Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 23, 2000
B.N. Goswamy Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State University of Washington Press, 1999. 304 pp.; 104 color ills.; 241 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (3907070763)

This is an important book. It is a more narrowly focused follow-up to Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India (1992) written in collaboration with Eberhard Fischer. Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State reads like the culmination of a long and distinguished scholarly career, but fortunately, Goswamy is still active in the field. The book is the product of an ongoing dialogue between the 18th-century artist and the scholar who rescued him from oblivion— a dialogue that entered the public realm in the 1960s, when Goswamy first began to publish the astonishing archival material that he tracked down in the pilgrimage registers from the priests at Haridwar. His pathbreaking work established indisputably the importance of familial descent in workshops as the basis of transmission and dissemination of style for Pahari painting, and, by extension, for other Indian painting styles as well. His interest in the painter was triggered by an inspirational meeting in London in 1962 with W.G. Archer, a pioneering scholar of Pahari painting, an occasion described on pages 9-10. The description is made more moving by Goswamy’s mention of their estrangement years later over disagreements on historical details of the painter and his principal patron.

After a brief introduction (9-15), the book is divided into three main text sections, “The Painter and His Work” (17-46); “Catalogue” (47-252); and “The Scholars and Their Arguments” (253-95). Goswamy does this to separate his admittedly controversial reconstruction of Nainsukh’s career from analysis of the exceedingly contentious (not to say acrimonious) scholarship on the artist and Pahari painting in general. In the catalogue, he puts historiographical discussions in smaller type at the end of the descriptions for “matters on which there are disagreements or which could be only of limited interest” (14). These three main sections are followed by a genealogical table of the artist’s family (296), a useful selection of photographs of inscriptions (297-300), and a bibliography (301-04). An index is unfortunately lacking.

More than mere acknowledgments, the introduction is also an account of the exhilarating and frustrating circumstances of researching and writing such a study. Goswamy recounts the chance discoveries and maddeningly fragmentary bits of evidence that accumulated over almost forty years. It is a lyrical distillation of what must have been very difficult work indeed, but Goswamy glosses over the pain of fieldwork and emphasizes the triumph of discovery as the history of Nainsukh and his family gradually revealed itself through inscriptions on paintings, records of pilgrimage priests, and family records. The first main section, “The Painter and His Work,” offers a reconstruction of the painter’s career in three periods: 1730-40, 1740-60, and 1760-75. Goswamy believes the painter’s birth to be c. 1710 on the basis of his presumed age in a self-portrait included in an undated picture of Balwant Singh examining a painting (126-7; cat. no. 39). The picture is placed c. 1745-50, and Balwant Singh is known to have been born in A.D. 1724, making him between 21 and 26 years of age. The assumption that Nainsukh is somewhat older, combined with Goswamy’s preference for a date nearer 1750 than 1745 for the picture, yields c. 1710 for Nainsukh’s birth. The argument is ingenious and seems quite plausible, though others have interpreted the evidence to yield a later birth date. Goswamy supports the earlier date as more fitting with the evidence of the genealogy of the family of Pandit Seu (the father of Nainsukh and the artist Manaku) he has painstakingly reconstructed. I cite the matter of the artist’s birth to highlight the difficulties of working with so little evidence. The author has lived for years in intimate association with what evidence there is, and indeed has brought much of it to light himself, and therefore one is inclined to trust him in such interpretations. Nainsukh’s death date is clearer, for a register entry dated V.S. 1835/A.D. 1778 (25, fig. 21) records the immersion of his ashes in the Ganges at Haridwar by his nephew Fattu. That the family was of Brahmin origin who “lost caste” by becoming painters seems likely, and their residence in the town of Guler seems at this point indisputable. Goswamy reproduces in small but legible scale a great deal of visual and documentary evidence, including many entries from bahis (registers) of the Haridwar priests he has consulted over the years. The author describes the progress of the painter from the Guler of his formative years to his close association with his main patron Balwant Singh of Jasrota from c. 1741 until the prince’s death in 1763 just shy of the age of forty. By general agreement, this was the most important period in the artist’s life. Like his early years, the later phase of his career is unclear. Goswamy discusses his shift to the patron Amrit Pal of Basohli, but there are few pictures associated with this closing phase of the artist’s work.

In the catalogue section, problems sublimated in the survey of Nainsukh’s career begin to trouble the reader. While not undermining entirely Goswamy’s structure, the range of pictures he cites as from Nainsukh’s hand is troubling. With little explanation in the career survey, he rejects a number of pictures that have a good claim to being by the master (34-5; figs. 46-9), and in the catalogue includes some that seem less likely to be in his hand. In the early phase, stylistic variations might well be explained as inevitable during the artist’s formative years, but I have difficulty, for example, accepting cat. no. 9 (64-5; British Museum acc. no. 1948-10-9-099) as being by Nainsukh, though its quality is undeniable. Goswamy’s description is elegant but ultimately unconvincing, and the “Nainsukhian” elements he cites seem to me to be general conventions rather than indications of a singular hand. By his “middle period” (1740-60), Nainsukh’s style seems quite defined. Many of these pictures are clearly ascribed to the artist, and the reader is comfortable with the attributions of uninscribed pictures, but I am very uncomfortable with some of the attributions of later works. The Ragamala leaves of cat. nos. 93-95, while again of high quality, do not seem to me either to relate closely to earlier work or to compare well with other late examples he publishes. It is significant that the “problem pictures” are uninscribed. Goswamy is unmatched when dealing with documentary evidence and offers a model in how to proceed in the reading and interpretation of difficult inscriptions. In interpreting visual evidence, though his language is highly evocative in describing the subjects and motifs of the pictures, he tends to state his conclusions on style rather than argue them out for the reader, and one feels left without a guide in some very difficult terrain indeed. I am also disturbed by the author’s desire to recreate the feelings and even personality of the artist through his pictures. I am not convinced of the utility or even the possibility of doing this, but if anyone can it is Goswamy, steeped as he is in the cultural context, history, literature, languages, and scripts of the region and period.

In the last of the three main sections (253-95), the reader is again reassured. Goswamy gives a compelling and fascinating account of how Nainsukh’s works emerged from obscurity into the light he sheds on them in his magisterial study. He also treats the vexing question of scholarship on Pahari painting with grace and assurance as he surveys the often contentious territory of discussions of the exact identity of Balwant Singh. It is a mark of the quality of Goswamy’s character—no less than his mind—that he treats those who agree and disagree with him alike with an even hand and makes clear the thicket of scholarly debate. There follows an excellent discussion of inscriptional evidence on Nainsukh’s pictures, much of it in the treacherous Takri script of the Hills. Goswamy includes a selection of inscriptions (298-300) in addition to those within the text, an invaluable resource for scholars and students who wish to learn and to read inscriptions for themselves. Indeed, a subtext of this study is the primary importance of knowing languages and scripts for the study of Indian art. That may seem obvious, but it is a truth that bears repeating.

The book is well produced, except for the lack of an index noted above. Though a few illustrations are disappointing, the suppliers of the photographs rather than the author or publisher seem to be to blame. The Museum Rietberg Zürich deserves much praise for its ambitious program of publishing an outstanding series of works on Indian painting.

Daniel Ehnbom
The University of Virginia