B.N. Goswamy, b. 1933, is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the Punjab University, Chandigarh. Over the past five decades, he has been responsible for major exhibitions of Indian art abroad. Some of his major works are: Masters of Indian Painting 1100-1900 (with Milo Beach and Eberhard Fischer, 2011), Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India (with Eberhard Fischer, 1992, 2009), and Nainsukh of Guler: A great Indian painter from a small hill-state (1997, 2011). Ananya Vajpeyi in conversation with B.N. Goswamy on the past and future of Pahari painting.
I would like to begin by asking you a few questions based on your long study of Pahari painting. Given how productive the entire region was of miniature painting in the 18th and 19th centuries, is any of the art still found there, locally preserved, housed, or continued? There is some relationship still to be seen between the Rajput and Rajasthani miniature and the place itself, the entire region with its royal houses, forts, palaces, museums and family-owned estates and collections. Can one say anything comparable about Jammu, Mandi, Kangra, Guler, Chamba and so on?
Let us try to reconstruct the situation one hundred and fifty to two hundred years ago. The principal difference between the Pahari area and Rajasthan is that the Pahari area has virtually nothing in situ at this moment. In the Pahari area, the states were very small compared to the big states of Rajasthan like Jodhpur or Mewar, Jaipur, Bundi and Kota, Jaisalmer.
In the Pahari region – let’s use Coomaraswamy as a starting point – he said: there are two schools, one is the Jammu school, the other is the Kangra school. He based this division on the fact that Jammu was the largest and most important state west of the river Ravi, and Kangra was largest east of the Ravi. So regardless of whether the painting was done in Jammu or Kangra, or what kind of painting it was, he just assumed that the two largest states had the best painters, or that the very existence of these large states defined the kind of work done in those areas, which is historically questionable. I have questioned it; other people have questioned it as well.
My own take is that the whole system of working, of how things operated on the ground, was not dependent on the state. The state was not the valid unit. The valid unit, the basis of style, was a family of painters, and I emphasized that in a long essay in Marg in 1968 – ‘The family as the basis of style.’1 Work was done within families, very unlike the Mughal court. In the Mughal court, you may also have a father and son working for the same patron, but the style did not belong to a family of painters, so to speak.
Imagine a situation in which a person has been given a piece of land in perpetuity by a raja. Not a big piece of land, just a small tenement, a place where he can build a house of his own, maybe with a tiny field around it and live off the fruit of the land. But there are children, and children have children, and the family grows, and not every member can work with the same master painter. So, members of the family begin to spread out and work on their own.
For example, if I am working in Kangra, next door is Guler, or Chamba; on the other side we have Kullu or Mandi. If I hear that a neighbouring raja is a good person, a generous patron, I might go and try my luck there. Now there are members of the family, trained in a family style by a master painter, who, wherever they go, carry with them that particular style.
It’s not as if you cross the border from Kangra to Guler and your style changes. Change will come, but gradually, over a period of time, depending upon the interests of the patron, how discriminating he is, what he wants you to do. There’s an element of conservatism (from the basic style of the family), but it changes (on account of shifting patronage). However, the allegiance to the family style is very strong overall.
How did you figure this out? Could you describe your early research?
If one goes to a place of pilgrimage, like Haridwar or Kurukshetra, where I worked for nearly three years, one might conceivably source information on the painters, even though the ‘art’ itself is more or less anonymous. I was trying to locate who the painters were, their dates, and whatever other details I could find.
These places of pilgrimage have that genealogical tendency anyway, right? Don’t they keep family records to perform death-related rituals, make astrological charts and so on, for all kinds of people?
Absolutely. That is how this thought occurred to me – that if I can’t find any names, let me go to the pandas (priests who perform life-cycle rituals). Pahaad mein kehte hain ki aap jeeteji Haridwar na gaye, toh mar ke aap zaroor jaayenge. (In the mountains they say, if you didn’t go to Haridwar when you were alive, you’ve got to go there once you’re dead). So I started sourcing from various places, beginning with Kurukshetra, then Martand in Kashmir, Haridwar and Banaras; I even went to Gaya, where I virtually found nothing. I spent three years going from place to place trying to dig up information about these painters, their dates, if there was any mention of the patrons.
Were these travels in the sixties? Before your essay?
Yes. Before my essay, in 1964-65 or thereabouts; I wrote the essay in 1967 and it came out in 1968. The reason I came to the pandas was only this – that the family, in the eyes of people living in the hills, and in the eyes of people who keep their records, is a critical unit. So, therefore, styles grew within families. Styles did undergo change over a period of time – for instance, sometimes a strong wind blows through an area, everything begins to change, slightly. One particular style gets popular and everyone else tries to imitate it. The family link gradually becomes weaker and weaker.
What amazed me, and continues to even today, is how a tiny little place, a blip on the map, like Guler, could have been so productive. In the Pahar, some of the places are very small. If you walk, you can go from one state to the second to the third in the course of a day. There is a sense of intimacy about the area. Naturally, family pride comes into play and competition develops between states. There’s a shared Pahari culture, everyone partakes of it. But of course there are regional variations, family variations and so on, and often these minor differences are heightened by competition and conflict.
So the centrality of the family unit in Pahari culture, the primacy of the painter’s family over the princely patron’s court, and the small size of the Pahari states – all these things distinguish Pahari painting from Rajasthani painting?
Well another reason why you don’t find anything in situ is that when these Pahari states were taken over by the British and integrated into the East India Company’s possessions in 1845, they ceased to be truly independent. The princely states of Rajasthan were different because they were not directly part of the East India Company’s possessions or part of the British Empire in India.
