The concentric whirlpools come together to form giant rings of time on timeless waters. The great golden egg is a perfect oval. “Seed of all that there is going to be,” says BN Goswamy, describing a folio from a Bhagavata Purana series. The opaque watercolour by Manaku depicts the Hiranyagarbha or the cosmic egg. “When one sees the painting laid flat, the egg appears a bit dark, almost dominated by browns. It is when you hold the painting in your hand, as it was meant to be, and move it ever so lightly, that it reveals itself: the great egg begins to glisten, an ovoid form of the purest gold,” adds BN Goswamy. The Guler artist is believed to be fond of dense narration.
The 1740 work opens the chapter “Visions” in his publication The Spirit of Indian Painting (Penguin, Rs 1,499). Through 101 works dating 1100-1900, he discusses Indian art, reading each work, lacing it with anecdotes and folklore. “I have tried to represent the different periods, the subjects and themes that inspired painters, the range of regional styles, historically important works, those influenced by foreign traditions, and the works of some great masters,” says Goswamy, 81, who has divided the frames not by chronology, but themes:
Visions, Observation, Passion and Contemplation.
The selection ranges from the Mughal atelier to the Pahari and Rajasthani schools, among others. The descriptions are interwoven with not just observations but also excerpts from various sources, from ancient text to memoirs or genealogists at religious sites. For instance, Goswamy has an entry by Nainsukh — in the register of a family priest in Haridwar, where he carried the ashes of his princely patron.
“To understand the world of Indian painting, one has to try and reconstruct three different but related areas — patrons, painters and the technique of painting,” says the Professor of art history at the Panjab University, who discusses both the rulers and the ruled. The most refined of the brushes, as a Mughal legend has it, was made of a single hair, the yak bal qalam, and could be used only by the greatest of masters, he writes. There is even a discussion on the source of colour, white from white lead or zinc to red from crude to peori or gao-goli yellow that arguably came from the urine of a cow that had been fed on mango leaves or had an infected liver.
There is a disclaimer though. “Though each of these paintings is, in my opinion, a great work, this is not to say that they are the greatest masterpieces of Indian painting. There are many others,” writes Goswamy. He is onto his 25th book, this will be dedicated to artist Manaku.