BN Goswamy: Elevating the artist over the patron
A tribute to a beloved teacher, curator, and scholar who produced rigorous but accessible work on Pahari and Indian miniature painting
India lost one of its foremost art historians when Brijinder Nath Goswamy, Professor Emeritus of Art History at Panjab University, Chandigarh, died on 17 November, aged 90. He was born in Sargodha (now in Pakistan) in 1933.
Apart from being a beloved teacher, a critic and curator, and a scholar who produced rigorous but accessible work on Pahari painting and Indian miniature art, Goswamy also developed the Museum of Fine Arts at Panjab University. It is rare for Indian universities to have their own museums, and this one was able to build a stunning collection that now includes the works of MF Husain, FN Souza, KG Subramanyan, Bhupen Khakhar, Ram Kumar, Arpana Caur, Vivan Sundaram and Satish Gujral, among others.
Goswamy, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998, and Padma Bhushan in 2008, curated exhibitions in New York, Paris, San Francisco, Zurich, and San Diego and took up visiting professorships at universities in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. Few know that he worked in the Indian Administrative Service but left it for art’s sake.
Historian William Dalrymple, who acknowledges Goswamy’s generosity as a scholar and a friend, says, “His greatest contribution was shifting the focus of study from emperors, kings and patrons who commissioned artworks and elevating the individual artists who made those masterpieces. He gave them dignity and honour.”
This work was published in books like Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India (2009), Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State (2011), Pahari Paintings: The Horst Metzger Collection in the Museum Reitberg (2017), Manaku of Guler: The Life and Work of another great Indian Painter from a small Hill State (2017), and A Sacred Journey: The Kedara Kalpa Series of Pahari Paintings and the Painter Purkhu of Kangra (2021). Goswamy co-authored two of these books with art historian Eberhard Fischer, and one with colleague and wife Karuna, who predeceased him by three years.
Bikash De Niyogi, Managing Director at Niyogi Books, who published all of these volumes, remembers Goswamy as “the ultimate gentleman who was never miserly in his appreciation but also open with feedback when he did not like something and required changes”. He adds, “His way of holding manuscripts and images was so respectful. It was so soothing to hear him talking about every motif with love and authority, as if he had painted it himself.”
Their association began with a book called The Word is Sacred, Sacred is the Word (2006). “The Government of India’s ministry of external affairs reached out to me for this book on the Indian manuscript tradition. It was commissioned to accompany an exhibition of manuscripts when India was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany,” he says. Recalling meals shared at Goswamy’s home in Chandigarh, and at his own home in Delhi, Niyogi says, “He was a vegetarian and a teetotaller. He used to relish garma-garam phulke lathered with ghee, sabzi and Bengali sweets.”
Niyogi was surprised when Goswamy approached him with the idea of working on the children’s book Ranga Roopa: Gods, Words, Images (2010): “At that time, we did not even have a children’s imprint. But how could I say no to Mr Goswamy, when I knew that he wanted to bring out this book for his grandchildren? I considered myself fortunate.”
Ranga Roopa is a delightful collection of Indian art accompanied by poems that Goswamy himself wrote in Hindi and translated into English. The images introduce young readers to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain iconography through paintings, sculptures, and artefacts that can be found in museums, temples, caves, and private collections. Goswamy does not fix the meaning of these images and allows readers the freedom to make sense of them on their own terms.
Goswamy had just finished working on a scholarly volume about a Ramayana manuscript from the erstwhile princely state of Mysore. “It features a catalogue of 90 exquisite images with in-depth commentary on aesthetics, aspects of painting, mythological significance, cultural nuances, and the depiction of characters in this version of the epic,” says Trisha Niyogi, COO and Director at Niyogi Books. The volume is a sequel to The Great Mysore Bhagavata: Complete Study of a Manuscript from the Binney Collection in the San Diego Museum of Art (2019).
Trisha, who is Bikash De Niyogi’s daughter, has known the art historian since her childhood. She finds comfort in talking about cherished memories of Goswamy’s red brick house in Chandigarh and his beautiful garden. “What I loved most about him was that he never spoke ill of anyone,” she says. “We used to often talk about creating more books for children.”
Dalrymple says Goswamy was rare among scholars from his generation because he “enjoyed getting his work out there beyond speaking to fellow academics”. Goswamy saw this outreach as “part of his duty”, so he avoided writing “obscure and convoluted prose.”
Writer Arundhati Ghosh, former Executive Director at India Foundation for the Arts, backs this up. “I was trained in mathematics and economics, not art history. I used to get daunted by certain kinds of writing on the visual arts,” she says. Encountering Goswamy’s work was a huge source of relief and affirmation. “He wrote in a language that was lucid and embracing. He was like a welcome party in the art history gang,” she says, remembering him for his old-world simplicity, kindness, patience, and generosity of spirit.
She invited him to deliver a series of lectures to professionals working in Bangalore’s information technology sector. The purpose was to give them arts exposure, and cultivate them as future donors and patrons of the arts. “Mr Goswamy was able to talk about art with people who were much younger. There was a twinkle in his eye when he was able to help someone appreciate works of art. He was like a joyous child trying to light a candle,” she says.
