He could convey profound ideas in prose that approached poetry in its lyricism and simplicity.
Brijinder Nath Goswamy died on November 17 at the age of 90 in Chandigarh, where he had lived and taught for years. He was an international authority on Indian painting, in particular the Pahari painters, who flourished in the foothills of the Himalayas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. He made significant contributions to the study of Mughal and Rajput painting as well.
Yet, to describe Goswamy—fondly addressed as BNG—as only a brilliant art historian or critic would be to ignore his intuitive power and doggedness that was worthy of a Sherlock Holmes. He harnessed this gift to bring to light the names of two Pahari masters, Manaku, and his younger brother, Nainsukh, and their genealogy, which was earlier concealed in a cloak of anonymity. Goswamy thereby effected a paradigm shift in the course of postcolonial study of Indian art. After his discovery, the categorisation of Indian artists began to be increasingly based on familial stylistic traits and idiosyncrasies, similar to the gharanas of music. Previously, the classification of artists tended to be on the basis of geography and the region they worked in.
A researcher with an incredible academic rigour and a keen eye for detail, Goswamy was a rarity among art writers: he could convey his profound ideas in prose that approached poetry in its lyricism and simplicity. He wrote and lectured extensively, guest-curating major exhibitions of Indian art all over the world, most notably the pathbreaking show The Way of the Masters: The Great Artists of India, 1100-1900, in 2011 at the Museum of Rietberg, Zurich, besides shows in New York (at the Metropolitan Museum), Paris, San Francisco, and San Diego. Working as professor emeritus of art history at Panjab University, he was also a visiting professor at the universities of Heidelberg, Pennsylvania, California (Berkeley and Los Angeles), Texas (Austin), and Zurich.
His myriad publications—26 in all—include the essay “Family as the Basis of Style” (1968) followed by the books, Painters at the Sikh Court; Essence of Indian Art; Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India; Domains of Wonder: Selected Masterworks of Indian Painting; Indian Costumes in the Calico Museum of Textiles; Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter From a Small Hill-State; Manaku of Guler: The Life and Work of Another Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State; The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters With 101 Great Works, 1100-1900; The Great Mysore Bhagavata: Complete Study of a Manuscript from the Binney Collection in the San Diego Museum of Art; A Sacred Journey: The Kedara Kalpa Series of Pahari Paintings and the Painter Purkhu of Kangra; Oxford Readings in Indian Art; and Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages with 101 themes, and More. His last publication is The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry & Proverbs (Aleph), “the first time I have strayed”, he said, “from the area of Indian art”. Goswamy was working on the Ramayana at the time of his death.
“He often called himself an “accidental art historian” as it was M.S. Randhawa’s book on Kangra Valley paintings, gifted by his friends when he was quitting the civil services, that impelled him to start his lifelong quest in the field of Indian art.”
His was a physically compelling presence. He was always nattily turned out, often in custom-made suits, with a silk cravat highlighting his personal style. Goswamy’s magisterial erudition, which he wore so lightly, captivated his audience as he brought alive the dry details of art history with sparkling wit and a depth of analysis and insight. The panache with which he recited Urdu, Farsi, Punjabi, and English verse in his rich voice broadened the intellectual quotient of his talks.
He was thus considered the true successor of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. In his first column in The Tribune, Goswamy had written about Coomaraswamy, saying that having grown up as a “true citizen of the two worlds of the West and the East, and started his career as a geologist, [he] remains to this day one of the most impassioned and eloquent interpreters of the art and thought of the East in general, and India in particular”. The praise might well apply to Goswamy as well, whose scholarship won him numerous distinctions, including the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship, Rietberg Award, Rockefeller Grant, Senior Mellon Fellowship, Tagore Fellowship, while national recognition came in the form of the Padma Shri in 1998 and the Padma Bhushan in 2008..
Goswamy was born on August 15, 1933, at Sargodha of the Punjab province (now in Pakistan) of British India, to B.L. Goswamy, a District and Sessions Judge. He began his studies at various schools in the province, and did his intermediate at Hindu College, Amritsar. In 1954, he secured his Master’s degree from Panjab University. He joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1956 but after working in the Bihar cadre for two years, resigned from the service to continue his studies in art. He returned to Panjab University, researching Kangra painting of the lower Himalayas and its social milieu under historian Hari Ram Gupta, to obtain a doctoral degree in 1961.
