The Spirit of Indian Painting by BN Goswamy review – an out-and-out masterpiece

A book that recovers and celebrates entire dynasties of forgotten painters will rank among the greatest works on Indian art ever written
William Dalrymple
Saturday 24 January 2015 12.00 GMT

Sometime in the late 18th century an Indian painter, clearly frustrated with his patron, scribbled a small prayer in the margins of a manuscript on which he was working: “Protect me O Lord, from oil, from water, from fire and from poor binding,” he wrote. “And save me from falling into the hands of a fool.”

Most historians of Indian art have tended to look at their subject from the point of view of the patron. The great master bronzes of southern India are known after their Pallava and Chola patrons; the most accomplished court miniatures, such as the Padshahnama of Shah Jahan, tend to be seen through the prism of the Mughals who commissioned them. The patronage of individual rulers – the emperor Jahangir, Ibrahim Adil Shahi II of Bijapur, Maharaja Man Singh of Jodhpur – are the subject of detailed academic studies and exhibitions. But until recently, few scholars have attempted to look at the production of Indian art from the point of view of the artists who actually held the brushes and burnished the paper.

There is a reason for this: very little evidence survives to illuminate the lives of Indian artists. In particular, there is no Indian Vasari providing the kind of detail that has illuminated lives of the artists of the Renaissance: the hot-blooded womanising of Fra Angelico, say, or Uccello’s passion for geometry. All we have to go on is a series of minute inscriptions, often hidden in the details of paintings, sometimes in a deliberately humble position: the Mughal master Abu’l Hasan, who won from Jahangir the title Nadir al-Zaman, “wonder of the times”, deliberately chose to sign his name on the spade used to clear up the dung of his patron’s elephant.

Raja Balwant Singh's Hunt by Nainsukh Mughal Painting of Raja Balwant Singh Performing Puja Jammu Pahari

BN Goswamy, the highly respected historian of Indian painting, has been trying for nearly five decades to look down the other end of the art historical telescope. Like an Indian avatar of Bernard Berenson, who dug in the Tuscan Ducal archives to unearth the bills of exchange between the artists and patrons that would enable him toprovide attributions to a host of anonymous canvases, Goswamy has succeeded in reconstructing whole dynasties of previously obscure artists, given them names, and restored their identities and honour.

This is no easy task: many painters came from the humble carpenter caste, in ancient India ranked alongside lowly musicians and dancing girls. There survives in the Jahangir album, now in Berlin, a heartbreaking self-portrait of the Mughal master painter Keshav Das coming in old age to beg for assistance from his former patron. The old artist shows himself ragged, hollow-chested, bowed and emaciated. In his hands he holds a petition to the emperor who had once numbered him among the greatest talents of his court – but before the old man can present himself, a lathi-weilding attendant advances on him, stick raised, driving him back. In a similar mood, a moving letter found by Goswamy was written by the 18th-century painter Shiba asking his patron Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra for permission to return home, “for your humble servant here has fallen on bad days. Your servant has been living on debts, but now no one will give him a loan. He is helpless and goes without food.”

In 1968, Goswamy wrote a ground-breaking article, “Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style”. Employing a combination of detective work and intuition, he managed to marry the evidence from inscriptions on the back of miniatures with 18th-century pilgrim records kept in the Ganges holy town of Haridwar. In this way he reconstructed the entire family network of arguably the greatest of all Indian painter families: that of Pandit Seu and his sons, Nainsukh and Manaku, as well as their numerous artist grandchildren.

