B.N. Goswamy: Guardian of Chandigarh’s cultural heritage

Published : Nov 30, 2023 13:32 IST - 9 MINS READ

B.N. Goswamy was known to be the most authoritative voice on Indian miniatures and seamlessly connected art with other walks of life.

B.N. Goswamy was known to be the most authoritative voice on Indian miniatures and seamlessly connected art with other walks of life. | Photo Credit: Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi CLKA

The luminary of Indian art history was a devoted champion of Chandigarh’s modernist architectural legacy, tirelessly protecting its heritage.

Dr B.N. Goswamy was a towering colossus of Indian art history who could breathe life into even the most seemingly inert, obscure, or enigmatic miniature painting and make it come alive with his insights and mesmerising narrative. He unpeeled the patina laid over its hidden luminosity, invisible to others.

Goswamy lived in Chandigarh where he was deeply revered. Only three weeks ago he had launched his 26th book here—and a very unusual one—The Indian Cat. It was the first time he was departing from his usual repertoire of traditional themes. Speaking to the jam-packed auditorium in Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier (Chandigarh’s iconic architect-planner), he was a man in full flow, speaking with his usual passion and captivating the audience. It is hard to believe the golden voice of Indian art has fallen silent.

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Chandigarh’s Government Museum and Art Gallery, the venue of his talk, is located adjacent to the verdant Leisure Valley lined with majestic silver oaks that form an inviting canopy with their feathery leaves. It is one of the iconic structures of Chandigarh and among the few buildings Corbusier personally designed besides those in the Chandigarh Capitol Complex.

For Dr Sahib, as he was popularly called, the Museum was a favourite place and second home. Not only was he deeply involved in its art treasures but also in its upkeep, planning art shows, and was instrumental in inviting the best global talent to exhibit. He had a great admiration for the architectural design of the cuboid brick-tile clad volume, floating on stilts and creating loggias for informal displays, and with a marvellous system of skylights that enable glare-free northern light to illuminate the art displays inside. Dead walls with no fenestrations not only enabled ample wall spaces for display but became silent volumes of space bathed in natural light.

As a polymath, Dr Goswamy seamlessly connected art to other dimensions of human endeavour, creativity, and genius with ease and felicity. And always with a gentle, unhurried, un-layering of the palimpsests to unveil the gems hidden beneath. Whether it was a work of a Pahari miniature, a Renaissance classic, or a Harappan seal, the stamp of his erudition and insights, expressed in gentle poetics, was enthralling. A polyglot fluent in English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Farsi, and Pahari, he could easily flow from one tongue to another to animate a scene or a work he was explaining, with a Farsi or Urdu couplet or a Sanskrit shloka.

In a moving tribute, historian and writer William Dalrymple wrote, “BN Goswamy shifted the focus from art patrons to master painters by reconstructing their lives through a combination of brilliant detective work and intuition. I was devastated to hear of the death of my beloved friend and mentor, BN Goswamy. He was unquestionably India’s greatest art historian as well as one of the wisest, most elegant and generous men I have ever met... He changed our understanding of Indian art history forever”.

Goswamy is considered world-over as the most authoritative voice on Indian miniatures. His seminal work on Pahari painting, a genre of traditional miniature painting originating in the hills of the erstwhile Punjab region near Kangra, is considered a masterclass. His 1968 article, “Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style”, was a pioneering study of the genre, where he successfully unearthed the genealogy of renowned miniaturists such as Pandit Seu and his sons Nainsukh and Manaku. He published five books on the topic: Nainsukh of Guler: A great Indian painter from a small hill-state; Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India, Painters at the Sikh Court; Essence of Indian Art; and Masters of Indian Painting 1100-1900, among the 26 books he authored.

A resident of Chandigarh throughout his life, he relentlessly protected the city’s heritage and prioritised the upkeep of its museums.

A resident of Chandigarh throughout his life, he relentlessly protected the city’s heritage and prioritised the upkeep of its museums. | Photo Credit: Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi CLKA

I first heard a lecture by him nearly four decades ago at the Chandigarh College of Architecture, where I had just joined as a young faculty member. It was a spellbinding talk that included numerous scenes of Pahari vernacular architecture lush with courtyards, verandas, and arbours set in panoramic landscapes replete with trees, rivers, flowering shrubs, and animated by themes from the epics. I asked what size “miniature” paintings usually were. His reply was fascinating: “Miniature paintings were in fact a genre that were intended to be viewed as hand-held works of art, commissioned by a patron; unlike Western art, they were not painted to be displayed on walls in the palaces or mansions of those days.” That lesson stayed with me.