Once the British took over, the Pahari painters were left without local patrons. The rajas lost all their power, and people who were from a very distinguished family of painters in Guler also lost out. Once the state was taken over, they travelled to Lahore. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was still in power, so they started working there. When Ranjit Singh’s kingdom wound up in 1849, following the annexation of Punjab, what did these painters do? To understand what happened to these painters, I followed one and traced his journey as he moved from Lahore to Patiala.
The Pahari rajas lost all power, so the painters started moving around. It’s not that they left their homes forever; they went to work somewhere else, came back, and went again. A living painter once said to me, hum to suryamukhi hain sahib, we follow the light, turning in the direction of the sun, like sunflowers.
When the Pahari states dissolved or were annexed and absorbed by the British, did the British continue patronizing the painters of this region? Did they acquire some of this local art, or take it out of the area and out of India?
No, not in the mid and late 19th century. At first the British hardly commissioned or acquired anything. At the beginning of the 20th century, Coomaraswamy established miniature paintings as a category, as a major style of art. He split up Indian miniatures into Rajasthani and Pahari, and further, Pahari into Jammu and Kangra schools or styles. At that stage the dealers woke up to the fact that these paintings were worth something, and they started scouring the area.
Tibbad is a little village in Gurdaspur district. The Tibbadis, a small family, were smart and started collecting the paintings, though what they collected was worth nothing at the time. I’ve seen registers of accession at the Indian Museum in Calcutta, auction catalogues from 1931, Sir Dorab Tata’s collection, a number of Nainsukh’s paintings – all individually sold for one pound, ten shillings and six pence, and so on.
I recently saw a couple of Nainsukhs, showing Raja Balwant Singh, at the Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai.
Yes those are Nainsukh’s work. In fact, one of the older painters whom I knew quite well, said that a brother of his, not very bright, gave away paintings by the sackful to a dealer who happened to come by their family home; he sold them for a song. The dealer literally loaded up the works on the back of a donkey and took them away. And I can guess who that person was, I mean, that person became a major dealer, and his son set up big shops in New York.
No real value was attached to the paintings, neither aesthetic or historical, just monetary value, and that too was very little. Some collections stayed with the rajas, the private collections with the erstwhile royal families. The area was swept clean by a large number of people, those who were aware that there was profit to be made from these works. They didn’t care about the quality, jahaan se jo mila, vahin se le gaye (they took away whatever they could find, from wherever they found it).
And so all the art left the hills where it was made?
Jasrota for instance, where Nainsukh worked for a number of years, is in complete ruins. In any other country in the world, it would have been made into a wonderful tourist destination. It is on top of a hill, a vast area, and it is in ruins, there’s not a soul there. When I went to Jasrota for the first time – on the way to Pathankot, towards Jammu – there is a place called Chhawni, from where you go up, cutting through shrubbery. A Gujjar boy helped me get there. Not a soul. Aisa hai. (That’s how it is).
If you go to Guler, you will find nothing! Nobody even remembers yahan pe koi Nainsukh tha, yahan pe Pandit Seu the, yahan Manku tha, the great painters of the Pahar. There’s no memory of them. There’s such a hiatus, aisa hai. (No one recalls that there was ever a Nainsukh here, a Pandit Seu, a Manaku. That’s how it is).
I’ll tell you. Take a person like M.S. Randhawa who built the collection in the Chandigarh Museum, and the Raja of Guler, by the name of Raja Baldev Singh. The raja got to know that Dr. Randhawa was gathering material. The privy purses had been abolished. The raja went to him and said, ‘I’ve heard you acquire art, I have a collection, I’m willing to bring it to you. But you’ll have to pay my fare from Guler to Ambala.’ A pitiable state of affairs! A raja asking for bus fare or taxi fare to come from Guler to Ambala to show his things, not even knowing whether they were going to be bought at all. So, a large collection of the Guler family, called the Guler Darbar collection, was bought for virtually nothing.
Is there any way now, if there were government initiatives or private initiatives or some sort of scholarly pressure, to set up institutions in the area that would somehow reinstate the art where it belongs – is nothing of this sort, a restitution of some kind, possible at this time?
Some attempts could be made, I suppose. There’s a painter named Chandula, a descendant of Nainsukh. I was able to persuade the Himachal Pradesh government to help him set up a school of painting, but he was not able to attract anyone and so it finally closed down. In Basohli, a young IAS officer, Pervez Divan started a centre when he was a sub-divisional magistrate there. He termed the work emanating from there as ‘Basohli style’, which is a complete misnomer; there is no such thing as the real Basohli style in that work! It was an effort, I suppose, but it was hard to authenticate or validate it. Kacca kaam, as they say (unfinished/unripened work, work with raw edges, undeveloped).
But surely one could make a museum there? I don’t mean making up this new stuff, but bringing back the original paintings of Guler or Basohli?
They have built a museum in Dharamshala which is worthless – truly speaking, nobody’s interested in art! Honestly. Today, whatever interest there is, it’s in contemporary art, not in these works of art that you are asking about.
Pahari paintings, Nainsukhs and so on, they must be very valuable now in the art market? Priceless, I mean?
They are valuable, they really are. The last Nainsukh which came on the market, appeared after years, was being offered for two and a quarter million dollars. Now, that’s serious money for an Indian painter, compared to ten shillings and six pence!
But this does not mean that a world-class museum or indeed any museum will be set up in Guler.
The other difficulty in founding a school or an institution is that the context of these paintings has changed. It’s easy to imitate old paintings, but what use is that?
It is not a living tradition...
No, it is not.
And that is understandable, given the history you have explained.
To a certain extent, it is understandable.
* New Delhi, 14 March 2014. Excerpted and edited for clarity and continuity.
1. B.N. Goswamy, ‘Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style’, Marg: A Magazine of the Arts 21(4), September 1968, pp. 17-62.