Mughal Painting of Raja Balwant Singh Performing Puja Jammu Pahari c1750
Detail of a Mughal painting of Raja Balwant Singh Performing Puja Jammu Pahari, c1750. Photograph: Stapleton Collection/Corbis
He then showed how many members of the family shared a common style, and that their mobility between different noblemen effectively made nonsense of the existing system of categorising miniatures by courts and patrons. What was important, Goswamy made clear, was not where a particular painting was produced, or who paid the bills, but which artist, or family of artists, was holding the brush. Court styles could vary hugely, depending on who was at work; but families had recognisable techniques and stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Since then Goswamy has been working at reconstructing the lives first of the painters of the Punjab hills, and then of those elsewhere in India. The culmination of his work was the Master Painters of India show three years ago, which travelled from Zurich to New York and which amounted to a dramatic re-evaluation of the human and biographical reality behind Indian painting.

Now, in The Spirit of Indian Painting – a book that is in many ways the summation of Goswamy’s whole career – he tries to get inside the heads of those artists, to understand what made them paint the way they did, how they came to choose their iconography and what were the daily circumstances of their lives.

The process was painstaking. As Goswamy writes, we are dealing with “a world of silence in which one has to strain very hard to pick up whispers from the past … a layered world that does not reveal all its treasures immediately … One has to fall back on one’s own resources … to piece things together, the willingness to construct a narrative, the imagination to flesh it out … One needs to make an effort to receive from these paintings all the riches that reside within.” But if we strain hard, he says, it is still possible to “feel the breath of those times – even if lightly – upon our skin”, and so gain access to the highest state of pure aesthetic pleasure – to experience what Indian aesthetic theory describes as romaharshana, meaning literally: “the hair on my body has become happy”.

In the Hindu scriptures, “time moves in a cyclical fashion, making bends and loops, turning back on itself”. As a result, the art of the Hindu courts, and even more that of the Mughals, often shows the same figure appearing more than once in the same frame; this indicates that the artists are “completely at home with the notion of time as manipulable and elusive”.

We follow Goswamy into the workshops of his painters as they collect their materials – brushes made from a single hair from a calf’s ear or a squirrel’s tail – or as they grind their pigments from Afghan lapis, saffron derived from the flower of the palash tree (which later gave its name to the battle of Plassey) or the gaogoli yellow, concocted from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves. Goswamy also carefully teaches us the difference between paintings produced in the family workshops of the Rajput or Pahari courts, where the artists worked at home and all generations lent a hand, and that of the Mughal ateliers, where the best talent from across the empire was deployed under the strict discipline of a master ustad.

As with any sweeping survey, there are insights one can quibble with, here perhaps the lack of space Goswamy gives to India’s rich tradition of mural painting, which is dismissed in a single paragraph: this is a book exclusively about works on paper. His distinction between the Rajput and Mughal ateliers is too absolute – later Mughal master artists such as Ghulam Ali Khan, while proudly calling themselves “palace born”, had the freedom to travel around Hindustan taking commissions from other nobles and East India Company officials. These were men who went where they pleased. Equally, the suggestion that even the grandest Mughal painters were sometimes treated as chattels is countered by their own self-portraits: Jahangir’s beloved master painter, Govardhan, for example, portrayed himself as an eager, sharp-eyed and intelligent young man with raffishly long sideburns and a carefully trimmed moustache, an immaculate white jama and dashing black cape. Govardhan knew he was the crown prince’s protege, and proudly depicted himself as such.

Yet these are small matters. Old age, Goswamy writes, referring to a specific Mughal portrait of an old man, is often a time when “the meaning of things begins to dimly unfold”. Certainly the historian, now in his 80s, has never been more prolific, lectured so brilliantly or written so well. The Spirit of Indian Painting is that rarity: an out-and-out masterpiece, and will undoubtedly come to be looked on as one of the greatest books ever written on Indian art.

• William Dalrymple’s most recent book, Return of a King: An Indian Army in Afghanistan, is out in paperback from Bloomsbury.

• The Spirit of Indian Painting is published by Allen Lane India

Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin – https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/exhibitions/visions-mughal-india-collection-howard-hodgkin

AgaKhanMuseum_Exhibition_Visions-of-Mughal-India_800x450

Feb 21 2015 to Jun 21 2015
The second half of 16th century until first half of 19th century was a time of cultural merging that saw Persian themes, Indian colours, and Western influences find their way into Indian architecture and art.

Never before shown in North America, the exhibition Visions Of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin features exquisite paintings from this period produced in the Mughal court, the Deccani Sultanates, and the Rajput kingdoms. An outstanding group of elephant portraits, vivid evocations of daily life, royal portraits, and dramatic illustrations of epics and myths are among the highlights of the thematically organized exhibition. All works have been selected from the outstanding personal collection of British artist Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932), whose own paintings are displayed in the concurrent exhibition Inspired By India: Paintings by Howard Hodgkin.

Organized by the Aga Khan Museum in association with the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Image:
Maharaja Bakhat Singh
Nagaur, Rajasthan, India, ca. 1735
The Collection of Howard Hodgkin,
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford,
Acc. No. LI118.36

The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan – https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/exhibitions/garden-ideas-contemporary-art-pakistan

Sep 18 2014 to Jan 18 2015
Bani Abidi
Nurjahan Akhlaq
David Chalmers Alesworth
Aisha Khalid
Atif Khan
Imran Qureshi

Created for pleasure, spiritual reflection, and aesthetic contemplation, gardens have held many meanings. Beyond their beauty, they represent the human impulse to organize, contain, and collect the natural world. Without cultivation a garden would cease to exist. Similarly, without cultivation of the mind and the soul, it is believed a society cannot progress. “To dwell is to garden,” wrote the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, reminding us of the central role of culture as part of our existence. The Garden of Ideas brings together the work of six internationally acclaimed Pakistani artists whose creations play with, question, and interrogate the timeless theme of the garden. Several pieces have been made in direct response to works in the Aga Khan Museum’s collection and to the Museum’s own reinterpretation of an Islamic garden (the chahar bagh) as designed by Vladimir Djurovic.

CURATOR:
Sharmini Pereira, guest curator of this exhibition, has garnered international attention as a curator, publisher, and conference speaker. Based in Sri Lanka and New York, she has written extensively on contemporary Asian art and is the director and founder of Raking Leaves, a non-profit independent publishing organization and the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture, and Design in Sri Lanka. In 2011 she was the international guest curator of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, which recognizes artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, and in 2006 she served as co-curator of the inaugural Singapore Biennale.

ARTISTS:
Bani Abidi (b. 1971, Karachi) received her BFA degree from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 1994 and an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999. Over the past decade, Abidi has worked primarily in digital art and has become Pakistan’s leading figure in contemporary video. Abidi held her first solo international exhibition in 2011 at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. She has exhibited in several international group exhibitions, including the Berlin Biennale (2014); dOCUMENTA 13 (2012); Where Three Dreams Cross — 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (2011); the Singapore Biennale (2006); and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale (2005). Her work is included in several permanent collections, including those of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The British Museum, London; and the Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas. Abidi lives and works in Berlin and Karachi.

Nurjahan Akhlaq (b. 1979, Lahore) moved to Canada via Turkey from Pakistan in 1993 and studied filmmaking at Concordia University, Montreal, before earning her MFA at Goldsmiths College, London, in 2009. Akhlaq is part of a younger generation of filmmakers that has also been involved in exploring the conceptual possibilities of collage and print. Her videos have been screened in international exhibitions and festivals, including Monitor Reruns, A Space Gallery, Toronto, in 2014; the Mumbai International Film Festival, India; the Kassel Documentary and Video Festival, Germany; the EBS International Documentary Festival, Seoul, Korea; and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2005. Akhlaq’s film Death in the Garden of Paradise (2004) was an Official Selection at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto in 2005. She lives and works in Lahore and Toronto.

David Chalmers Alesworth (b. 1957, Wimbledon, United Kingdom) gained his BA Honours in sculpture from Wimbledon School of Art in 1980. In 1987 he relocated to Pakistan and gained his MFA in New Media from Transart Institute Berlin/NYC in 2010. In the mid to late 1990s, he began working with Pakistani truck artists and other urban craftspeople to produce a series of public installations conceived in collaboration with the Pakistani artist Durriya Kazi. Alesworth’s works and teachings influenced many Pakistani artists known as the Karachi Pop generation, who focused their attention on Pakistan’s street bazaars, the aesthetics of cinema hoardings, truck art, and the public realm. His art has been exhibited in exhibitions that include the Berlin Biennale (2014); Lines of Control, British Council, London (2011); Gardens of Babel, Rhotas-2 Gallery, Lahore (2011); and Half-Life, NCA Gallery, Lahore (2009). His work is also found in collections at the Pakistan National Collection, Islamabad; the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan; and the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Alesworth lives and works in Lahore.

Aisha Khalid (b. 1972, Faisalabad) was trained in miniature painting and graduated from the National College of Arts in 1993. Khalid was schooled in classical miniature painting and has become a leading figure in developing the contemporary miniature. She is one of the few artists to experiment with large-scale painting and abstraction and has also worked with video and textiles. Khalid is among a handful of Pakistani artists who have had solo shows of their work, including Larger Than Life, Whitworth Art Gallery, United Kingdom (2012); Larger Than Life, Corvi-Mora, London (2012); Pattern to Follow, Chawkandi Art, Karachi (2010); and Conversations, Pump House Gallery, London (2008). She has had group exhibitions at the Sharjah Biennale (2013); the Moscow Biennale (2013); the Venice Biennale (2009); the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In 2011 Khalid was awarded the Jameel Prize’s People’s Choice Award, and in 2012 she was a winner of the Alice Award (Artist Book Category). Her work is included in several permanent collections, including the Sharjah Art Museum (Sharjah), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan), and the World Bank (Washington, D.C.). She lives and works in Lahore.

Atif Khan (b. 1972, Sahiwal) graduated with distinction in fine art from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 1997. He was awarded the UNESCO-ASHBURG Bursary in 1998 and completed a residency at Darat-al-Funun in Amman, Jordan. In 2007 he received the Commonwealth Arts and Crafts Award. He was also appointed artist-in-residence at the Swansea Print Workshop in Wales in 2005–06; the London Print Studio, United Kingdom; and the Glasgow Print Studio, Scotland, in 2008. Khan has participated in workshops in India, Bangladesh, and Jordan and has participated in exhibitions that include More Interpolation, Rohtas-2, Lahore (2009); Anthropology, Chawkandi Art, Karachi (2011); Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (2012); and Landscape of the Heart, Ceri Richards Gallery, United Kingdom (2013). He lives and works in Lahore.

Imran Qureshi (b. 1972, Hyderabad) completed his BFA at the National College of Arts in 1993. He is one of Pakistan’s leading figures in developing the contemporary miniature painting. In 2013 he was named Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year and in the same year was invited to create the prestigious roof garden commission at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He has held numerous international solo shows, including Imran Qureshi: The God of Small Things, Eli and Edyth Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, East Lansing (2014); Midnight Garden, Gandhara Art, Pao Galleries, Hong Kong (2014); and And They Still Seek the Traces of Blood, Zahoor Al Akhlaq Gallery, National College of Arts, Lahore (2010). Group exhibitions include Don’t You Know Who I Am? at the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (2014); The Encyclopedic Palace, 55th Venice Biennale, Venice (2013), the 18th Biennale of Sydney (2012); the Sharjah Biennial (2011); Beyond the Page: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California (2011); East-West Divan: Contemporary Art from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, La Scuola Grande della Misericordia, Venice (2011); Hanging Fire, Asia Society, New York (2009); and the Singapore Biennale (2006). Qureshi lives and works in Lahore.

Imran Qureshi, Rise and Fall (2014) (Detail), gouache on wasli (paper), 57.6 x 49.3 cm. Collection Claire Hsu and Benjamin Vuchot, Hong Kong.