Art History

The wisdom and wonder of India’s leading art historian | Pro Club Bd

If BN Goswamy, India’s leading art historian, produces a book entitled conversations, the obvious question that comes to mind is “with who?” The foreword makes it clear that the “Wen” is also Goswamy, as he selects 125 essays from a collection of over 600 standalone essays art and soul Columns to which he has contributed since 1995 The grandstand, Chandigarh. With this book, the eighty-year-old hopes to guide a wider audience through the enchanting, complex world of Indian art.

These short essays cover a range of artistic disciplines including painting, sculpture, architecture, calligraphy, poetry, literature, textile manufacture, printing and photography. However, Goswamy points out that his writings offer only a glimpse into the unfathomable depths of art. Conversations: India’s leading art historian explores 101 themes and beyond Begins with the author praising 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 other art historians such as Karl Khandalavala, Mulk Raj Anand and others are expanded upon by WG Archer in later papers.

excerpt from a picwai with “Falling Flowers Hiding the Figure of Krishna” (19th Century), Nathdwara (Courtesy of Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad)

Goswamy’s columns keep returning to artifacts from the Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad and the intricately woven textiles from their famous Calico Museum of Textiles. He fondly remembers the foundation’s founder, Gautam Sarabhai, and his eloquence when it came to art, particularly the South Indian bronzes he collected. The spirited chronicler also draws from several folios of paintings housed in the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh, and the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, which inspire tangible anecdotes about their creation and legacy, animated by his vivid imagination and elegant Prose. Goswamy not only describes the intricacies of the artworks, but also explains the history behind them.

BN Goswamy, Conversations: India’s leading art historian explores 101 themes and beyondIndia Allen Lane, 2022

The book contains 33 panels of artworks sourced from various museums worldwide and featured in essays that traverse the fields of miniature painting, carpets, cashmere shawls, Islamic calligraphy, Bhagavata Purana illustrations and more. Goswamy’s thoughts often locate him at the interface between the art and culture of the Rajputs, the Mughals and the British colonial era. Reflecting the luminosity of beetle wing pieces in miniatures, he sheds light on the distinction between Mughal and Rajput painting in relation to their depiction of time: while the former draws on the Islamic understanding of time as linear, the latter draws on the cyclical, elastic nature of time in the Hindu culture, and therefore a given character may appear multiple times in the same work.

The work of Mughal artists and their royal patrons features prominently in the book. Goswamy humanizes the imperialists Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, projecting them as aesthetes with keen eyes for the art of writing and painting. Goswamy’s tone remains sharp and engaging as he moves to other places and eras, including the Japanese aesthete Okakura Kakuzo and his 1906 classic on refinement, The Book of Teaand Polish artist Stefan Norblin, who designed Art Deco-style Indian palaces such as the Umaid Bhawan Palace at the invitation of then-Maharajah Umaid Singh.

The 12th-century essay on the Sufi parable, Mantiq-al-tayr by Farid ud-Din ‘Attar, published as The song of the birds by the Paris publishing house Diane de Selliers best summarizes the wealth of literature, painting, poetry and mysticism that permeates the book. The lyrical fluency of Goswamy’s prose in these passages and throughout his writings could be attributed to his penchant for poetry. He compares the works of great poets such as Mirza Ghalib, Amir Khusrau, Kabir, Ali Sardar Ja’fri and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi with 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 introduces readers to the elusive world of gods and kings, much like the Koodiyattam cast he has praised. Animated by the inimitable Pahari paintings of Nainsukh and Manaku, the ancient architectural treatises of Ram Raz and myriad other artistic treasures from India and South Asia, conversations makes it clear why Goswamy remains a leading art critic even after several decades.

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

Conversations: India’s leading art historian explores 101 themes and beyond by BN Goswamy (2022) is published by India Allen Lane and is available online and in bookstores.

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