BN Goswamy is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Panjab University and an eclectic seeker going by the episodes and events described in his little essays. Through elegant prose, he lays bare his wide spectrum of interests and encyclopaedic knowledge that goes beyond the arts to include poetry, literature, crafts, cartography and the treacherous art market.
The narrative begins in July 1995 with Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, the great scholar and seer who awoke the West to the glories of Indian art. It ends in January 2020 with the enigmatic Hiranyagarbha, the Golden Egg—the Genesis as depicted by Manaku of Guler, the great 18th century artist—and Vatapatrashayi, the child Krishna floating on a banyan leaf during the Great Deluge. Goswamy writes about Emperor Jahangir who is depicted with sages, both Muslim and Hindu, in paintings and his autobiography; his frustration at not being allowed to access the Jaisalmer Bhandar Repository with its treasure trove of Jain manuscripts; of the sacred masks of Malda and the local festival when a man chosen from the lowest of lowlies becomes the receptacle of a deity and he is worshipped for a day. He also recalls his puzzlement over a painting of Krishna driving a chariot with Arjuna seated on it through mysterious territories, and how he realised it was from an obscure Bhagavata Purana episode when he chanced upon a set of digitised images at a Jaipur museum.
Goswamy shares with readers the ecstatic magic of “chakshu dana, painting the eyes of the image that ‘brought them to life’”, and his vexation at encountering the chaos at Tulsi Sadan, a “prestigious library” in Delhi in the same breath.
The “timeless” Kashmiri shawl; the photographs of Samuel Bourne and those of Yeshwant Rao Holkar in his ‘Dracula’-like cape by Man Ray; the meaning of silence to Farid-ud-din Attar’s great Sufi parable of the Conference of Birds; the “subsidiary figures that occupy little corners in some paintings” like the sketches done by Kehar Singh of two members––a man, named Ruldu, a tracker, khoji by profession, and the woman, Dharmo, a member of the Bawaria tribe––of the “Vagrant, Menial and Artisan Castes”, and the “marginalised” seekers in a painting of ‘Prince and Ascetics’ from the Late Shah Jahan Album; the old art of marbling; portraits of Ghalib and Momin and of Emperor Akbar; Assamese textiles in Tibet; the path-breaking exhibition on Nainsukh of Guler at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich; the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad; the large fragmented bronze Khmer image of Vishnu Anantashayin from West Mabon, Angkor, Cambodia, 11th century; the paintings of George Chinnery.
The sovereign and subalterns enjoy the same space. Nothing escapes the seasoned eyes of this distinguished scholar still alive to the enchantment of words and images. This serves as an aesthetic stimulant for readers as well. Yet, instead of harping on past glories, he keeps reminding readers about the plurality of our great culture achieved through the commingling of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Islamic traditions.
MF Husain may not be his favourite artist, but Goswamy defends his right to depict an unclothed Saraswati, citing countless examples of sensuous beauty in our art and verse. He is all admiration for the “sense of calm that dwells in” Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’s work. He is befuddled at the offence taken by “our rulers in Delhi” over the stark nakedness of the Dancing Girl figurine from Mohenjodaro.
Goswamy takes a keen interest in the international art market and the prevalence of fakes, and the uncertainty of valuation of art work, citing some famous cases. He is sceptical of declarations of “Prosperous, Self-reliant, Strong India” and has “little patience with… the lackadaisical ways in which we render or treat our national symbols.” In a piece on returning cultural property, Goswamy stumbles upon the truth: “But, then, who cares about art here, anyway?”