If it was up to BN Goswamy, no miniature painting would be mounted on the wall, away from human touch. “It is meant to be held in the hand and read closely. The eye must linger over the surface, take in the luminous colours, absorb the subtlety and the details,” says the 82-year-old art historian, considered the last word on miniature art in India. He flips through the pages of his much-acclaimed tome on Indian art, The Spirit of Indian Painting (2014, Penguin), to stop at a depiction of the cosmic egg or the golden foetus floating in the dark void, “considered the seed of elemental existence” in numerous civilisations and cultures. Gazing at the opaque watercolour painted by the Pahari artist Manaku and featured in the Bhagavata Purana, Goswamy notes that the cosmic egg “appears a bit dark” when laid flat. “It is when you hold the painting in your hand, as it was meant to be, and move it ever so lightly, that it reads itself: the great egg begins to glisten, an ovoid form of the purest gold,” he says.
This Manaku work is one of the 101 miniatures featured in his much-acclaimed book, and which he describes as masterpieces painted between 1100 and 1900. At his Chandigarh home, the art historian is carefully studying numerous other works of the 18th century painter for a new publication dedicated to him, to be released in the coming months.
His 1999 book, Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State (Niyogi Books), rescued Nainsukh from oblivion. In his path-breaking essay, ‘Pahari Painting: The family as the basis of style’, published in the journal Marg in 1968, he argued that the families of painters shared a common artistic style. The mobility between different centres of patronage meant that the existing system of categorising miniatures according to the courts that commissioned them — Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Chamba and so on — was not appropriate. “Court styles could vary hugely, depending on who was at work; but families had recognisable techniques and stylistic idiosyncrasies,” says Goswamy.
Son of a judge in Sargodha, Goswamy moved to Amritsar after the Partition. His foray into art was rather spontaneous. In 1958, the then IAS officer in Gaya quit the prestigious services to pursue a career in academics and research on the social background of Kangra valley painting. His sole introduction to miniatures was MS Randhawa’s book, Kangra Valley Painting, gifted by friends when Goswamy was leaving for his posting. With no dedicated department for art history in India, Goswamy turned to his professor, Hari Ram Gupta, a historian at Panjab University, for guidance. While he did not know much about art, Gupta sent the proposal to the experts: WG Archer, an ex-Indian Civil Service officer who was the keeper of the Indian section at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; AL Basham, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies; and historian Karl Khandalavala. Their consent came within weeks, but what pushed Goswamy towards what was to become a life-changing research expedition, was a remark by Archer: “I wish we knew some more about the artists”.
In his pursuit, the art historian travelled across the Kangra hills to acquaint himself with the folklore and taught himself the Takri Pahari script. The hunt took him to the pandas or priests of Kurukshetra, Haridwar and Varanasi, who keep genealogical records of all visitors in their bahi or registers. Goswamy had memories of going to Haridwar as a child, and signing his own name in one of them. “I had written my name in English and had misspelled it,” says Goswamy, adding, “But that got me thinking that Pahari painters may well have once been pilgrims. Pahaad mein kehte hain ki aap jeeteji Haridwar na gaye, toh mar ke aap zaroor jaayenge. (In the mountains, they say, if you didn’t go to Haridwar when you were alive, you’ve got to go there once you’re dead).” A picture of Nainsukh escorting the ashes of Raja Balwant Singh to Haridwar furthered his resolve and Goswamy leafed through the handwritten records in search of a family tree. He also studied land settlement records compiled by the colonial state, for it was common for artists to be paid through allotments. Goswamy painstakingly reconstructed the family lineages and styles.
Consequently, the course of the study of Indian miniatures world over was altered. Having founded the department of art history at Panjab University in 1963, he has been a visiting professor at universities the world over, including at Heidelberg, Pennsylvania, California, Texas and Zurich. “No one knows more about Indian painting than BN Goswamy,” says Glenn Lowry, American art historian and director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Not too far from his neighbourhood in the Big Apple, in September 2011, Goswamy had installed what is considered to be one of the most spectacular exhibitions of Indian art, ‘Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900’, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Goswamy has meticulously differentiated between paintings produced in the family workshops of the Rajput and Pahari courts, where the artists worked at home and everyone lent a hand, and that of the Mughal ateliers, where artists from across the empire were deployed under the strict discipline of a master ustad. Author of over 25 books, he is known for the intricacies with which he reads each work — the techniques, narratives and composition — and yet leaves room for imagination. In a note on an arresting image of the Mughal emperor Akbar, he writes, “Was this portrait commissioned? Did the emperor sit for it, if he truly sat for any portrait of his at all? It is most unlikely … Almost certainly, the painter of this affecting portrait must have seen the emperor several times, but here he is recollecting, not constructing an image.”
Goswamy laces his writings with legends. One such tale is of a painter commissioned by his patron, an emperor, to paint the queen. Since the queen was in purdah, the painter imagined her as a beauty with perfect features, but just as he was finishing, a drop of black paint fell onto the rani’s thigh, on the exact spot where she had a mole. When the emperor saw it, he accused the painter of a liaison with the queen and imprisoned him. Later, a goddess appeared before the emperor to explain it was she who had made that drop of paint fall to make the portrait more real. The emperor freed the painter and bestowed several gifts on him. “These are stories being told by the inheritors of old traditions and should not be dismissed,” says Goswamy.
Over the years, he has become one such storyteller, with the prudence to distinguish fact from fiction.