There Is No Real Dislike for Cats in India – Art History Says as Much

A well known art historian writes a delightful and whimsical – and well researched treatise – on the world of cats.

This excerpt, first published on October 20, 2023, was republished on November 17, 2023, the day the author passed away.

The following is an excerpt from B.N. Goswamy’s The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs, published by Aleph Book Company this year.

It is best to begin with a confession, I think.

Strictly speaking, I am not a cat lover. I am therefore not even entitled perhaps to put together a book on cats. But, somehow, they have stayed in my awareness for long years. When a stray one sneaked into our house once, for instance, and Apu, my son, took to her, cold and shivering as she was when she came in. He fed her, held on to her, gave her a name – Katja it was if I remember aright – and, after returning from school, he would talk to her first, ahead of anyone else at home. It was a few years before we shifted home and she decided against moving. As simple as that.

‘The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs,’ B.N. Goswamy, Aleph Book Company, 2023.

Then, years later, I had a faintly bristly encounter with a whole pride of cats at the home of a dear friend in Zurich: Ursula Dohrn. She loved cats, had many of them, and they had all become members of her family. Whenever I went to visit her, they were there, naturally and everywhere: if one was occupying the first seat on a sofa, another was lurking under the centre table, and yet another clambering onto her shoulder sometimes. For me it was not easy and, almost complainingly, I once told Ursula during a visit how hard it was to find a quiet moment with her without the cats participating in the conversation, nodding approval, or saying something in a whispered purr to her. Quickly, in a tone of mock-admonishment, Ursula shot back. ‘You are an art historian, Brijinder, are you not?’

‘I am; or so I think,’ I replied.

‘Then, you should love cats: all art historians do.’

This unsettled me a bit, but she went on. ‘Annemarie Schimmel does: she has in fact even written more than one book on them.’ I knew and held Professor Schimmel in great regard, but this fact I was not aware of.

‘ST. JEROME’, Mughal; ca. 1600–20, Brendan Lynch/Oliver Forge auction catalogue, 2014
[Now in the collection of Franz-Josef and Birgit Vollmer, Gundelfingen]

Even as I was registering it, Ursula came up

with another name, another highly regarded art historian – Stella Kramrisch. ‘She is a cat lover, is she not?’ So she was, I knew, for I had seen a whole lot of them around her whenever I visited her, first in her Paoli home, and later in her apartment in the heart of Philadelphia.

These firm statements showed me my place as far as Ursula’s cats went. It wasn’t over yet, however. For, the next day, a book was delivered to my apartment: a paperback edition of Annemarie Schimmel’s work – much celebrated I was to learn – in German: Die Orientalische Katze, with the subtitle: Mysticism and Poetry of the Orient. Sent obviously by Ursula, but without a note. She was driving a point home.

I felt informed, but, as an art historian, not particularly persuaded. Or obligated. It was a bit later that I became involved: not so much with cats as with the idea of cats.

‘CAT IN THE AYODHYA PALACE,’ Folio from the Freer Ramayana Mughal, ca. 1600, [Freer–Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC; 1907.272.102, vol. I, folio 102]

A great Sanskrit scholar, C. Sivaramamurti, then director of the National Museum in Delhi, happened to bring up two terms in the course of a conversation that had the Sanskrit word for cats – marjara – built into them: marjara-nyaya and marjaravrata. There was talk, in the context of Vaishnava bhakti or devotion, about different ways through which a devotee approaches his ishta deity. There are many nyayas – methods or theories – but the two most often cited are markatanyaya and marjaranyaya.

The former refers to how the young one of a monkey – markata in Sanskrit – approaches God, and the latter to how the young one of a cat – marjara – does. Briefly put, ‘markata-nyaya refers to the behaviour of a baby monkey, who clings tightly to its mother wherever she goes. The mother monkey’s arms are occupied as she leaps from tree to tree; she does not hold on to the baby; but as long as the baby holds firmly to her, it arrives safely’.

Whereas ‘marjara-nyaya refers to the behaviour of kittens, who are likely to wander. The mother cat picks them up by the scruff of the neck and carries them wherever she wants them to be. The kitten is passive; she makes no effort but arrives safely by surrendering to the mother’s protective grasp.’ It is up to the devotee, then, to choose: to keep making an effort to cling for succour to his deity, or to leave everything to the deity, trusting him and surrendering to him completely. No recommendation is made, no preference indicated.

PRINCESS WATCHING A MAID KILLING A SNAKE, By Mir Kalan Khan, Lucknow; c. 1770, [Collection: British Library; Johnson Album 15, no. 8]

Never having heard of any of this before, I was fascinated. But even more fascinating for me was the use of the term marjara-vrata. In common usage it stands simply for ‘a cat-like observance’, but the term is not neutral. It really has come to stand for ‘concealing one’s malice or evil designs under the garb of piety or virtue’.

It is an accusation that one person might fling at his rival while calling him a ‘cheat’, or a ‘hypocrite’. In an episode in that ancient epic of ours, the Mahabharata, Duryodhana charges even the noble Yudhishthira with observing the marjara-vrata, not once, but repeatedly.

Clearly, the cat had come to stand for ‘hypocrisy’ – ‘ye gods, that person whose standard of righteousness is always up, but whose sins are always concealed’ – and the opprobrium seems to have endured over a very long time: cleverness, hypocrisy, avarice, inscrutability, thievery.

Interestingly enough, however, in our land at the same time there is no real dislike for cats. There are superstitions around her figure, for certain, and stories go on being repeated.

But no fatwas have been passed; no papal bulls issued. Great poets like Mir and Ghalib loved their cats to distraction; the poet Jibanananda Das saw himself in a cat that went here and there, following the Sun; Vikram Seth saw her as full of mischief and cleverness but no evil. In fact, on a daily basis, the feline is ‘addressed’ almost with affection. She is ‘maano’, ‘maaoon’, ‘mausi’ (mother’s sister), pisshi’, ‘biloongari’, if one goes by usage, at least in the northern parts of our land.

It is somewhere out of these memories and stray thoughts and scattered observations – whether it was mock-admonishment that I received as an art historian, seductive and long-buried snippets that reading about cats yielded, or the fact that my son adopted recently two cats – that the present work has emerged. Of course, the reader is entitled to ask: ‘So?’ But he will at least find inside absorbing tales and images and poetry and proverbs, that I gathered together. All on cats. Indian cats.

A word of explanation to end with, however. Inadvertently, because one is so used to it in one’s own life, the cat in my account is always taken to be a female. Lacking in logic as this is, the gender is open to change. Second word: the book is confined, strictly confined, to cats in India – domestic cats – not because they are unique, but because cats elsewhere – and they are everywhere – have their own histories, their own tales, their own place in life.

B.N. Goswamy is an Indian art critic, art historian and a former vice chairman of the Sarabhai Foundation of Ahmedabad, which runs the Calico Museum of Textiles.

The images are from the book and have been reproduced with permission.