he said, “since I assume all of you know Persian.” His face was deadpan. He paused a split second for a reaction. None came. His little bit of mischief had been too subtle to be noticed.
Dr Goswamy recited the poem entirely from memory, never faltering once. He caressed every word to coax out of it the full measure of its resonance. The soft musicality of Persian filled the air. After the last notes of the poem had faded, he explained what it said. “The poet’s wife gave him a cake of clay to cleanse himself at the hamam. He sniffed at the cake and found it had the most wondrous fragrance. What is it? Where does it come from, he wondered. The cake of clay, in its kindness, answered, ‘In myself, I am nothing. But I do recall that I come from the same soil in which some roses grew. It is the company I kept that has made me what I am. Else, what am I? A fistful of dust.’”
It is not only miniatures and illuminated manuscripts that Dr Goswamy introduced us to. Turn to Conversations and you realise how much else absorbed him. A short list of his abiding interests would include textiles, photography, architecture, old documents, cartography, the history of paper, the underbelly of the art market, old book covers, dreams and omens, private and public collections of art, Europeans in India, carpets, shawls, jewellery, masks, poets and eminent artists.
Every work of art and craft he wrote about came with its history. In an essay not in the book, responding to a performance of dastangoi he had attended, he took us back centuries to a street in Peshawar called the Qissa Khwani Bazaar, “Street of Storytellers”, where caravans of traders and travellers from all over Asia congregated to conduct business. That done, they would while away the night listening to long tales narrated by the skilled storytellers of the bazaar. It was always so with Dr Goswamy. Whether in his writings or in his talks, nothing dropped from the skies. Everything came with its history. The past was always evoked to illuminate the present.
Today I remember an Urdu poem he recited, associated in his mind with the Mughal miniature he had projected. The painting by Abu’l Hasan was called “Intimations of Mortality”. It was a small painting that depicted a bent old man walking slowly on weak legs, one bare foot before the other, a rosary in his right hand, his eyes fixed on something outside the frame. His white turban, white beard, and white garments made him stand out against the dark green background, so dark that it verged on black. After a long look at the painting, Dr Goswamy said, “Death is approaching. But look at the little flower in the corner at the old man’s feet which we might not notice. Everything else is dark, but that flower blossoms. Why is it there? Is it a symbol of renewal? A promise, a hope of return?” He paused. “Whenever I see this painting, I think inevitably of a poem written by a great poet of the last century, Ali Sardar Jaffri. The poem is called ‘Mera Safar’. It is a long poem, but I will inflict it on you.”
The poem was about death. The poet spoke of how, one day, the lamps of his eyes would dim, the lotuses of his hands would wilt, and the butterflies of his words would fly away from the branch of his tongue. Then people would wonder, where has the man gone? Sardar? Here the poet makes an about-turn. He asserts that he will return to this land, this earth. His eyes will behold new shoots in spring. His feet will crunch on the fallen leaves of winter. He is part of a centuries-old game of death and renewal. Then, in the end, come these lines: “I am a fugitive moment trembling on the lip of the surahi of the past, about to be poured into the goblet of the future. I sleep and wake and sleep again. I die and become immortal.”
Dr Goswamy had lost his wife. Conversations is dedicated to her. He lost his son earlier this year. The Indian Cat is dedicated to him. That day he looked again at the painting of the old man and the flower. “There are things I do not see,” he said. “But this I have seen.” His lips quivered imperceptibly. He paused to collect himself. Then thanked us and walked away.
Shanta Gokhale is a novelist, playwright, translator, cultural critic, and theatre historian. Her many honours include the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for her contribution to the performing arts.