Guest Column: Painted Vision on a Private Universe
Between being an inspiration and a role model, BN Goswami defined beauty and elegance for me decades before I actually came in his physical presence
Art and aesthetics felt orphaned by the passing of Brijinder Nath Goswami (BNG) last week. No obit, no tribute will ever come close to doing justice to the brilliance and the sensibility that he symbolised. So effortlessly does his class transcend any titles bestowed on him that even prefixing degrees or honours with his name feels a bit like taking something away from the ethereal nature of his greatness.
That he was an internationally acclaimed art historian, author, a freelance writer who respected his own calling too much to remain in the prestigious Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and chose teaching and art-academics – all this is merely incidental to the inner stature that walked silently by wherever he went.
Between being an inspiration and a role model, he defined beauty and elegance for me decades before I actually came in his physical presence.
My only interactions with him were as one in the audience or as a reader of his classy newspaper articles. Later, while in the government, I would go across to listen to him, but so much in awe of his intellectual class that I never ever dared to introduce myself to him, fearing that my political or governmental association would ruin my chances of being accepted as worthy of his presence.
This iconic art historian would never know that he was among my earliest inspirations for writing in English. His style, coherence and his ability to articulate complex ideas and phenomena with charming simplicity and felicity would often captivate me even when I was a student in my rural Mahilpur school.
I continued following and being enraptured by Goswami’s writings in the newspapers even though I had difficulty grasping the subject he dwelt upon – painting, especially its history aspect.
For me, the elegant sobriety and simplicity of his words was enough to intoxicate me. He transcended the limitations of his theme and “decoded complexity of the subject for the layman without compromising on its scholarly merit”, as one of my students put it.
When I listened to his discourses on the highly specialised field of paintings, especially Pahari paintings, my relative ignorance of the subject never came in the way of grasping his message – he led semi-literates like me so effortlessly to the doorsteps of his art. The images his words painted before my mind’s eye covered up my own ignorance of the paintings which he would decode. His suave presence by itself set the right mental stage for walls of ignorance and un-understanding to start collapsing.
Talking of his work, he discovered and demonstrated beauty where we saw mere folksy by-lanes on parched leaves. Some nimble tendrils would emerge smoothly from his words touching images to life and celebrating divinity in seemingly innocuous, rustic figures. He saw and helped his students see history in step with dance of colours between these. The diligence with which he first gathered and then celebrated traditional strokes in painting of the Pahari lore will continue to bring commoners and connoisseurs on a single platform.
BNG will live on as much through his work as through the students he groomed – like a parent. I am fortunate to count one of his dearest students, Vrinda Agarwal, among my children, one for whom his grandfatherly presence will always define all that is good in academics.
The stalwart could walk mentally and intellectually hand in hand with children one-third or even one-fourth his age, rendering his own giant dimensions completely invisible. His warmth touched their lives as much as his brilliance did. No wonder one saw an ethereal spray of sentiments – even positive sentimentalism – in the tributes paid to him by those who knew him more closely than I did. For me, the story of his life – like his life itself – will continue to feel like a “Painted vision on a private universe.”
(The author is a freelance contributor.)