The Arts

The Majestic Aerial Course of B.N. Goswamy

Among other things, no one was better at breaking the news to a hopeful dealer that the object he was trying to sell was spurious.

Legendary art historian B.N. Goswamy passed away on November 17, 2023. He was 90. Goswamy was the recipient of the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan. The following was written by Laila Tyabji as a Facebook post and has been republished with minor edits and her permission.

One by one, the candles that illuminated one’s mind space are being blown out – Ela Ben, Brij Bhasin, Jasleen Dhamija, and now Professor B.N. Goswamy…

I heard Professor Goswamy before I actually met him – attending every talk he gave in Delhi; so enjoying the theatre of the man as well as his towering intellect. His wonderful rich deep voice, his command of and skilfully apposite use of Urdu, Farsi, Punjabi, and English verse, his imposing height and appearance.

The impeccably tailored suits (sometimes relieved by a colourful silk scarf, or in winter by a pashmina shawl tossed casually over a shoulder); his ability to adroitly lead us through the minutiae of scholarship and research to an exciting revelation of a new insight or idea – making the journey as well as the arrival enthralling, his humour and his erudition both worn lightly.

We first got to know each other as fellow members of the Crafts Museum Acquisitions Committee through the 1990s. Each meeting added so much to my understanding – not just of Indian art, but of worlds past and present.

So I was deeply touched when in 2011 I reviewed his wonderful biography of Nain Sukh of Guler, the master 18th century miniature painter from the Kangra valley, for the IIC Journal, and he wrote to say how much he had liked what I had written. It is still one of my favourite books of a Sherlock Holmes-turned-art-historian.

He had such beautiful manners, always making one feel the giver rather than recipient of any interchange. When we were both together on the Crafts Museum Committee, no one was better at breaking the news to a hopeful dealer that the object he was trying to sell was spurious.

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“You value it, and that is as important as it actually being an antique. Take it back home and enjoy it,” I remember his saying to one disgruntled vendor!

Unforgettable too, was him holding a thaan of early 19th century Dhakai muslin in his arms – translucent and incredibly fine, as light and buoyant as a cloud. His expression was that of someone cradling his first grandchild! He then recited Agha Shahid Ali’s evocative poem on ‘Dhaka Gauzes’. It was the first time I’d heard it.

I recall the release in 2013 of a commemorative volume in honour of Professor Goswamy’s 80th birthday. Dr Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister, much beleaguered at the time, launched it at his residence with his usual dignity, warmth and unexpected humour. He and Professor Goswamy were classmates, and later colleagues, in college. And, of course, Professor Goswamy, then 80, was his usual charming, insightful, multi-lingually articulate, impeccably dressed self (he was one scholar not dressed in a Fabindia kurta!)

The only negative was the security rigmarole of getting into the PM’s house, including a transfer from ones own car into an official one.

I remember him too at one of our Dastkar Bazaars, making me take him to all my most loved handloom weavers, so he could buy sarees for his beautiful wife, Karuna, a fellow scholar and historian, who had once been his student. When both our arms overflowed with silken fabrics, Karuna began protesting. She was firmly put into a chair, given a plate of chaat and jalebis, and told not to interrupt our vital research!

Karuna’s death, and that of his son Apu, greatly saddened his latter years.

In his book on Nain Sukh, Professor Goswamy writes of Nain Sukh’s magical artistry – “From a stray work, he simply picks an idea, refines it, gives it wings, and sends it soaring on its majestic aerial course.” One could say the same of his own scholarship, writing and speaking.

His thoughts will soar on, even though he himself is gone. Nevertheless, we will sorely miss him.

Laila Tyabji is the founder member and chairperson of Dastkar, an NGO working for the revival of traditional crafts in India.