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B.N. Goswamy’ s Conversations — India’s Leading Art Historian Engaged with 101 Themes & More review: Giving context and nostalgia to the history of the art form

When art critic B.N. Goswamy was a child, he would take his soft-cover books to the jaldaaz, the binder, who would ask him to select an  abri, a cover for the bound book, from among “a whole sheaf of sheets, each different from the others in colour and swirling patterns.”

Decades later, writing ‘Art and Soul’, his weekly column for  The Tribune, Goswamy would relapse into this memory, hacking at the details, coating nostalgia with context. The word  abri, he notes, comes from the Persian  abr meaning clouds, “so appropriate to the swirling patterns”, which in turn emerged from a culture of marbling in Turkey, known as  ebru. Holding on to the memory of a child who wants to get his books covered, Goswamy charts the history of an art form, from Japan to Turkey to Hungary and the United States. It is a tightrope performance between the visceral and the cerebral.

Uneasy slot

In  Conversations, a collection of his columns, one senses the see-saw of a critic, that recursive balancing between loving and knowing. To love is to pay attention. To know is to expand attention. To be a critic is to uneasily slot yourself between the two. There are essays where Goswamy revels at the watermark on a mill-made paper, or at the “shiny, colourful labels that used to be pasted on cloth-bolts” in Bombay textile mills, now shuttered into crumbling heritage. Show him a painting and he will straighten his gaze (and yours) towards the “roughness of the skin of the knees” of one of the painted figures, towards the colours, fixating on their sheen — the yellow derived from the urine of cows fed mango leaves or the green-blue “emerald brilliance” of beetle wings used to add glisten to jewellery in paintings.

But this is not always knowledge hemmed in by texts and gauntleted academic seminars. In Zurich, he goes backstage to see how the Koodiyattam performers spend hours decking themselves up, and recognises that the hours spent are not just for the elaborate make-up but also to give performers a reprieve before they enter “the world of the gods”.

Conversational ease

These essays, to be clear, are not academic, nor are they dense with information and insight. “[U]ntouched more or less by heavy scholarship, clear of complex formulations,” there is a casual quality to them, as if these were written in the peripheral vision of Goswamy’s primary occupations — teaching, writing monographs, researching with museums, planning exhibitions, preparing for lectures. For example, while assembling images for a lecture titled ‘To Observe; To Imagine’ that he was giving to botanists in Bengaluru, he is reminded of Jain-esque paintings of the Persian epic  Shahnama, where with bold assertiveness, Jaina artistic conventions — like the eye projecting beyond the edge of the face — manifest in the folio of a Farsi text. This sudden remembrance produced that week’s column.

Like in any conversation there are threads left loose, unfulfilled promises of circling back to a theme (“I must return to him another time”), strong opinions stinging without elaboration (“I am no great admirer of Maqbool Fida Husain”), broad claims made (“Anonymity being generally the condition of Indian art”), and generous and inexact platitudes puncturing the prose (“pure”, “infinity”, “addresses itself to eternity”). Often, he throws barbs at government institutions, or at the current generation.

Then, there are mooney paragraphs, describing paintings — some of which are printed in colour in the insert, sadly, in a pitiable blur — with forceful love, one that shows his affection for art but also betrays a suspicion that few like him exist, and fewer still as we chug into a less discerning future of art and art criticism.

Conversations: India’s Leading Art Historian Engaged with 101 Themes & More; B.N. Goswamy, Allen Lane, ₹999.

The reviewer is a critic with a weekly online newsletter, prathyush.substack.com


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Printable version | May 27, 2022 2:13:22 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/bn-goswamy-s-conversations-indias-leading-art-historian-engaged-with-101-themes-more-review-giving-context-and-nostalgia-to-the-history-of-the-art-form/article65453490.ece