Dalrymple, who is one of the co-directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival, recalls that Goswamy was “a permanent fixture” and “a centerpiece” at their festival every year because “he had the magical gift of holding an audience captive with his great skill as a communicator”. Apart from dazzling listeners with the breadth of his knowledge, Goswamy charmed them with rich audio-visual presentations, recitation of poetry in Urdu and Sanskrit, and his sartorial choices. He was rarely seen without an elegant cravat.
Goswamy was scheduled to speak at the 2024 edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival. A session was planned around Goswamy’s latest book The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry and Proverbs (Aleph, 2023). The volume brings together material from the Jataka Tales, the Hadith and the Mahabharata. By his own admission, this was the first time Goswamy had “strayed away from the area of Indian art”.
“We leapt at the opportunity to work with him,” says David Davidar, Managing Director at Aleph. “We have long admired Professor Goswamy’s works on art. Quite apart from his enormous reputation as an art critic, the quirkiness and idiosyncratic nature of the work appealed to us.”
Goswamy’s personal qualities also struck a chord with the team at Aleph. His self-effacing nature is on display in the acknowledgements section, where he thanks Aleph’s Publishing Director Aienla Ozukum for “putting up, with exemplary patience, with my inadequacies at the technical level.” Ozukum reveals that Goswamy was meticulous about every aspect of the book including the text, pictures and the design.
“When he was working on the book, he had to deal with personal loss as well as the fact that he was ailing and would shortly be admitted to hospital. Despite all that, he was extraordinarily professional about delivering a first-rate book to us,” she says recalling the author’s gentle nature and humility.
Ambar Sahil Chatterjee of A Suitable Agency, who was Goswamy’s agent, remembers the historian’s more playful side. “His generosity and wisdom remained undiminished, even though he had suffered the loss of his wife some years ago and the more recent passing of his son after a terminal illness. I cannot imagine the sadness he must have been grappling with this past year. My only consolation is that he is now reunited with his beloved wife and son. Those who knew him have burnished memories to cherish. And there is his scholarship, which reflects his lifelong devotion to helping us understand and appreciate Indian art.”
His professional association with Goswamy began when he was an editor at Penguin India and worked on The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works (1100-1900) (2016). This book unpacks the visual vocabulary of Jain manuscripts, Pahari and Mughal miniatures and Company School paintings, informed by their cultural context and socio-political milieu.
While most tend to associate Goswamy with his work on Pahari art, a tribute would be incomplete without acknowledging his contributions to the study of Sikh art. In 2006, Mapin in Ahmedabad and the Rubin Museum in New York published a volume entitled I See No Stranger: Sikh Early Art and Devotion (2006) by Goswamy with Caron Smith. The volume includes rare images of Guru Nanak going to school, practising austerities in the graveyard, getting married, going on pilgrimage to Mecca, meeting the Mughal emperor Babur, and more, accompanied by scholarly commentary.
Bipin Shah, Managing Director at Mapin, says, “We have also published BNG’s festschrift (a book honouring an academic’s work during their lifetime) with contributions from more than 40 scholars from around the world who were either his students, co-curators, collaborators etc.” This list includes Kavita Singh, Gulam Mohammed Shaikh, Geeta Kapur, Salima Hashmi, Saryu Doshi, Philippa Vaughan, Amit Ambalal, Aman Nath, Francis Wacziarg and others.
Titled Indian Painting: Essays in Honour of BN Goswamy, it is edited by the scholar’s former students Mahesh Sharma and Padma Kaimal. In the book, Sharma mentions that graduate students of BNG (as many of them lovingly called him) and those who wrote their dissertations under his supervision gathered in 2011 in Chandigarh to celebrate his 80th year in a substantial way. The festschrift came out of this, and has contributions from not only India, Europe, Australia and the United States but most notably from Pakistan. That would have meant a lot to Goswamy as he was born in an undivided India under British rule, and was invested in promoting the appreciation of not just Indian art but of Southasian art as a whole.
One of the essays in this book, Brijen Goswamy: The Man, Mad about Research, is by Pakistani historian FS Aijazuddin, who catalogued the Lahore Museum’s collection of over 700 miniature paintings. He points out that, following the Partition, the museum’s collection was divided with one-third being sent to the Government Museum and Art Gallery in Chandigarh. Though the art was physically separated by borders, Aijazuddin benefited hugely from Goswamy’s essay “Pahari Painting: The Family as a Basis of Style” published in Marg magazine in 1968.
Aijazuddin was impressed by Goswamy’s “field research into land records and the entries in bahis at Haridwar” that helped him trace the “movements and migrations of key artists like Nainsukh and their families from state to state”. When they met for the first time, it was not in India or in Pakistan but at a colloquium on Pahari Painting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That was an emotional moment because, when he had first heard of Goswamy in the late 1960s, they lived less than 250 kilometres apart in Lahore and Chandigarh respectively. Aijazuddin writes that, in those days, “only crows could fly unhindered across the border that separated the two Punjabs”. The Indo-Pak War of 1965 had ended, and the Tashkent Declaration had been signed by the governments of India and Pakistan but there was hardly any people-to-people exchange. It was the love of art that brought these historians together.
Hopefully, such exchanges will resume. That would be a fitting tribute to Goswamy’s life.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer who can be reached @chintanwriting on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter).