A reason why we have no Michelangelos and Leonardo da Vincis to boast of is that anonymity was a courtly protocol where the primary focus of a painting was the ruler or subject (mainly religious texts) rather than the artist. What makes the work of BN Goswamy so fascinating is that he is among those early art historians who devoted his entire life to tracing the genealogies of these anonymous artists. From prising jealously-guarded details entrusted with pandas at pilgrim centres, to scouring the museums of the world in search of missing leaves of illustrated folios — his experiences in this venture are worthy of a book in itself.
For the last six decades or so, Goswamy has tried to draw the world’s attention to the exquisite delicacy and sophistication of our Pahari paintings. Scattered over the lower Himalayas were several small kingdoms whose rulers lacked the resources of the mighty Mughals and Savafids, yet their artists captured the spirit of this lyrical landscape in vibrant colours and with a sophistication that can rival the grandest miniatures produced anywhere in the world. The volume under review is a splendid sequel to a widely hailed earlier one, which traced the work of Nainsukh of Guler. This one celebrates in even greater glory, Nainuskh’s elder brother, Manaku. Books such as these are rare to produce once in a lifetime but to bring out two in quick succession is a feat in itself.
Manaku and his younger brother Nainsukh were schooled under the watchful eye of their painter-father Pandit Seu and an uncle, who still practised the family trade of carpentry in the small Rajput kingdom of Guler (now in Himachal Pradesh). Goswamy takes us to a time when the great Mughal and Rajput kingdoms were slowly disintegrating. Some of their talented painters were used by the East India sahibs to produce the Company School of miniatures, which had a mannered style focused on individual faces. On the other hand, the artists of our Pahari miniatures favoured a narrative that celebrated the glory of natural and spiritual beauty. It was during such a time that two small boys were being slowly inducted into the magical world of colour and form. An entire family was involved in this artistic production: from the women who ground the lapis stones into a luminous blue colour, to the carpenter uncle who possibly introduced them to the subtleties of perspective.
Pandit Seu seems to have made a deep impression on the way his sons would perceive and depict the outer landscape. The meticulous outline of each leaf or tree, the gossamer wings of a dragonfly, the undulating movement of water: his sons became masters at executing these difficult tasks. Seu’s understanding of colour was further developed by Manaku and Nainsukh to match the mood of each painting. Thus Radha sitting on Krishna’s lap is painted by Manaku against a red sky, a different hue from the vermilion of her skirt. Krishna, the blue god, is lighter than the inky-blue darkness of the night sky with a luminous white moon and the garland of white flowers round his neck.
Goswamy is a master story-teller. Page after page seduces the reader to delve deeper and deeper into these narrative coils until the gods and the viewer begin to speak the same language. This synaesthesia is presented throughout the book but in one painting it reaches its apogee: this is the Cosmic Egg (Hiranyagarbha) that floats on a sea and contains the DNA of all life on earth. How Manaku achieves its incredible lightness of being, the still yet moving waves of the ocean or the golden shell of the speckled egg is a mystery that is as deep as the mystery of life it depicts.
From mere wisps of information, Goswamy prises gems that can pass by an untrained eye. For instance, he speculates on whether Manaku was left-handed and points us to two paintings which suggest this (Krishna painting on Radha’s breast with his left hand and King Prithu pulling an arrow with his left hand). Again, in the famous vastraharan story, he concentrates less on the erotic than on the spiritual dimension that seems to suggest that we can never meet our Maker until we cast off our outer skins.
This is a volume that deserves to be bought (even at a steep price) and adored for the richness of its contents.