He often called himself an “accidental art historian” as it was M.S. Randhawa’s book on Kangra Valley paintings, gifted by his friends when he was quitting the civil services, that impelled him to start his lifelong quest in the field of Indian art. Randhawa (1909-1986) was a historian, civil servant, botanist, and author.
“Instead of singing of the past glories of Bharat, he kept reminding readers of the plurality of India’s syncretic culture nurtured by Hindu, Jain, and Islamic traditions.”
In his trailblazing essay titled, “Pahari Painting: Family as the Basis of Style”, which appeared in the September 1968 issue of Marg, Goswamy wrote: “This brief essay aims at doing two things: reconstructing the genealogy of an important family of Pahari artists on the firm ground of inscriptional evidence, and attempting to arrive at the style of this family with reference to this genealogy and the paintings reasonably attributable to one or the other members of this family. This is done with the conviction that studies of Pahari painting may become more meaningful if the styles within it are identified and isolated from each other not exclusively on the basis of geography or region, but with reference to the Kalams or distinctive styles of the known artist-families in the hills of the Punjab. I am of the belief that the classification of styles or idioms by states sometimes attaches exaggerated importance to political barriers which, in fact, were very fluid, and makes assumptions that do not always take into account the full measure of the possibilities of the migrations of artists, for which we now have extensive evidence. Classifications along these lines do not clearly attach any importance to the loyalty of the members of a family to a common mode of expression that hardened to form their style…The possibility of doing what is sought to be done here arises from the collection of a vast amount of material relating to the artist-families of the hills, with which I have occupied myself for a little over three years now. This material I have been able to gather from the rather unusual source of the family records kept by pandas, priests, at centres of Hindu pilgrimage in lndia, and from the settlement records of the Kangra district prepared by the British revenue officers at the time of the first regular settlement of the district in A.D. 1868 and brought up-to-date at subsequent land settlements.”
This ruffled the feathers of Western heavyweights of Indian art studies such as W.G. Archer, who dominated the field. Ironically, Archer had earlier “commended” Goswamy’s doctoral work when he was asked by Panjab University to examine it. Archer was also delighted when Goswamy had deciphered a two-line inscription in Takri, the script of the hills, in a painting of a man listening to music that was housed in the Lahore Museum. Goswamy wrote about this incident in the preface to his exquisite book, Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter From a Small Hill-State (1997): “There they were, things that he [Archer] alone until that period, not I, was struggling with: the name of Nainsukh;…Many years later, sadly, there was to be a serious disagreement between him and me…about how styles needed to be viewed in the Indian context of family workshops.”
In Conversations (2022), Goswamy revealed the dizzying sweep of his interests and encyclopaedic knowledge that went beyond the arts to include poetry, literature, crafts, textiles, marbling of paper, cartography, and the treacherous art market. Rarely did Goswamy comment on contemporary Indian art, with the exception of his book on Sakti Barman. He did not conceal his dislike for M.F. Husain but, at the same time, defended Husain’s right to depict a nude Saraswati, arguing that sensuousness and physicality were not alien to Indian art or verse.
Instead of singing of the past glories of Bharat, he kept reminding readers of the plurality of India’s syncretic culture nurtured by Hindu, Jain and Islamic traditions. Goswamy had no patience for narrow-mindedness, ane he wondered why “our rulers in Delhi” were outraged at the stark nakedness of the Dancing Girl figurine from Mohenjodaro in the possession of the National Museum in Delhi. He sarcastically suggested that “our righteously indignant legislators” can drape her “icon-like, in clothes, leaving only the face and the hands bare, and then displayed.” That was actually done in Goswamy’s lifetime, when the tiny figure was blown up larger than life, smothered in garish pink garments, and turned into the mascot of the International Museum Expo held in May 2023 at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi.
Goswamy is survived by his daughter, Malavika. He lost his son, Apurva, a scientist, earlier this year. His wife, Karuna, also an art historian and a former professor of Panjab University, died in 2020.
Goswamy writes about the “aesthetic shock” he felt while conversing with a Kathakali guruji before a performance at Rietberg Museum. He says: “This truly is what it is all about, this entering another world as one creates. And it requires unhurried preparation: the silences, the withdrawal from the world that presses upon us from all sides, the cleansing of the mirror of the heart, are all necessary if something meaningful is to emerge.” Goswamy writings leave us with identical emotions.
Soumitra Das is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.