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  • Chandini Jaswal

Talking Art and History: In Conversation with Art Historian Dr. B.N. Goswamy

I have been among those fortunate few who have known about/to Dr. B.N. Goswamy all my life, even though my discovery of him being an art historian is embarrassingly very recent. However, one sentiment has always been a constant— whether I was 4 feet tall or 5 feet 6 inches; ten years old or twenty-one— he has always appeared huge, larger than life, an enigma. When I started reading his works and articles, I realized that Dr. Goswamy’s perception of the world and of the past was strikingly different from most of us, it was as if he viewed art history from a different plane, an elevated one.

Dr. B.N. Goswamy is considered to be one of India's most respected art historians. He is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Panjab University, Chandigarh. He is the author of over twenty-five highly acclaimed books on Indian art and culture, including, among others, Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India (1992), Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State (1997), The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works, 1100-1900 (2014), Manaku of Guler: Another Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State (2017) and, most recently, Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engages with 101 Themes and More (2022).

During the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023, I sat down with Dr. Goswamy after the Press Conference to understand his way of viewing history, art, and everything in between. I began the conversation by asking what he thinks to be the best way of approaching a painting to fully appreciate all its aspects. He paused and nodded. "In what capacity? As a Viewer?" he asked. "As a normal museum go-er," I answered.

Dr. Goswamy replied to a rather 'difficult question' that a little background is important - not for that particular picture, but the context in which that particular painting was painted. "You see, one can merely admire a painting without context... achhi bani hai, chehra theek bana hai (it is well drawn, the face is drawn neatly).."

"But to truly relate to it - you really have to read up. It prepares you to ask the right kind of questions. Let's say you come across a painting and it shakes you to the core, can happen, but doesn't very often. Say, I suddenly come across a painting that I have no idea about but I am immediately taken in by its quality and so on... then it is my background that is helping me gain an insight into the painting. If I am completely unfamiliar with paintings, then it is very difficult to gain an entry into the painting...

What is important is that you gain a visual entry into the painting and for that, some preparation is required.

Dr. Goswamy went on to explain the phenomenon of ‘COLD ENCOUNTER’—something perhaps most of us are guilty of doing— of encountering a painting/ piece of art without any context or prior knowledge. When I remarked the same—i.e. how most of us were not visiting museums in ‘the right way’—Dr. Goswamy [in his characteristic sense of humor] replied, that it was nobody’s fault- one shouldn’t be expected to take an exam to enter a museum!

I grinned as he steered the conversation into a deeper aspect of art history. “My belief is that we are visually illiterate as people…Indian culture essentially emphasizes sound more than sight… hamare culture mein shabd ki importance zyada hai [our culture attributes a greater importance to the ‘word’]… we are an ‘aural’ not oral culture, sight comes much later. Thus, visual literacy comes much later. For the common man, a painting and a photo are not very different.”

“So how do we introduce visual literacy in our culture? Should children be given classes?” I asked. “It has to begin at a very early stage, at home, with parents, at school—and only then will it come naturally to all of us.”

The half an hour long conversation ended with a book recommendation that must be read by art enthusiasts before approaching Indian paintings or Art History. Dr. Goswamy quipped again that this prerequisite of reading up is 'too demanding' and an 'unfair expectation'. “The eye is a wonderful instrument and it needs to be trained, educated, and cultivated.”

The eye is a wonderful instrument and it needs to be trained, educated, and cultivated.

Every conversation with Dr. B.N. Goswamy leaves one with rich insights into art and history. For me personally, this conversation was a portal to an enchanting world of Indian Art History and Art appreciation. Engaging with one of India's most respected art historians, Dr. B.N. Goswamy was truly enriching and left me wanting more such conversations with the legend.

Dr. B.N. Goswamy's Favorite Book: Royal Painting by Ananda Coomarswamy

"Although we call him an art historian, he wasn't one. He was a geologist. His work is considered dated today, but his understanding of what Indian painting is unmatched - very few have been able to do that."

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