Professor BN Goswamy has been a larger-than-life figure for me; a guru, mentor and guide.
Around 20 years ago, I attended a conference on traditional Indian painting in Bengaluru helmed by Professor Goswamy that opened my mind to the world of traditional Indian painting. This became a deep dive into the different schools of Indian painting and its nuances, and developed into a lasting interest. Over the years, one went to him with questions and every time he would make a reference or share an insight that would create a fresh and deeper understanding of the subject. Even his way of speaking was lyrical and magical, so that you couldn't help falling in love with the subject — here was a person who, because of his knowledge and his ability to make a subject interesting, made you fall in love with it as well. A bad teacher can kill one's interest in a subject; he had the opposite ability — even if you were not interested, he would make you interested because of the way he would talk about it.
Spending time with him and having learned from him has been a great privilege. We are very fortunate that he came to MAP (the Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru) last year, looked at our collection and chose to speak about 25 miniature paintings, which we recorded. In fact, MAP is organising a condolence meeting for him on 30 November, where we will launch a series that emerged from this exercise. Called ‘Ruminations with BN Goswamy’, it will feature his commentary on some of the works from our classical paintings collection.
India became so much richer through his sharing of his deep knowledge of Indian art, and now we are doubly bereft because we also lost Kavita (art historian Kavita Singh) recently. She was one of his star students and it has been a double blow. There were many projects we had talked about for MAP that were in the pipeline, which will now never be realized by the same people.
Through our association, what always struck me was his zest for teaching and collaborating. There’s this conference of miniature painting that happens at the Rietberg museum in Zurich every year where I have been a regular, and it used to be a real pleasure attending it along with Professor Goswamy. Often, the trimurti of Indian painting — B.N. Goswamy, Milo Beach and Eberhard Fischer — would be in attendance, and it was a different experience altogether. Milo hasn't been coming for the last few years because he's not been too well, and now unfortunately we are only left with Eberhard.
Prof Goswamy had the unique ability to relate a painting to a real-life incident and a real-life incident to an anecdote, related to a painting. He would straddle and shuttle between time zones and schools of painting, and it was like he was talking about friends. He would talk about Bundi and Kishangarh and Deccan and Malwa and the present and the past and artists and patrons like they were his contemporaries and his associates, flitting in and out of stories. He had an instinct for people, and could connect them beautifully; he connected me to the filmmaker Amit Dutta, who has now made a series of films for us at MAP.
I once told him I didn’t understand dance — he said ‘what is this, you say you don't understand dance, let me get you to meet the best dancer and let her explain it to you’, and connected me to Malvika Sarukkai. He would take a personal interest in seeing your growth, and depending on your appetite he would feed you.
After the death of his wife and son, he became broken for a while. But even though he was in hospital during this last illness, he was working on a book, which I believe he's just completed, for which he borrowed some images from us. He wrote to me saying ‘Abhishek, will you write a little blurb for my book?’ I wrote that blurb and sent it to him — and it was quite unlike him that he did not respond to my mail. He wanted a copy of a book we are working on for our exhibition Book of Gold: The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana of Banaras. I told him ‘Sir, abhi tak aayi nahi hai, but it is coming by the end of November and you will be the first one to get a copy.’ But now I don't know who to send it to.
— As told to Shrabonti Bagchi