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What makes B.N. Goswamy's ‘The Spirit of Indian Painting’ such a masterpiece

‘The Spirit Of Indian Painting’ serves to guide, cajole and inspire readers to learn more about the subcontinent’s painting traditions

'Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota examining a painting with Nainsukh'. Professor B.N. Goswamy shifted the spotlight from the patron to the painter in his books. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

By Bibek Bhattacharya

LAST PUBLISHED 26.11.2023  |  04:00 PM IST

For those of us who knew B.N. Goswamy’s work only from a distance, the gateway to his thoughts and analyses of Indian art was through his books. While there are plenty of groundbreaking books by Goswamy on Indian miniature painting (and especially on Kangra painting) that I have read, the one I keep coming back to is The Spirit Of Indian Painting: Close Encounters With 101 Great Works 1100-1900.

Published in 2014, the book primarily works as a survey of Goswamy’s career as an art historian and educator, as well as an excellent introduction to his very specific interests. The Spirit Of Indian Painting certainly played that role for me, when, nine years ago, I received a copy to review. It was a fascinating experience, since grasping the book’s grand sweep through late-medieval to early-modern art history led me to read other books, other histories. The Spirit Of Indian Painting ultimately guided, cajoled and insinuated me to learn more about the subcontinent’s painting traditions. To that end, mission accomplished.

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The key to understanding Goswamy’s vision of art lies in the excellent introductory chapter. There, in all of 114 pages, he makes a case for Indian painting traditions as representing what he terms as ‘a layered world’. The very opening of the chapter hooks you and draws you in: “Indian paintings have been variously described: as layered objects in which one thing, or thought, is gently laid upon another; like schist rocks, foliated and iridescent; like a couplet in Persian or a doha in Hindi, terse but meaningful; like a great floral carpet that lies rolled up but can be spread out endlessly, revealing new things with each mellow unfurling."

Also read: B.N. Goswamy: The interpreter of miniatures

'The Spirit of Indian Painting' was published by Allen Lane India

Come to think of it, there is no overarching ‘Indian’ painting tradition as such, nor is any one tradition any more authentically Indian than the other. The thousand years of disparate traditions that Goswamy considers through the prism of each representative work is rather a smorgasboard of regional idioms, styles, materials and narrative patterns. But where most generalists would, when facing such a vast canvas, fall back into mysticism to try and tease out what makes a work of art truly Indian, Goswamy presents a more rational—and therefore clearer—structure. This layering of forms and ideas isn’t just an Indian or South Asian phenomenon, but Goswamy’s perspective remains as good a method as any.

As Goswamy shows in the book, the layering can take various forms. One very evocative description of an 18th century Pahari folio of the Gita Govinda, shows Radha and Krishna as lovers, engaged in a tender caress under a starry, evening sky by the Yamuna. “The stillness is strangely affecting," writes Goswamy, and continues: “As a narrative strategy, the painter’s decision to devote a whole page to this quiet, tender moment is brilliant, for soon energetic, frenetic passion will take over." Here the layering of emotion occurs in the context of the other paintings in the series, as well in the painting’s specific depiction of the luminous lovers against a soft, dark background.

Also read: BN Goswamy: A guru, mentor and guide

Another observation that Goswamy makes in the book that is an excellent way to understand most South Asian art—whether they be the carved frescoes on the gateways of the Sanchi Stupa or mural paintings in Ajanta, or later paintings of Puranic myths on paper—and that is the Indian artist’s notion of time. This isn’t linear but cyclical, where the depiction of the same person in different times can exist within the same frame. “Time moves in a cyclic fashion, making bends and loops, turning back on itself…in short, mercurial illusive and elusive." This doesn’t mean, writes Goswamy, that the Indian artist is a philosopher, but that she is creating in the context of a millennia-old cultural understanding of time.

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The Spirit Of Indian Painting is full of such gems of observation, gleaned from a lifetime of looking at art, contextualizing it and deriving meaning from it. As someone who is interested in early-medieval art, especially the Buddhist tradition, I have often used Goswamy’s observational style to look at works that he himself didn’t often cover. The key, that Goswamy provided to all lovers of South Asian art, is to constantly look for context, because the artists themselves were creating from within very specific social and historical realities. This is another way that Goswamy served to educate the gaze, freeing the viewer’s mind of the restrictions of viewing Indian culture as ‘eternal’. Instead, he showed it for what it really is, ever evolving; informed by existing traditions, but also adding to it.

Also read: B.N. Goswamy was a compelling speaker: Alka Pande