Like a book, a miniature is meant to be taken in hand and read close. The eye must linger over the surface, take in the luminous colours, absorb the subtlety and the details, discern the light touch guiding the brush strokes. From this hypnotic engagement might emerge, in the mind of the connoisseur, a nebulous matrix of thoughts and images—delightful guesses and second-guesses at what might have animated the painter who was burning his attention and craft onto those few square centimetres some centuries ago.
It’s the gaze of the aesthete-scholar, affectionate yet discriminating—the kind that B.N. Goswamy, pre-eminent scholar of Indian miniature painting and a leading art historian, has brought to bear on illuminated Jain manuscripts, and miniatures of the Rajasthani, Mughal, Pahari and Deccan styles, and Company School paintings, together spanning some thousand years. Through the telescope of art history, he reconstructs lineages of obscure artists, assigns them names, restores their identities and draws on family ties as the basis of style, for techniques in arts such as painting at the highest level were guarded and handed down often only through close filial lines.
Goswamy’s recent book, The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works 1100-1900, brings to mind the rigour of a scholar and the soul of a poet, and brings alive works he has culled from the several thousand he has studied over more than five decades. It shocks and stirs the reader through its visual vocabulary and symbolism. “I travelled extensively across India to dig out the names of painter families and bring the masters back from the dead. I almost created a census of artists,” says Goswamy, who is 81 and now a professor emeritus of art history at Panjab University. He speaks fluent, crisp Urdu, often referring to Ali Sardar Jafri’s Mera Safar.
There’s a decisive air about this man of few words. Artists like Krishen Khanna, Gulammohammed Sheikh, British painter Sir Howard Hodgkin, and Glenn Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art, who’ve known him a long time, think he expresses himself best through the creative prism. Says William Dalrymple, “B.N. Goswamy is to Indian art history what Tendulkar is to its cricket pitches or srk to its movies: a towering colossus who has transformed the nature of his chosen field, as well as being, at the same time, a much-loved and irreplaceable national treasure.”
Indeed, Goswamy has had a prolific career as an art historian and writer. He has written and lectured extensively and been a guest curator of major exhibitions of Indian art across the world, most recently of the path-breaking ‘Masters of Indian Painting’ exhibition at Museum Rietberg in Zurich and at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. He has also been a visiting professor at the universities of Heidelberg, Pennsylvania, California, Texas and Zurich. Goswamy has authored 25 books, but his work has been especially influential in the field of Pahari painting, like reconstructing the filial-artistic network of one of the greatest Indian painter families: Pandit Seu and his sons Nainsukh and Manaku, as well as their many artist grandchildren and cousins. He believes that court styles could vary, but different families shared common techniques and eccentricities. In 1990, Goswamy expanded his research to include all the masters of Pahari painting, and with Swiss historian Eberhardt Fischer, produced a show that redrafted the history of the art of the Punjab hills, focusing on families and individuals—that is, artists—rather than courts that commissioned them.
Goswamy’s first brush with art history goes back to his college days, when some friends gifted him a book called Kangra Valley Painting. The Sargodha-born boy’s father was a judge who had moved to Amritsar after Partition. Goswamy topped his MA in history from Panjab University in 1954, and quite easily made it to the IAS. He was posted at Gaya in Bihar, but resigned a couple of years later. “It wasn’t my calling, so I went back to teaching, and thought, why not do a PhD in the social background of the Kangra valley painting?” he says. The monthly fellowship for his research was a meagre Rs 276.
His real interest in art history, Goswamy admits, started in Germany, while he was teaching at the University of Kiel. “I saw many museums and realised how integral art is to all our lives. I literally glided into it.” To stay in close proximity to his sources, he came back to India in 1963 and founded the department of art history at Panjab University. “I’m completely self-taught as an art historian, even though there were friends like W.G. Archer, M.S. Randhawa, N.C. Mehta and Karl Khandalawala who helped me,” he says.
About the contemporary art scene in India, Goswamy believes there is some serious engagement, but the mural tradition has died and space for art criticism has shrunk considerably. “But as an art historian, one can bring the viewer close to the piece of art, reveal its unfolding, expansion, agitation and vibrations,” he says. In his composed, lucid and poetic style, Goswamy helps us read Indian paintings and reminds us that “if we strain hard, we can still feel the breath of those times, even if lightly, upon our skin.”