In October 2023, B.N. Goswamy, the incomparable art historian, had released a book themed . It was perhaps a reflection of a man finding his way out of the grief arising from his son’s death earlier in the year following a period of illness. The book was dedicated to the son. But that has been the hallmark of the life of BN Goswamy perhaps - a jnana yogi, for whom the knowledge of art has been the raison d'être.
The life of BN Goswamy in some ways reminds the history student of the life of one of his most famous muses, Nainsukh of Guler. Both dedicated their lives to art, staying away from their homes. While Nainsukh spent his life in Jasrota in Jammu and Kashmir to produce his gems, it was the Pahari art in remote Himachal, Jammu and Uttarakhand, away from Punjab University in Chandigarh, and fellowship stints abroad, that brought out the finest of Professor Goswamy.
Giving up a job with the famed Indian Administrative Service (IAS) for his love for history, Professor Goswamy literally went on to become the father of art history in modern India.
The credit for giving Pahari paintings a voice and soul goes to him, particularly to his 1968 journal article titled "Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style." It was this breakthrough that revived the forgotten memory of Nainsukh and Manaku, and the great family of painters that was the jewel of many a Pahari king’s darbar.
BN Goswamy’s appreciation of art was itself inspired prose. His writings are sprinkled with such instances, showcasing the originality of his works on art history and his fondness for the intricate details that characterized Pahari kalam. Sample for instance this sentence from :
"In Pahari painting the artists of the Punjab hills created a vibrant world: a world of vividness of line and colour, but also, of silence. The only voices one hears therein belong to critics and art-historians; the artists themselves seldom."
It was this originality that created the legend that he went on to become. This originality of thought even made him take a critical stand on Western artists, much in the mould of Ananda Coomaraswamy, who found extensive reference in Goswamy’s book “”. In the essay on the series shared by Doctor Karan Singh, Professor Goswamy asserted what eventually became the norm to understand Pahari paintings:
"Mr Eastman treats the drawings as belonging to the ‘Kangra’ School. We are of the view that the classification of styles which identifies a style with a state needs to be revised, and feel that it is necessary, and as much as it is possible, to classify Pahari painting into styles on the basis of artist families."
Of course, these are not the only areas of his contributions. As an art historian, Professor Goswamy scanned the length and breadth of India to highlight the originality and beauty of Indian art. Mapping its diversity and evolution over the matrix of time and geography, Professor Goswamy’s contributions to the study of Indian art’s history remain unparalleled to this day.
His work on the paintings of Kutch and tracing their origins and divergence from the Mewar school was instrumental in advancing the understanding on the theme. In particular, the manner in which folk legends and evidence were brought together to explain the :
"In the accounts of Rao Lakhpatji, it is noticed that.…as a prince…..the young prince ‘left Bhuj and announced his intention of taking service with the Maharana of Udaipur’.....For this there is also evidence from the works of art. An equestrian portrait…..has a strong touch of Mewar."
Another rather important area of his research that is less appreciated was his work on early Sikh art. His works including Painters at the Sikh Court and the iconic I See No Stranger: Sikh Early Art and Devotion brought to the fore the role of Pahari art in early Sikh traditions, highlighting links to Nainsukh’s family workshop and artists like Purkhu who drew several portraits of the Sikh Gurus at the time.
Similarly, his appreciation for art linked to the Jain manuscripts and textual traditions remains a stellar contribution to the field of Indian art history. A particularly important work on this subject was his treatise, A Jainesque Sultanate Shahnama and the context of pre-Mughal painting in India which filled an important gap in the understanding of the evolution of art in India during the pre-Mughal areas.
He was likely one of the last surviving legends from the remarkable generation of scholars and academics that had Punjab University, Chandigarh, as their intellectual home. From this base, they launched several audacious advances in the understanding of subjects that made the world stand up and notice.
Perhaps he will now get to meet his muses, Nainsukh and Manaku, and truly understand the reasons behind the silence that is reflected in their brilliant art.
For now, suffice to say that his life was an artistic expression of the divine, and his works will continue to inspire people for generations to come. There will be many who will come and go, but there definitely will not be another Brijinder Nath Goswamy.
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