The Wisdom and Wonder of India’s Leading Art Historian

A modern reconstruction of the “Flight of Birds” from a book cover of Fariduddin Attar’s Mantiq-al-Tayr, Private collection (all images courtesy India Allen Lane)

When B.N. Goswamy, India’s foremost art historian, produces a book titled Conversations, the obvious question that springs to mind is “with whom?” The preface clarifies that the “whom” is also Goswamy, as he culls 125 essays from a collection of over 600 standalone Art and Soul columns he contributed since 1995 to The Tribune, Chandigarh. With this book, the octogenarian hopes to guide a wider audience through the enchanting, layered world of Indian art.

These short essays address an array of artistic disciplines including painting, sculpting, architecture, calligraphy, poetry, literature, textile manufacturing, printing, and photography. Yet, Goswamy suggests that his writings offer only a glimpse into the unfathomable depths of art. Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages with 101 Themes & More opens with the author eulogizing his inspiration, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy — the pioneering historian primarily responsible for introducing ancient Indian art to the rest of the world — before extending his admiration and affection to fellow art historians, such as Karl Khandalavala, Mulk Raj Anand, and W.G. Archer in later essays.

Detail from a pichhwai with “Falling Flowers Hiding the Figure of Krishna” (19th century), Nathdwara (courtesy Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad)

Goswamy’s columns return time and again to artifacts from the Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad, and the intricately woven textiles from its famed Calico Museum of Textiles. He fondly recalls the foundation’s founder, Gautam Sarabhai, and his eloquence with art, especially the south Indian bronzes he collected. The spirited chronicler further gleans from several folios of paintings housed in the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh, and the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, which inspire palpable anecdotes related to their genesis and legacy, enlivened by his vivid imagination and elegant prose. Goswamy not only describes the intricacies of the artworks, but also explains the history associated with them.

B.N. Goswamy, Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages with 101 Themes & More, India Allen Lane, 2022

The book contains 33 plates of artworks sourced from various museums worldwide, and referenced in essays traversing the realms of miniature painting, carpets, Kashmiri shawls, Islamic calligraphy, Bhagavata Purana illustrations, and more. Goswamy’s thoughts frequently situate him at the intersection of Rajput, Mughal, and British colonial-era art and culture. Reflecting the luminosity of beetle-wing pieces in miniatures, he illuminates the distinction between Mughal and Rajput painting with respect to their representation of time: while the former relies on the Islamic understanding of time as linear, the latter draws from the cyclical, elastic nature of time in Hindu culture, and thus a particular figure might make multiple appearances within the same work.

The work of artists from the Mughal period and their royal patrons occupy significant space in the book. Goswamy humanizes the imperialists Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan by projecting them as aesthetes with discerning eyes for the arts of writing and painting. Goswamy’s tone remains sharp and engaging when he transitions to other places and eras, including the Japanese aesthete Okakura Kakuzo and his 1906 classic on refinement, The Book of Tea, and Polish artist Stefan Norblin, who designed Indian palaces in an Art Deco style, such as the Umaid Bhawan Palace, at the invitation of the then-Maharaja, Umaid Singh.

The essay on the 12-century Sufi parable, Mantiq-al-tayr by Farid ud-Din ‘Attar, published as The Canticle of the Birds by the Paris-based publishing house Diane de Selliers, best encapsulates the riches of literature, painting, poetry, and mysticism that pervade the book. The lyrical fluidity of Goswamy’s prose in these passages and throughout his writings might be attributed to his penchant for poetry. He likens the works of great poets, such as Mirza Ghalib, Amir Khusrau, Kabir, Ali Sardar Ja’fri, and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, to the art and artists that have fascinated him. Goswamy’s balance of childlike playfulness and sage wisdom is central to the book’s appeal as the author ushers readers into the elusive world of gods and kings, much like the Koodiyattam performers he extols. Enlivened by the inimitable Pahari paintings of Nainsukh and Manaku, the ancient architectural treatises of Ram Raz, and countless other artistic treasures of India and South Asia, Conversations makes clear why, even after several decades, Goswamy remains a leading art critic.

Jiva, “Maharana Jagat Singh II Hunting Tiger” (1749), opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 34 1/32 x 20 5/16 inches (courtesy San Diego Museum of Art)

Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages with 101 Themes & More by B.N. Goswamy (2022) is published by India Allen Lane and is available online and in bookstores.

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Arun A.K. mostly writes on cinema and literature, and is based in Mumbai, India. He contributes to several print and online publications, and can be found tweeting from @arunusual.

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