As there may be many sides of a personality, likewise there can be multiple readings of a work of art. Great works from past are subject to different and diverse interpretations, which keep them relevant and alive for next generations. Sometimes a later phenomenon invokes a new interest in some practices of the past. For example the revival of modern miniature painting in Pakistan has inclined many to view the traditional Indian miniature painting through a different lens.
In several art schools of Pakistan, miniature painting is taught as a specific technique, imparting conventional methods, introducing traditional compositions, while encouraging experiments in imagery and infusing new content and concepts. However academic study in the background, history and context of miniature painting is still needed to be part of the curricula.
To meet that requirement, there have been a number of books on Indian miniature painting, but apart from some serious studies, a large number is merely coffee table publications, which reproduce works of art, but not much commentary on images, except superficial details. This aspect reflects how a certain practice is perceived in art circles, and a genre, which has been loaded with symbols and meanings, can be reduced to merely picture making.
A recent publication on Indian miniature painting ‘The Spirit of Indian Painting’ is an addition into intellectual inquiry of miniature painting. The author, B. N. Goswamy is ‘Professor Emeritus of art history at the Punjab University and a world-renowned authority on Indian painting’. In the beginning of this year Professor Goswamy was in Pakistan to give lectures at the Lahore Museum during the Lahore Literature Festival 2016. Both at the Museum and in the festival, he impressed audience with his vast knowledge and incredible eloquence, especially while quoting verses from Hindi, Urdu and Persian to describe art works. In a similar way, his book provides a wealth of information and analysis into a total of 101 works created from 1100 to 1900.
Interestingly the book is not named The Spirit of Miniature Painting, but the writer preferred Indian instead of miniature. An important detail because the book includes works from Pala period (made on palm leaves) to Company school (with one opaque water colour on paper, which resembles a photograph). The author connects the history and ideas of Indian painting expanding the definitions and contexts.
Published by Allen Lane, the book is divided into four sections (Visions, Observation, Passion and Contemplation) along with a long essay/introduction ‘A Layered World’. Works of art are arranged according to their themes or content, rather than their link with a school or a period. This, like a curated exhibition of historical Indian painting, conveys a range of shared elements and common concerns in art produced during eight centuries in India. In its scope the book encompasses almost all schools, so you can glimpse illustrated manuscript from Orissa next to Pahari painting.
The style of G. N. Goswamy, while discussing each work is engaging and informative. He includes references from historical texts, such as writings of Mughal Emperors, accounts of English soldiers, passages from religious books as well as pieces of poetry to create a larger understanding of the work of visual arts. However he states: “Very few documents deal directly or at length with Indian painting. From time to time one comes across references to paintings and painters – in stray colophons, in contemporary chronicles, occasionally in memoirs. …. Art historians have to mostly make their insights by having a broad cultural understanding of the period, but they are working with very little material.” Yet one finds that Goswamy has gathered a vast amount of material to discuss paintings, mainly because art – especially a genre like Indian (miniature) painting was connected to text, either in the literal sense of being an illustration on a manuscript page or had narrative aspect which could be decoded through certain symbols, forms and colours.
Perhaps the most important part of 570 pages long book is the introductory essay ‘A Layered World’ (116 pages) further divided into ten sections. Read like a story into the diversity of Indian painting, the text brings together themes, patrons and painters in rich detail. Goswamy, however, reflects: “The story of miniature painting can be told here only in the barest summary, but it needs to told, for the paintings that are drawn upon for telling it have to find their place in it. Much in the story will continue to remain obscured from view, but one thing is clear: by the time that painting in the small, portable format comes in, the great mural tradition as seen at Ajanta, Bagh, Badami, for example, had all but dried up”.
After reading the whole text, one realizes that probably there is no other competent story teller of Indian painting, than B.N. Goswamy, and in his case, there is hardly a difference or distance between story and history!