Capturing the spirit of Indian art
Capturing the spirit of Indian art

Legendary scholar BN Goswamy’s new book offers a cornucopia of riches for Indian art lovers

The Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India 1100-1900 exhibition that was organised at the Rietberg Museum, in Zurich, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, in 2011-12, was a landmark show featuring Indian art that sadly did not travel to India. With more than 100 works from a period stretching over 900 years, it was the largest of its kind ever mounted. But, more importantly, it was the first exhibition of historic Indian art in which the painters were given long overdue recognition.


For long Indian art has always been seen from the perspective of the patron, in which the identity of the artists was largely irrelevant. At best, the credit for the work was given to the community or the region the painter came from. But, years of meticulous research by some of the best-known experts in the field had resulted in comprehensive background stories and biographies of over 40 of the most important of these painters, with names such as Keshav Das, Prayag, Aqa Riza and Nainsukh, all of which was collected in a splendid coffee-table companion to the exhibition.


A large part of both the exhibition and the book was built around the work of the éminencegrise of Indian art scholarship, Dr BN Goswamy. Professor emeritus of art history at Panjab University, he had spent his entire lifetime travelling around the country, researching the dozens of distinct schools of Indian art and artists, stitching together their stories and lineages.


His books, such as Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style (1968); Painters at the Sikh Court (1975); Essence of Indian Art (1986) and Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State (1997) are considered indispensable works in the modern understanding of the Indian artistic and aesthetic tradition.


Goswamy is now 81, and there cannot be a more fitting climax to this long and distinguished career than his latest endeavour, The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works, 1100-1900 (Penguin, Rs 1499). The richly illustrated book is a celebration of 101 of the best-known works of ancient Indian art and their authors. “It is not easy to cull 101 works from several thousand works one knows well,” says Goswamy in his introductory essay. “Such a selection has to be personal. The works are included, first and foremost, because each one of them speaks to me with a strength and clarity I cannot ignore.”


What makes the book fascinating, and probably the best ever written on Indian art, is Goswamy’s style, which is at once engaging and accessible, a rarity at least among Indian academics and art historians. You can’t ask for a better example of the use of erudition and knowledge for evocative storytelling. “The intention in this volume is not to present yet another history of Indian painting, but to bring readers/viewers into close contact with each work and to make them feel the texture of its form and thought,” he says.


Here we excerpt some of the paintings and their descriptions.




Folio from a Rasikapriyaseries; Pahari, from the workshop of Purkhu of Kangra; c. 1780


In sixteen sections—prabhavas is what they are called—and close to 400 verses, the poet Keshavadasa of Orchha created what is regarded as a classic in its genre: the Rasikapriya. The fame and popularity of Keshavadasa’sRasikapriya came to be reflected in the fact that the entire series of paintings was based on it, at court after court, soon after the work was completed. In what is called the ‘popular Mughal style’, an illustrated text was produced as early as the second quarter of the seventeenth century.




Mughal; Akbar period; By ’Abd-al Samad; c. 1590


In the early years of the sixteenth century, the great Persian master Bihzad— whose name is still a legend in the Islamic world—had painted a picture of two fighting dromedaries with such a dazzling display of brushwork that it was to linger long in the memory of painters. Some Mughal versions of his work were made, among them this superbly painted one by Khwaja ’Abd-al Samad. The Khwaja, one knows, was one of the most gifted painters of Humayun’s and Akbar’s courts.




Mughal, Jahangir period, attributed to Govardhan; c. 1625–30


Govardhan was the son of the painter Bhawani Das. That is why he is referred to in some inscriptions as khanazad, meaning ‘born in the (royal) household’. A painter in the second generation, who, like his father, worked in the Akbari atelier and then in that of Akbar’s son, Jahangir.Govardhan’s early work might not have attracted much attention, for he finds no mention in Abu’l-Fazl’s select list of Akbari painters, but he must have kept growing in stature for, as time passed, he was apparently entrusted with a range of work—illustrations in the narrative mode in manuscripts like the Akbarnama, the Dastan-iMasih, the Khamsa of Mir Ali ShirNawa’i. The five sannyasiswhom we see in this remarkable painting remain unidentified. Each is a sharply observed portrait, but the figures bear no names, not even any sectarian marks on their foreheads.




Folio from a dispersed manuscript of the Devi Mahatmya; Opaque watercolour and slight gold on paper; Rajasthan, from a Sirohi workshop, painted at Balotra; c. 1703


The page is packed with furious action. In the top-left corner, the Goddess appears, riding her ferocious-looking tiger who leaps forward as if to pounce upon the horse of the chariot on which his mistress’s adversary is seated. The Goddess, youthful-looking, crowned and dressed in a brief choli-bodice and skirt, sits calmly on her tiger-vahana and hurls weapons—khadga, dagger, lance, trishula—at the demon with all her four hands.  The six-armed demon facing her, seated on a chariot, is also seen discharging one arrow after another at her, but it would seem as if they have gone singing past her. Nothing, miraculously, has done her any harm; they have, in fact, not even touched her. On the ground lies a dying warrior, about to be trampled upon by the demon’s horse but still extending one hand to touch the feet of the Goddess, as if in a gesture of seeking her blessings and asking her forgiveness.




Folio from the dispersed Bhagavata Purana; Pahari, possibly from a Mandi workshop; c. 1650


Having been informed of the birth of Devaki’s child, the heartless Kamsa arrives, full of apprehensions that the sage Narada’s prophecy of his death at the hands of one of Devaki’s children will come true. He dismounts from the royal elephant, enters the cell where the child is and, ignoring the piteous pleas of his sister, picks up the infant, intending to kill it by dashing it against a slab set up in the courtyard.


The painter sets up the scene perfectly for the miraculous happening about to take place, unknown to Kamsa. The courtyard which the cell of Krishna’s parents abuts is shown as a trapezoid space with a high outer wall; another chamber with a half-open door is at the left, and a protective wall at the back. The ground is coloured a silken-smooth light jade green for everything to show up with perfect clarity against it. In the middle of the courtyard a platform appears, low but broad, on which Kamsa is to mount to perform his ghastly deed.




Folio from a dispersed BhagavataPurana series; possibly from a Mandi workshop; c. 1650


In this painting, which relates evidently to the Tenth Book of the BhagavataPurana, in which the story of Krishna is told, the painter takes us to the inner apartments of a palace where the princely figure whom one can identify as Kamsa is seen conversing with an old woman seated close to his feet. Maids and attendants stand around, flanking the two central figures: three at right and three at left. Behind the latticed screens more women, evidently belonging to the royal household, can be seen even if hazily, and in the spacious carpeted courtyard leading out from Kamsa’s chamber a large group of women musicians—as many as twelve—can be seen playing on instruments or singing. Further down, a fountain plays and water courses down a channel, on either side of which we see glimpses of a rich garden.




Isolated leaf; Opaque watercolour and gold on paper; Pahari, from the Seu–Nainsukh family workshop; c. 1800


It is a quiet evening. With the sun about to set, the sky is tinged with streaks of red. There is a nip in the air, judging from the small log fire in the middle distance. A river descending from the mountains flows gently by. And on its grassy bank Shiva, having left his lofty abode in Kailash behind, has decided to settle for the night. His small family is with him, and their few belongings are all at hand. He might be Trilokinath—literally, ‘Lord of the Three Worlds’—but this is all he needs. In this quiet corner of the lower hills, he seems to be completely content.

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