If one were to line up all of Professor B.N. Goswamy’s books on a shelf, one book would stand out as an oddity. That is his latest book ‘The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry and Proverbs’. A most unusual book, it shows the variety of ways that cats have invaded our lives, our homes, art, literature and speech.
This one book, his last one before his death on November 17, 2023, in Chandigarh at the age of 90, is very different from all his other books which are masterpieces on pre-modern Indian art that had nearly been lost to anonymity.
Over the course of his academic career at Punjab University, from where he earned his doctoral degree (PhD) in 1961, Goswamy’s work focused on courtly miniature traditions of north India, particularly the Pahari paintings that originated in the small, lower hill state of Guler of the erstwhile Punjab region. Even in that, he primarily focused on two great painters of Guler – Nainsukh and Manaku. His books on both the painters show the depth of his research, erudition and precision.
Of the 26 books that Goswamy wrote, five were devoted to Pahari paintings – Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style (1968); Painters at the Sikh Court (1975); Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India (2012); Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State (2012) and Manaku of Guler: The Life and Work of another great Indian Painter from a small Hill State.
Through his extensive research and work on Indian art, Goswamy, or BNG, as he was fondly called, brought the nearly anonymous and lost Indian art closer to the people.
Some of his more important books include The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works, 1100 – 1900 (2014); An Early Document of Indian Art: The Chitralaksana of Nagnajit (1976), Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India (1992), Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State (1997).
Born on August 15, 1933, at Sargodha in now Pakistan Punjab, he completed his master’s degree in 1954 from Punjab University in Chandigarh and went on to join the Indian Administrative Service in 1956. However, art lured him back into the academic world and he resigned from the service in 1958 after working for two years in the Bihar cadre. He returned to Punjab University where he earned his doctoral degree (PhD) in 1961 for his research on the Kangra paintings. During the course of his study, he joined Punjab University as an art history faculty member and went on to become a professor and, later, emeritus professor there.
Goswamy’s work was helped by his command of language and over Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit literature. He reworked the way art history was seen and understood in India and brought to light and into regular discussions on art the hitherto anonymous Indian painters through extensive field work and intricate analysis.
For his ground-breaking contribution to the study of Indian art and culture, he received many honours, including the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan.
Remembering him, renowned author William Dalrymple wrote, “Devastated to hear of the death of my beloved friend and mentor, BN Goswamy, India’s greatest art historian and one of the most wisest and most brilliant men I ever met. He was a kind friend, a generous mentor, a rigorous scholar, a fabulous writerand an entrancing speaker who every year hypnotised the audiences the Jaipur Literature Festival with his wit, subtlety and erudition. He was irreplaceable and will be hugely missed.”
Most of Dr BN Goswamy’s books are available at Kunzum in Delhi-NCR.