FRIDAY REVIEW

The telling mirror

MALINI WHITE

HIDDEN DETAILS B.N. Goswamy explains that much as one would read between the lines of a novel, the rasika has to make an effort to read miniatures Photo: Murali Kumar K.

HIDDEN DETAILS B.N. Goswamy explains that much as one would read between the lines of a novel, the rasika has to make an effort to read miniatures Photo: Murali Kumar K.  

Padmashri Dr.B.N. Goswamy, renowned art historian, has lectured in important international centres, besides having written extensively on miniature painting. He was in Bangalore recently to present "Like a Mirror in the Hand", the third of this year's Sanskriti Heritage Lectures.

At the interview, his gracious charm was coupled with endearing modesty. But passion for his subject gleamed in his eyes, perhaps reflecting his mind's eye, stored with the lakshana of several delectable gopis he has come across in the course of his work.

Dr. Goswamy came almost accidentally to miniature painting. Abandoning the IAS for academia, he found no History of Art course offered anywhere in India. However, while at the Punjab University in Chandigarh, he gained valuable exposure to Indian art and realised that his educational background of social history could illumine his new interest. Armed with Sanskrit and Urdu, he also learned Persian, to expand his research into Islamic miniatures.

As one would expect from such a connoisseur, his conversation had fascinating breadth: from royal patronage to the highly innovative Lahore National College Project to Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. His inspirations are equally free-ranging: "Coomaraswamy had such a passion for art so that, even if he could not always corroborate his individual perceptions, they carried so much conviction because of his tremendous enthusiasm.

This was very similar to another great rasika, Dr. Ravi Krishna Das of Kala Bhavan in Benaras (which has a wonderful collection of small paintings). His knowledge of and feeling for art is tremendous." He learned a great deal from M.S. Randhawa, and W.G. Archer and Karl Khandewal are among his other fruitful associations. When asked about the detrimental effects of globalisation and Bollywood on traditional Indian art, Dr. Goswamy feels it has always absorbed new trends, the infusion usually imparting vitality rather than negativity. However, miniature painting is best being promoted at the National College of Art in Lahore. A common assumption is that the supposed iconophobia of Islam would greatly restrict art; on the contrary, at that institution, miniature painting continues, often using traditional themes, besides propagating the style. "It is very heartening that Lahore has kept the tradition very much alive. In fact, I am rather envious because they have far more students from the so-called middle class, from educated backgrounds, whereas in India, it tends to be the preserve of traditional kalam families or guilds. But I am not unduly pessimistic. In India, Manisha Baswani is doing some very good work and some contemporary Indian artists, like Arpana Caur and Bhupen Khakhar, have incorporated some miniaturist elements, not merely grafted from without, but after internalising them, so that they have become an integral part of their work."

Dr. Goswamy's slide lecture concentrated on excellent examples of north Indian works, produced mainly between 16th and 18th centuries. Establishing their contexts and conveying their spirit, Indian miniatures were presented from the point of view of the painter. "Miniature painters say that inspiration whispers into their ears like a jealous mistress. Against the bombardment of visual media, the rasika has to strive to pick up those murmurs." Fortunately for the enraptured audience, Dr. Goswamy amplified those soft voices. He provided the audience with "textured contact", revealing the works' many layers, often by quoting poetry from Ghalib to the Geeta Govinda, thereby enriching audience with tangential associations.

The painter's view on time and space means to tell a narrative, the luscious colour and gorgeous detail of amorous dalliance evoking the mystical world, against landscape symbolising the ideal world. Unfortunately, the average viewer tends to give small-scale works perfunctory attention, without the requisite utsaha. Much as one would read between the lines of a novel, the rasika has to make an effort to read miniatures. With characteristic self-deprecation, Dr. Goswamy suggested just how such individual perceptions and strategies of seeing can be developed, to access directly the language of the artists.

A miniature painting's very size makes detailed viewing impossible if it is hung on the wall. Rather, it was a treasure, handled much as one would a precious gemstone: unwrapped from its silk covering and passed around a privileged circle, its many facets were pored over and admired. The miniature and the mirror are thereby held exactly at the same distance and angle, but the lecture's title, "Like a Mirror in the Hand", was brilliantly apposite in other ways as well. Just as one looks at one's own reflection in a mirror — an overview of the whole face, to make a general assessment or to catch the expression; or selectively if, say, a man is shaving or a woman tweezing her eyebrows — one also looks at a work of art either cursorily or by focussing on detail.

Significantly, the mirror also appeared in many of the slides. A recurrent image is the nayika looking into a mirror, beautifying herself to meet her beloved. But in some paintings, besides her own image in the mirror, she also sees Krishna's reflection. The former device suggests that one has to know oneself before seeking conjunction with the divine; while the latter proposes that the divine will reveal itself unbidden, if the individual soul but knows itself. The two contrivances thereby become variations of the conventional metaphor of secular passion being the individual soul's yearning for union with the paramatman.

Recommended for you