Dwelling on the beautiful Persian word abr, meaning ‘cloud’, Professor Brijender Nath Goswamy would find himself reminded of abri or the art of marbling paper. This, in turn, would take him back in time to his childhood experience of going to the jildsaaz or bookbinder, at the start of every school year, to have his new notebooks bound in abri covers. Within the space of a few sentences, BNG—as he signed his letters and emails—could conjure up the enchantment of fragrant words, elusive images, vanished occupations, an entire world of everyday sophistication lost to a coarsened present.
Goswamy was that rare scholar who combined the historian’s empirical precision and the archivist’s meticulous attentiveness with a poet’s sensitivity and soaring imagination. He could take any image, object, manuscript or marginal detail from the historical record, and re-animate it with the beating pulse of the creative life that had produced it. The very opposite of the dry-as-dust academic, he enjoyed the enigmatic and lyrical qualities of the pictorial image. He treasured the connections, in pre-colonial Indian art, between painting and song, and would burst spontaneously into Urdu, Farsi or Hindi poetry while elucidating the finer points of a Ragamala series or the portrayal of a nayika or heroine in dejection or delight. A rasika and a sahridaya, he reminded us that Mughal, Rajput, Pahari and Deccani miniature paintings were set into albums, meant to be held in the hands and savoured, not held at a hushed distance on a wall. He reminded us that they were not isolated objects, and that we could only understand them by seeing them in sumptuous relation to the larger worlds of story, recitation and performance from which they came.
Born in Sargodha (now in Pakistan) on August 15, 1933, the son of a sessions judge, BNG was 14 when the British India of his childhood was bloodily partitioned into the new nation-states of India and Pakistan. He would eventually make his base in Chandigarh, the new capital designed by the legendary Modernist architect Le Corbusier, which Jawaharlal Nehru gifted eastern Punjab. By the time BNG passed away in Chandigarh on November 17, 2023, he had already made an enduring contribution to the city’s intellectual life, through his decades-long association with the Art History Department of Panjab University and his regular column on the arts and culture for the city’s beloved newspaper, The Tribune.
At home in Sanskrit, Farsi, Urdu, German and English, BNG was an incomparable scholar whose early work on Pahari paintings in the 1960s revolutionised the study of this field, which had been opened up by such erudite precursors as Ananda K Coomaraswamy, WG Archer, Karl Khandalavala, and MS Randhawa. These art historians had been entranced by, and had studied in detail, the styles of miniature painting that flourished in the small Rajput kingdoms of the Himalayan foothills between the 17th and 19th centuries. Their books and articles introduced viewers and readers to the jewel-like paintings that had been produced in regional centres like Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Mankot, Nurpur, Chamba, Mandi, Garhwal, and Jasrota—located, variously, in present-day Jammu, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand—by artists who, for the most part, remained anonymous.
BNG arrived at art history by a somewhat circuitous route. In 1956, he qualified for the Indian Administrative Service and joined its Bihar cadre, where he served for two years before deciding that a life in the bureaucracy was not for him. He returned to academia, and became intrigued by the possibility of devoting himself to the study of Pahari painting. Having earned his PhD in 1961, BNG found himself dissatisfied with the prevailing scholarly taste for identifying styles associated with the regional hill courts. The more closely he looked at the paintings and drawings— and at the inscriptions, typically in the Takri script, on the surface or reverse of many of these works—the more he became convinced that these styles were not associated with royal patrons so much as with itinerant painters who moved among these courts.
The trouble was that not much was known about these painters, even though a number of them had left occasional signatures behind, as well as self-portraits. Eventually, through the research of BNG and a number of his colleagues, including the Swiss-based German art historian Eberhard Fischer, these shadowy figures would appear in their fullness. Prominent among these them was Nainsukh (c. 1710-1778), who began in Guler, moved to Jasrota and finally to Basohli, in each location achieving a convergence between his own visionary emphases and pictorial manner and the preferences of his patron.
At home in Sanskrit, Farsi, Urdu, German and English, BN Goswamy was an incomparable scholar whose early work on Pahari paintings in the 1960s revolutionised the study of this field. The very opposite of the dry-as-dust academic, he enjoyed the enigmatic and lyrical qualities of the pictorial image
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But we would have remained largely in the dark about Nainsukh, had BNG not taken the pathbreaking step of consulting the registers that the pandas or hereditary priests at Hindu pilgrimage centres such as Varanasi, Kurukshetra and Hardwar maintain, detailing their clients across the circumstances of generation and migration. In these registers, he found exhaustive entries testifying to the names of several generations of the family of the 18th-century Pahari painter, Pandit Seu, including his sons Manaku and Nainsukh, as well as Manaku’s sons Fattu and Khushala, and Nainsukh’s sons Kama, Gaudhu, Nikka, and Ranjha, and their descendants. Unlike the Mughal ateliers, where artists specialised in particular skills and forms of imagery and did not work in family lineages, BNG showed decisively that the Pahari ateliers were defined by artistic genealogies. Some artists would conform to their inherited repertoire, others would improvise beyond it. BNG presented his breakthrough findings in the legendary article, ‘Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style’, which appeared in Marg (Vol xxi No. 4, September 1968).
Summarising his biographical method in another fine and often-cited article, ‘On Two Portraits of Pahari Artists’, in Artibus Asiae (Vol. 34 No. 2/3,1972), BNG wrote: “There is inscriptional evidence on paintings which links them, or whole sets, with individual members: the 1730 Gita Govinda by Manak[u]; the Balwant Singh group of pictures by Nainsukh; the Ramayana drawings by Ranjha; and other signed paintings by Sultanu, Chhajju, Harkhu, Gursahai, Deviditta, Saudagar. We have, again, portraits of the artists themselves: among them, those of Seu, Manak[u], Nainsukh, Khushala, Kama, Gaudhu, Nikka, Ranjha; from later generations, portraits also of Deviditta, Saudagar, Attra, and Ramdayal.”
Building on these discoveries, BNG and Eberhard Fischer, who served for many years as Director of the Rietberg Museum, Zürich, authored the magisterial study, Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. No longer would it be the norm to leave matters of authorship and artistic agency vague, in the context of pre-colonial Indian art. Instead, art-historical scholarship would make an effort to identify and map the complex negotiations between artistic desire and patronal preoccupation.
BNG’s lectures were distinguished for the depth of insight which he brought into play, as well as the grace and eloquence with which he enthralled his audience, no matter what the subject. Bridging the gap between expert culture and a popular audience, he would share his intimate knowledge of Jaina, Mughal, Rajput, Pahari, Deccani and Sikh art, of the Company School and Kalighat, with persuasive brilliance and an infectious enthusiasm. In recent years, he published several books intended for an ever-growing non-specialist audience; among them, The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works (2014), Conversations (2022), which is a collection of his Tribune columns, and, launched last month, The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs.
Like many whose lives were touched by his presence, I will always cherish the conversations I had with BNG over the years—many during the various conferences and lecture series to which I had the privilege of inviting him—and the radiant insights or horizons of research he could communicate with a lightness of touch, over a cup of tea. We will miss his warm, elegant, empathetic presence greatly.