[Book Review] Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages With 101 Themes And More
Information about the book: Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages With 101 Themes And More. By Brijinder Nath Goswamy, Penguin Allen Lane, 2022. Hardcover, Pp. 506, ISBN 9780670095117
Abstract: Called ‘a string of gems’ and ‘a book imbued with erudition and enchantment’, hot off the press, this is a book review of the most recent publication of the eminent art historian, Brijinder Nath (BN) Goswamy, titled ‘Conversations’. Divided into a hundred and twenty-five short essays covering a diverse range of topics, personalities and concerns in Indian art, each article is a unique insight: sometimes into schools of art (ranging from Pahari paintings in the North to Kutchi style in the west); and sometimes bringing to light forgotten artists (like painter Esther Rahim or sculptor Nek Chand). The book review begins by giving a preview into the lack of voluminous readership for art and then describes the book in detail. For convenience, the review has been divided into three categories covering various facets of Indian art, its prevalence beyond the subcontinent and the lesser-known artists by clubbing articles with similar themes together. The conclusion of the book review provides comments and an analysis of the book's writing style. For a true insight into the book, the author has frequently been quoted, along with the views of other historians and book reviewers like William Dalrymple and Nirupama Dutt.
Book Review: Art history, even today, both as a field of research and as an activity of leisure and passion has few takers.1 For the multitude, art continues to be an abstract concept, reserved only for the eyes and pleasure of the crème de la crème amongst them. Under these circumstances, BN Goswamy’s Conversations, ‘a miscellany of [one hundred and twenty-five] pieces' 2 is a breath of fresh air. The renowned art historian takes his readers on an intimate journey as he decodes some classics (like the Mughal Miniature Paintings) and some hidden treasures (like the Assamese Lampa textile). These articles have formerly featured in the reputed Indian Newspaper The Tribune every fortnight since 1995, and have been arranged chronologically in the book, the last being as recent as January 19, 2020. Each article is roughly two-three pages long. The themes in successive chapters are diverse; thus, for the convenience of the reader, this review has tried to define the essays not by chronology but by category. Category one of this review briefly discusses essays related to art; category two talks about the prevalence of Indian art beyond the subcontinent; last category three discusses essays about the lesser-known names of the art world. In the preface, Goswamy begins with an admission: “This is a book of little essays among which there is no order; no given theme connects the pieces; they also appear dated perhaps…. Why, then, one might legitimately ask, would anyone be interested in reading them?…. I do not have the answers: all I know is how I came to write these pieces, these ‘little sketches of large subjects.” (Page xv; 2022)
This humble ‘admission of guilt’ is arguable; for the essays are constructed in a way that though based on a (then) recent development in the world, the insight provided is not bound by the constraint of time. To quote an example: essay forty-one called ‘Kutch: A Place Apart’ was written in February 2001-- a time when Gujarat (and especially Kutch) in Western India braved one of the worst earthquakes it ever saw. The essay begins by acknowledging that disaster and goes on to pay obeisance to the aesthetic beauty of the region: sharing facts like Vasco-de Gama’s connection to Kutchi craft or the marvellous Ain Mahal, to name a few.
THE ART OF ‘LISTENING’ TO A PAINTING
The reader hears and sees everything: in essay twenty-eight, for example, the Prayers of the scribes of Nalanda earnestly praying in his ‘indifferent Sanskrit’ are vividly described: “May I be protected, so speaks the book, from water; from oil; from defective tying; may I always be protected from falling into the wrong hands.” Or in essay twenty-seven titled ‘The King and the Ascetic’, where the famous Mughal Painting depicting Emperor Jahangir’s meeting with the Hindu Ascetic Gossain Jadrup is discussed. Instead of merely describing the symbols and metaphors in the painting, the reader also gets a pique into ‘the conversation’. When Jahangir questions the meagre living of the ascetic, the latter replies: “A rake put the question to him ‘What is this house— two feet and a span?’ Hotly and with tears the sage replied: ‘Ample for him who has to die.” Marvellous insights fill these articles. For example, essay eleven titled ‘That Certain Glow’ describes a unique practice of the Pahari artists: using pieces of ‘beetle wings’ to impart glow to their paintings. Essay thirty-two shares the legend of Guler: how the Great Goddess herself descended to help her devotee reach perfection when he was assigned the task of painting the likeness of the Queen he had never seen and the drama that ensued. Essay fifty-eight discusses the 'many colours of the colour yellow’— here in the over-garment of Lord Krishna, there is the symbol of the Spring season, sometimes dazzling Van Gogh’s landscape as the pretty marigold flower and even at times used as the code for the ‘inferior’ (for the Jews in the war years and the non-Afghans in Taliban rule).
DISCOVERING INDIAN ART ABROAD
Goswamy lets his readers share his surprise of discovering native art beyond the subcontinent: sharing stories of Indian art found in the museums of Bulgaria (essay number eight), the details about the painting of a Swiss engineer dressed like an Indian prince (essay fifty-four) or the scene of the 'oriental harem' which features on the wall of the Royal Palace in Austria (essay number eighty-eighty one)--the list goes on. Besides serving his readers with sumptuous art, Goswamy also reveals the other facets of the art world: its ugliness with increasing instances of forgeries in the contemporary world— a rising problem is discussed at length in essay number sixty-five. Readers also get to meet the lesser-known faces of the world of art: Esther Rahim, the artist whose paintings were often mistaken for the much more popular Amrita Sher-Gil’s due to the uncanny resemblance in style (essay seventy-one) or the absurd yet fantastic modern architecture of Nek Chand found in Chandigarh (essay hundred and thirteen) or the dandy Maharaja of Holkar and his passion for ‘everything French’ (essay one hundred and fourteen) or the Polish artist who left his imprint in the luxurious palace of Jodhpur (essay one hundred and sixteen).
The book covers a wide range of topics, which is both its greatest strength and weakness if at all one. As the cover flap of the book cautions: “Goswamy invites the general, but generally interested and literate readers to enter…” Each article serves a new piece of information about art which could prove very overwhelming if it were not for the writing style, which is eloquent and true to its title ‘conversational’-- evoking a newfound excitement for the age-old traditions and schools of Indian art history in the readers. Above all, it is Goswamy’s passion for art which is palpable in his writing and makes this fivehundred and six paged, aesthetically beautiful (literally and metaphorically) a most enjoyable read.
As the acclaimed author-historian William Dalrymple wrote: “Goswamy brings to his writings the soul of a poet and the heart of a rasika.” I will conclude by answering the question Dr Goswamy had mentioned in the preface, which was also quoted at the beginning of this review: “Why, then, one might legitimately ask, would anyone be interested in reading them [the articles]?” The answer is simple: This ‘collection of gems’3 would be of interest to anyone wanting a fresh insight into the rich, layered and complicatedly beautiful world of Indian art, which has seemingly proved inaccessible to many of us till now.
1. Goyal, Tanya Goyal, Carol. ‘Art In The Time Of Few Takers’. BW Businessworld. Accessed 10 August 2022. https://www.businessworld.in/article/Art-In-The-Time-Of-Few-Takers/ 30-03-2017-115407/
2. Dr BN Goswamy’s description of the book (via personal correspondence) 3. Dutt, Nirupama. ‘Art is at the Heart of BN Goswamy’s Conversations’’. Hindustan Times. Accessed 2 May 2022.