The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works (1100-1900)
AT FIRST glance, the painting appears to feature a group of beautiful women—each resembling the other—going about doing strange things.
But as soon as one realises that the entire scene is an enactment of Lord Krishna’s life, things begin to fall in place. “Five chapters in the tenth book of the Bhagawata Purana have passages that speak movingly of the love of the gopis for Krishna. One of these passages is depicted in this exquisite work,” says art historian BN Goswamy, referring to the Pahari painting dated circa 1780, which features in his new book, The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works (1100-1900).
When Krishna suddenly disappears from the scene, “one of the gopis comes up with an idea: while we wait for him, and to lessen the pain of his absence, why don’t we emulate the ‘divine sports of the lord’, re-enact his deeds? And so the gopis take on different roles as they re-enact Krishna killing Putana, his being tied to a mortar by his mother in chastisement, his lifting the Mount Govardhan, his subduing the serpent Kaliya, his magical flute-playing”, Goswamy explains.
Beautiful interpretations, such as this one, of Indian paintings carefully selected by Goswamy, spanning nearly a thousand years and ranging from Jain manuscripts and Rajasthani, Mughal, Pahari and Deccani miniatures to Company School paintings form a part of his new, lavishly illustrated book.
But Goswamy sounds a word of caution: “No one has to agree with my selection of paintings and to what I’ve said in the book. It is a book I’ve liked writing. This selection is a very personal one. In some unique ways, these paintings have spoken to me.”
In his selection, Goswamy has also tried to represent the different periods, the subjects and themes that inspired painters, the range of regional styles, historically important works, those influenced by foreign traditions, and the works of some great masters. “Though each of these paintings is, in my opinion, a great work, this is not to say that they are the greatest masterpieces of Indian painting. There are many others, and I hope this book will inspire the reader to seek them out and explore them,” writes Goswamy.
The paintings are arranged not in chronological order but in four different groups—‘Visions’, ‘Observation’, ‘Passion’ and ‘Contemplation’. The paintings that come under ‘Visions’ are chiefly those that envision sights and events unseen, but that have for long been part of our ‘awareness’ and imagination. The paintings in the ‘Observation’ section are mostly based on sights, people and scenes, seen or imagined by the painter, and some of them especially commissioned by the patron.
The paintings under the section titled ‘Passion’ are largely those inspired by poetic texts like the Gita Govinda, the Rasamanjari, the Sur Sagar and the Rasikapriya. There are a few, too, from the Ragamala series. Finally, it’s the serene world of ‘Contemplation’. Intense, private and quiet—these works are relatively rare and thus especially striking.
“The intention in this volume is not to present yet another history of Indian painting, but bring readers/viewers into close contact with each work, and to make them feel the texture of its form and thought, to taste its essence or rasa,” Goswamy explains.
“Let’s be clear. When we look at these paintings, we have to be certain that we’re entering a very delicate world. It was the famous poet Mir Taqi Mir who said: Le saans bhi aahista ki nazuk hai bahut kaam, aafaq ki is kargah-e-shishagari ka (Breathe gently here because the world that I’ve put together with the powers of life is delicate). This sensitive world, this extremely delicate world, is what we’re going to enter,” says the author, a world-renowned authority on Indian paintings.