The latest book by art historian BN Goswamy Conversations is a collection of 125 “little essays” as he calls them, published as a bimonthly column in The Tribune under the title Art and Soul between 1995 and 2020.
Essays are in effect conversations the author has with himself and his readers about art and life. Those who have had the good fortune to read them as they have been published must have grown as much in their appreciation of the arts, crafts and culture of our country as in their understanding of the human spirit that drives the creation.
The understated elegance of the book cover design, centered around a warm and intimate detail of a Bhagavata Purana painting, sets the tone for what lies ahead. The prodigious diversity of the author’s interests is revealed from the first pages.
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, “the most passionate and eloquent interpreter of the art and thought of the Orient in general and of India in particular”, leads the way.
Next, we’re in Zurich watching the actors of Kudiyattam painstakingly grind pigments and pastes for their makeup. A typically impatient Western observer asks why ready-made colors cannot be used to reduce the time they take. To which the guru of the troop replies seriously: “We all need this time. For we are preparing to enter the world of the gods tonight.
Shortly after, we are in Bhubaneshwar where the pata-painter Bhagavata Maharana, sits in his “simple thatched-roof house” bent over his drawing. He has little to say about the work he does for his bread and butter.
But when it comes to the sewa which successive generations of his family have had the privilege of performing at the Jagannath temple in Puri, he becomes passionately talkative. The great temple of Puri does not pay him anything, but it is enough that he obeys the commandments of the Lord and is blessed in return.
It goes on like this, page after page of a scholarly narration where the word and the image light up and where, at least once, the word becomes the image. Abu’l Fazal evokes it to us in a passage on the calligraphy of his great work A’in-i-Akbari. The written letter, he says, “is a dark cloud full of knowledge; the wand for the treasures of insight; speaking, though mute; stationary, yet traveling; lying on the sheet, and yet rising upwards.
Goswamy writes in a language that is not only stripped of jargon, but has the flexibility, fluidity and evocative power to bring to life every artifact, person, process and experience he describes. It would be impossible to enumerate here all that he saw, studied, lived and pondered.
A short list would include, in addition to miniatures and illuminated manuscripts which fall directly within its area of specialization, textiles, photography, architecture, ancient documents, cartography, the history of paper, the undersides of the market of the art, old book covers, dreams and omens, private and public art collections, Europeans in India, carpets, shawls, jewellery, masks, eminent poets and artists. He also meditates on time and the color yellow.
When Goswamy goes into detailed observation of an object or process, time slows down. Take the portrait of the old man painted by Abu’l Hasan, whom Jehangir named the wonder of age.
Drawing our attention to every detail of the painting from the posture, dress, features of the old man, the liveliness of his eyes, the roughness of the skin around his knees, the uneven size and shape of the beads of his prayer beads, down to the almost black background and the small flower in the foreground, Goswamy etches the portrait indelibly in our memories.
It is not always an observed object that becomes memorable due to Goswamy’s close attention to it. It also happens with a carefully observed process.
Of textile restorer Nobuko Kajitani’s work on a lavish but damaged textile at the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, he writes: “There was no noise, no commotion: with just the briefest movement of eyes, instructions were issued and followed. Nobuko herself bent over virtually every inch of the kalamkari, her face close and almost parallel to the laid textile, studying every little detail…”
And then there is the legendary “Dhaka malmal” that a merchant hands before him to the acquisition committee of a textile museum. The weave is so fine, says Goswamy, “that we could see practically the young dealer’s full form through it.”
He then dreamily adds that the Moghuls would have called such a cloth, aab-irawaan (draught), or baafthawaa (woven air) or shabnami (like a dew drop). By association he then passes to Kabir who saw, in the simple fabric he wove, the warp and weft of life.
Again and again Goswamy weaves poetry into his prose, recalling verses relevant to the painting, person or experience he is describing. The verses come from an incredible gallery of poets. Stephen Spender, William Blake, Ahmed Nadim Qasimi, Kalidasa, Ghalib, Kabir, Tagore, Rumi, Wordsworth, Milton and many more are summoned to deepen our understanding of what prose says. There is also wit in the culs-de-lampe appended to the essays where Goswamy glances sideways at the nonsense that pertains to the subject matter, leaving us with a smile.
The warmth that washes over you as you read these essays like gems has more than a little to do with the obvious pleasure the author took in cutting and polishing them. He went out of his way for us, his readers. No half measures here, no pretense, no dishonesty.
Above all, Goswamy is a calm, thoughtful, tolerant and civilized voice amidst the crude and hateful cacophony that surrounds us today. Against the selfish certainties of the chauvinists comes the voice of an indefatigable researcher. Against their pride comes the humility of this eminent scholar. “Capturing precise ideas in art can be like trying to catch fireflies in the night,” he writes. “But shouldn’t we at least reach out and reach out?”
conversation, BN Goswamy, Penguin Random House India.