There is a painting by Mughal miniaturist Abu’l Hasan of an old, fragile ascetic bent with age facing a fresh pink blossom. The flowers sit cheerfully near the fakir’s feet as life ebbs away from his body.
To most of us, the painting would be a reminder of both the grimness of mortality and the promise of another day. But to art historian BN Goswamy, it held the music of Kumar Gandharva’s timeless rendition of nirgun poetry set to Bhairavi: Bhola Man Jaane Amar Meri Kaya (my foolish mind believes that my body is immortal). Goswamy points out how the achingly beautiful composition speaks of the fragility of life, like “balu ki bheet, pawan ka khamba (walls of sand held up by pillars of wind)”.
“When, being an art historian concerned mostly with paintings as I am, I come upon a group of Virakta Sadhus, suddenly I hear, ‘Yugan Yugan hum jogi (forever I am a yogi)’,” he writes in a tribute to Kumar Gandharva in Kaljayee, a compendium of essays on the great master. This Gandharva, for him, was like the gandharvas in the miniatures he had been researching for decades: a celestial being because he sang of maya and myths.
Goswamy, who passed away mid-November, was an exceptional art historian who could bring traditional Indian art alive, with great erudition but also with ease, humour and empathy. He was what you would call an art sleuth, a discoverer who peeled back layer after layer of meaning in miniatures to understand what the image meant, how the artist lived and created, and how wondrous it all was.
The scholar’s wide-eyed engagement with miniature was not insular, it found fascinating links with many things around him – dance, music, classical theatre, textiles, armoury, the life of curio dealers and a hundred things that seemed to belong to disparate worlds. The Barahmasas, a poetic form relating to seasons, for instance, meant many things to him – it was the depiction of monsoons miniatures, it was poetry and folk music, and also the dance of a bereft nayika.
“He was a true, modern-day heir to the lost Indian tradition of an integrated thinking on arts, wherein visual arts, poetry, music and dance were in constant dialogue with each other,” said arts scholar Ashok Vajpayee. “Strikingly for our times, he took to poetry, music and dance to explain the subtleties of paintings. It reminded the moderns that a great art that from a few centuries ago could be equally complex and multifaceted.”
Realm of ideas
It was a sunny spring day with bright blue skies when Bharatanatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai met Goswamy at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich. He was there working with his long-time collaborator, the German art historian Eberhard Fischer, and Sarukkai was there to perform.
“I was amazed by his scholarship because it was profound and, at the same time, accessible,” recalled Sarukkai. “We would spend evenings having long conversations about the arts, sculpture, dance and music and then stumble on a painting that could have links with dance.”
Thus began an unusual creative collaboration between a classical dancer and an art historian that was to span more than two decades. They went on to stage 10 presentations where Goswamy would speak of miniatures and Sarukkai would follow with a dance performance that illustrated the talk. These works centred on eclectic themes – Ramayana, Bhagavata Purana, Chola bronzes, gods, demons, lotuses, Sufis, love and detachment. Urdu and Persian poetry that the historian was passionate about would often make their way in.
Next year, in March, the two were to present another of these conceptual works.
“He knew dance conceptually, if not technically,” said Sarukkai. “After the performance, we would sit and talk and his comments came from a very truthful perspective, they were informed and they had great honesty and integrity.”
It was at the Experimental Theatre of the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai that this unusual series took wing under the aegis of Sahachari Foundation headed by Nilima Kilachand. These were not literal collaborations but more in the realm of ideas.
“He would share a miniature with me and ask, ‘What do you think?’” Sarukkai recalled. “It would trigger something in me, something like an epiphany. The greatest joy of working with him was that nothing was linear for him. He delighted in finding connections between things that were seemingly unconnected and found it rewarding to be taken on a route of imagination. In dance too, we constantly see unseen things. We both wandered a lot and sometimes our paths crossed. There were fine capillaries of connection and he delighted in these.”
Goswamy never missed the intermingling of philosophies in traditional Indian arts. A favourite anecdote of his was about his first close encounter with Koodiyattam, the ancient Sanskrit theatre tradition of Kerala. Watching the painstakingly long hours of the troupe’s make-up regimen that preceded the performance, he asked the guru: Why wouldn’t the artistes use modern, faster tools of makeup? “Because that is how long it takes us to go from the world of mortals to the land of the gods,” the artist replied.
This answer for him held the seeds of how time or kaala is treated in Indian arts, demanding patience and mindfulness.
In 2005, Goswamy recommended to the then Unesco-supported Parzor Foundation that the endangered tappa, an electrifyingly complex Hindustani classical form, be recorded in the voice of its exponent, the great vocalist Shanno Khurana. He wrote an inlay card for the CD, An Act Of Shoring Up, punning on the name of tappa’s best-known 18th century composer, Shori Mian. “He felt that the form had to be documented before it was too late,” said Naman Ahuja, art historian, curator and grandson of Khurana. “He had the capacity to think interdisciplinary. He also changed the whole way of presenting Indian art in a narrative structure with his path-breaking 1985 exhibition, Rasa, where he went beyond the obvious to show emotions that are rarely explored otherwise in the presentation of navarasas.”
Goswamy was dedicated to the arts but he was also fascinated by the hands, feet, minds and faces of those that imagined and created it. Among his most famous discoveries was Manaku, the 18th-century Pahari miniaturist, overshadowed by his better-known brother Nainsukh. What sort of a man was he, how did he create such works of beauty of minutiae? Did he have a still, clear mind “like a flickerless lamp in a windless room”? Was he arrogant? Humble? These bothered him as much, he said, as the analysis of Manaku’s bewilderingly beautfiul works.
In an essay in his book Conversations, Goswamy talks of the concept of Vishwaroopam – Vishnu as the magnificent and fearsome creator and destroyer of worlds – depicted by Rajasthani, Pahari, Kashmiri, Maratha and southern artists. “Each artist must have discovered something of himself, gained some glimpse of the mysterium magnum that life is and the universe consists of,” he wrote.
It was this Vishwaroopam he nudged Sarukkai to create in her dance. “He knew of this magical world and he was generous with it,” she said. “He would nudge me to do what I thought I could not because it was in the realm of philosophy. He said why not look at the idea of Devi and send me a painting. And I would work and create a new movement vocabulary. The same happened with Varaha avatara (Vishnu as a boar). The images would bring the myth alive.”
Though not with the frequency as he did with Sarukkai, Goswamy also collaborated with other artistes such as Bharatanatyam dancer Rama Vaidyanathan and Odissi danseuse Sujata Mohapatra.
As a speaker, Goswamy was nothing short of a performer himself, delivering short dramatic pauses, making gasp-worthy revelations and raising rhetorical questions to keep the audience enraptured even when he was doing something academic like establishing a miniaturists oeuvre.
“He was a fabulous performer and that appealed to the artist in me,” said Sarukkai.
Malini Nair is a culture writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She can be reached at email@example.com.