There is always an art exhibition or a cultural show from India going on at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, Switzerland. This particular show at the “outpost of the arts of Asia” took place in the ’80s and it was Koodiyattam from Kerala. Eberhard Fischer, the museum director, had decided to let visitors see the elaborate process of make-up by the dancers before a performance of an episode from The Ramayana. There were many people and one question: Why does it take so long? Preparing pastes, grinding pigments and lying bare-bodies for applying the paint for long hours had confused them. Until the master of the troupe answered: “We all need this time. For we are preparing ourselves for entering the world of the gods this evening.”
The Koodiyattam show in Switzerland and many other such absorbing tales from the world of art make up Conversations, the new book by art historian B N Goswamy. The tales are part of over a hundred columns, or “little essays” as the author calls them, published in The Tribune over a quarter century. The 506-page book is a colossal canvas of sketches of Indian art from the crafts of Kutch to textile art in Ahmedabad’s temples and Persian manuscripts to manuscripts of Jain learning in Jaisalmer. Artists like M F Husain, writers such as Mulk Raj Anand and French jeweller Jean Baptiste Tavernier who bought pearls from the Mughals in the 17th century appear on the pages of Conversations, a mirror to the country’s cultural diversity.
Like all columnists do, Goswamy, who is emeritus professor of art at the Panjab University in Chandigarh, struck a personal note in his fortnightly writings filled with anecdotes from his regular visits to homes and studios of artists. During such visits, surrounded by objects of art in workplaces, he soaked in the atmosphere and listened to the words flowing in the rarefied air. He would ask an artist an occasional question and listen in rapt attention. One of his earliest columns is about a visit to Bhubaneswar to meet Odisha’s master craftsman, Bhagavata Maharana. “It was a simple, thatched-roof home with the usual mud-plastered courtyard that we entered,” he writes and goes on to describe a “portly man” attired only in a “knee-length wrap around his middle” drawing with a “steadily held brush on a sheet placed on a small, weathered wooden chauki”.
Master craftsman Maharana was a pata painter who created magic on palm leaf and pata sheets. Asked about the work his forbears used to do, he said for generations his family had been sewaks or servants of Lord Jagannath in Puri painting the large-sized pata sheets outside the sanctum sanctorum. “They never received a nickle in cash from the temple,” he said. But there were other passions than money, writes Goswamy, who demystifies and humanises the complex universe of art and artists. The author winds his way through galleries and studios, artefacts and manuscripts to bring the world of art closer to his readers.
A long-time teacher and art scholar, Goswamy brings all his knowledge and experience on the table to help lovers of art make sense of the society. A year after he started the columns for the newspaper, the author plunges into the controversy over Husain and his nude paintings in an essay, The Goddess’ Clothes, written in 1996. “I am no great admirer of Maqbool Fida Husain. Certainly not what he has become,” Goswamy writes, adding: “But I would defend his right to paint the way he does.”
The book also offers a glimpse into the market of fake artworks. In an essay titled The Fine Art of Deception, Goswamy delves into stories of Modigliani fakes, especially about Hungarian aristocrat Elmyr de Hory, “the one man who turned making Modigliani’s fakes into an industry”. There is also a quote from Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, who says that during his tenure at the museum 40% of the artworks considered for purchase were “fraudulent or over-restored”.
Somewhere in the middle of the book is an essay on masks and make-up, which the author begins by narrating the story of Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s film Bagh Bahadur (1989) and his lead character, Ghunuram, who paints himself in yellow and black and challenges the tiger in a local circus to a duel. He then goes on to examine the folk performances in Manikchock in Malda district of West Bengal, how in the course of a local festival a member of a “community held in truly low esteem” is chosen to act like a deity for a day. Society, he adds, needs to see masks as “significant cultural artefacts”.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer.
B N Goswamy
Penguin Random House
Pp 556, Rs 999