My grandfather though in the service of the British was also an Urdu poet of repute in Jammu town. But all his work—newspaper clippings, manuscripts, and notebooks had been left behind in the ancestral haveli at Sialkot in the chaos of Partition. It was a huge family lament that nothing of his literary treasure existed. Then, from nowhere, an old, tattered notebook of his writings was found in a distant relative’s house. Urdu-knowing friends encouraged us to have it published. A question arose on the correct meaning of the word ghubaar, the pen name he used. It was the erudite Dr Sahib who explained to us that it meant “dust-like” or a puff of dust. He told us how in the 14th century “a remarkably gifted calligrapher, Umar al-Aqta, presented to the Sultan Timur a copy of the Quran which he had calligraphed in the ghubaar (literally, dust) script, a copy so tiny it could fit under the socket of a signet ring, a singular technical feat”. But alas, it was too small for the Sultan’s king-sized ego and rejected.

Goswamy’s contribution to art is remarkable, but his tremendous contribution to and admiration for Chandigarh’s unique UNESCO-listed modern architectural heritage is less well known. The art historian was a great crusader for the city’s modernist architectural idiom and the works of Corbusier both as an architect-planner and as a painter and sculptor in his own right.

Besides his concern for the proper upkeep of Chandigarh’s art museums, he also cared deeply for its unique architectural museums, including the Le Corbusier Centre where Corbusier’s original team worked, the Pierre Jeanneret Museum, and the Chandigarh Architecture Museum, the latter where precious original documents and drawings pertaining to the making of Chandigarh are displayed. At one time, at Goswamy’s behest, the Governor of Punjab personally visited it to check the deficiencies he had flagged.

As a member of Chandigarh’s numerous high-level art, culture, and heritage conservation committees, Goswamy relentlessly protected the city’s heritage and never hesitated to speak out against any populist proposal to modify its original precepts as a low-rise “Garden City” planned on a human scale. His love for protecting the sanctity and serenity of the city’s much-loved Sukhna Lake was well known. Whether it needed him to speak out in the highest forums or write impassioned letters to the authorities, Goswamy took it upon himself to do so. He wanted to protect the core values of Chandigarh as a unique work of excellence in design and of outstanding universal value.

The Western world’s engagement with the study of human form and proportions was most powerfully manifested in the Renaissance era with Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”. Centuries later this pursuit became Le Corbusier’s prime occupation too. Goswamy related that to the ancient Indian treatises. In his book Oxford Readings in Indian Art, there is a section on “Icons and their Measurements” that discusses ancient thought on the theme of human scale. It is replete with systems of proportions, scale, and anthropometric harmonies. Besides the Shilpa Shastras for artworks, the ancients also recorded treatises for architecture as contained in the Mansara. Goswamy writes: “The making of images—whether in the form of sculptures or as paintings—was obviously a dominant concern, especially when the text was sacred…. Closely related to iconography was ‘iconometry’—the measurement of icons, involving scale and proportion—and this again is gone into in astonishing detail in many texts.”

Besides the books he authored, Goswamy wrote an exquisite column for The Tribune every fortnight called “Art & Soul”. It was so brilliantly written that many collected the clippings. Not surprisingly, it was published a while ago in book form titled Conversations.

“The title I chose for the column was ‘Art and Soul’, taking two letters out of ‘Heart’ and adding soul... The addition gave me the opportunity to look at things around me and add a comment,” recalled Goswamy. They are, as he himself self-effacingly describes, “slight sketches of large things”. But they are a bit more than that I suspect. While aimed at the reader, they are also soliloquies to himself, ruminations, reflections, and questions on the purpose of art. So committed was he to the column that even on international travels or in ill health he would muster up the energy to write one without any compromise on the scholarship or the easy conversational flow of his seamless prose meant for the lay newspaper reader. By the time of his passing, he had written 707 columns.

Also Read | Book Review: B.N. Goswamy’s collection of essays revels in soulful conversations on art

The most poignant work of art described in the collection is “Intimations of Mortality” done by Abu’l Hasan for Jahangir’s atelier. It is a rendering of “an old barefooted man who leans on his staff and makes his way forward. The body bears the marks of the ravages of time: the bent back.... the lean desiccated frame. But the mind like the eyes, is still keen....,” writes Dr Goswamy. The work is technically brilliant, but the painting goes far beyond that. It conveys a universality of the human condition: the intimations of mortality yet the start of a new beginning. He quotes the great Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri’s poem “Mera Safar” to convey the existential conundrum, “the coming of day when the eye will grow dim, the lotuses of the hand will wilt, and all the butterflies of sound... on my tongue shall fly away”.

Did he have a premonition of his own ending?

Goswamy was quite the Kohinoor of Chandigarh—the city prided itself on its brightest resident. His light will continue to illuminate the city as it will the world of art.

Rajnish Wattas is a former principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture and former Vice-Chairman of Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi. He has co-authored Trees of Chandigarh and Sukhna: Sublime Lake of Chandigarh..

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