AS AN UNDERGRADUATE AT DELHI UNIVERSITY, I once found myself at a conference on the Padshahnama. The average history student’s exposure to Mughal art and architecture was relegated to a hurried lecture at the end of the second year and, suffice it to say, when I entered the air-conditioned darkness of the British Council auditorium, I knew nothing at all about Abdul Hamid Lahori’s gloriously illustrated history of Shah Jahan’s reign. Nor did I recognise the dignified gentleman with a trim white moustache who stood behind the podium, illuminating each jewel-like folio. But as he pointed out how the spatial divisions within each painting mirrored the hierarchy of the Mughal court circa 1635, or how the styles of the courtiers’ turbans and patkas—sashes, worn around the waist—marked differences of region and status, I remember being spellbound. It was only later that I realised how lucky I had been: I could have received no finer introduction to what art history is capable of than through BN Goswamy.
Goswamy, now eighty-one years old and a professor emeritus of art history at Panjab University, has over a dozen books on premodern Indian painting to his credit. These range from works of synthesis, such as his book on Indian manuscripts, to works of close observation, such as his study of the Mughal patka, which draws on the textile collection of Ahmedabad’s Calico Museum. In 2010, he published his first book for younger readers, Ranga Roopa, pulling poetry and familiar religious iconography together into an affordable introduction to art. But it is Goswamy’s most recent book, The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works, 1100-1900, that is likely to perform the long-overdue task of introducing him to a non-specialist Indian readership.
Like Goswamy, this book wears its scholarship lightly. Its commissioning editor at Penguin, Nandini Mehta, had heard him lecture, and her brief to him was to “write the way you speak.” “It was a compliment, but also a challenge,” Goswamy told me last November, his eyes twinkling behind his wire-rimmed glasses. I had come to meet him at his home: a neat red-brick bungalow in Chandigarh’s Sector 19A. I was ushered first into a living room spread with chatai mats, but Goswamy seemed worried that we would be disturbed there. He led me out through a patch of back garden into a small, all-white, soundproof home theatre. I must have looked surprised, because Goswamy quickly said his son had built it.