Art historian B N Goswamy’s latest book Conversations is a collection of 125 “little essays” as he calls them, which appeared as a fortnightly column in The Tribune under the title Art and Soul between 1995 and 2020.
The essays are indeed conversations that the author holds with himself and his readers about art and life. Those who had the good fortune to read them as they appeared, 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 creation.
The muted elegance of the book’s cover design, centred around a warm, intimate detail from a Bhagavata Purana painting, sets the tone for what lies ahead. The stupendous diversity of the author’s interests reveals itself within the very first pages.
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, “the most impassioned and eloquent interpreter of the art and thought of the East in general and India in particular”, leads the way.
Next, we are in Zurich watching Kudiyattam actors painstakingly grinding pigments and pastes for their make-up. A characteristically impatient western observer asks why ready-made colours cannot be used to cut down on the time they take. To which the troupe’s guru replies gravely, “We all need this time. For we are preparing ourselves for entering the world of the gods this evening.”
Soon after, we are in Bhubaneshwar where the pata-painter Bhagavata Maharana, sits in his “simple, thatched-roof home” 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 that succeeding generations of his family have been privileged to perform at the Jagannath temple in Puri, he becomes passionately voluble. The great temple in Puri pays him nothing, but it is enough that he is obeying the Lord’s commands and is blessed in return.
It goes on thus, page after page of skilled story-telling in which word and image illuminate one another and where, at least once, the word becomes the image. Abu’l Fazal conjures this up for us in a passage on calligraphy in his great work A’in-i-Akbari. The written letter, he says, “is a black cloud pregnant with knowledge; the wand for the treasures of insight; speaking, though dumb; stationary, and yet travelling; stretched on the sheet, and yet soaring upwards.”
Goswamy writes in a language that is not only shorn of jargon, but has the suppleness, fluidity and evocative power to bring alive every artefact, person, process and experience he describes. It would be impossible to list here all that he has seen, studied, experienced and mulled over.
A short list would include, besides miniatures and illuminated manuscripts which fall directly within his field of specialisation, textiles, photography, architecture, old documents, cartography, the history of paper, the underbelly of the art market, book covers of old, dreams and omens, private and public collections of art, Europeans in India, carpets, shawls, jewelry, masks, poets and eminent men of art. He also meditates on time and the colour yellow.
When Goswamy goes into a detailed observation of an object or a process, time slows down. Take the portrait of the old man painted by Abu’l Hasan, whom Jehangir named the Wonder of the Age.
Drawing our attention to every detail of the painting from the old man’s posture, dress, features, the alertness of his eyes, the roughness of the skin around his knees, the uneven size and shape of the beads in his rosary, to the almost black background and the little flower in the foreground, Goswamy etches the portrait indelibly into our memories.
It is not always an observed object that becomes memorable because of the close attention Goswamy pays to it. It happens with a minutely observed process too.
About the textile conservator Nobuko Kajitani’s work on a sumptuous but damaged textile in Ahmedabad’s Calico Museum of Textiles, he writes, “There were no noises, no fuss: with just the briefest movement of the eyes instructions were issued and followed. Nobuko herself would bend over virtually every inch of the kalamkari, her face close to and almost parallel with the laid textile, studying every tiny detail…”
And then there is the legendary “Dacca malmal” which a dealer holds up before himself to a textile museum’s acquisition committee. So fine is the weave says Goswamy “that we could see virtually the entire form of the young dealer through it.”
He adds dreamily then that the Moghuls would have called such a fabric, aab-irawaan (flowing air), or baafthawaa (woven air) or shabnami (dew-drop like). By association he then moves to Kabir who saw, in the simple cloth 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 others are summoned to deepen our understanding of what the prose is saying. There is wit too in the tail-pieces appended to the essays where Goswamy casts a sideward glance at absurdities that relates to the subject in hand, leaving us with a smile.
The warmth which fills you as you read these gem-like essays, has more than a little to do with the obvious delight the author has taken in cutting and polishing them. He has taken the trouble for us, his readers. No half-measures here, no pretence, no dishonesty.
Above all, Goswamy’s is a quiet, thoughtful, tolerant, civilised voice in the midst of the crude, hate-filled cacophony that is all around us today. Against the ego-inflating certainties of chauvinists comes this voice of an indefatigable seeker. Against their hubris comes the humility of this eminent scholar. “Seizing upon precise ideas in art may be like trying to catch fireflies in the night,” he writes. “But should not one at least stretch one’s hands and reach out?”
Conversations, BN Goswamy, Penguin Random House India.