This is a book of little essays among which there is no order; no logical sequence; no given theme connects the pieces; they also appear dated perhaps. Why, then, one might legitimately ask, would anyone be interested in reading them? And why are these called ‘Conversations’, anyway? Conversations between whom?
I do not have answers: at least not such as could be called satisfactory. All I know is how I came to write these pieces, these ‘slight sketches of large subjects’. They were published as independent, stand-alone columns — over a quarter of a century — in the premier English newspaper of the northern part of India: The Tribune, published from Chandigarh. I clearly remember the day when it all began. The year was 1995 and it was somewhere in the middle of that year. The then chief editor of the newspaper, Mr Hari Jaisingh, invited me, friendly-fashion, to his office for some odd consultation about a theme that he was working on, and in the midst of it, suddenly, as if without forethought, he asked me if I would write a regular column for them: once a week, on any theme connected with art, but meant for the general reader, not any specialist. I was a little taken aback: not that writing on art, outside of my profession as an engaged art historian, was something alien to me — I had been reviewing art exhibitions in the paper for years, and apparently he knew that well; but this was something different: a regular column requiring the discipline of producing something week after week, on no given theme in hand. And this was to come on top of my other responsibilities as an academic, considering that I took my teaching and research rather seriously. I decided to probe the idea a bit, however. Mr Hari Jaisingh paused, said something, and paused again, as if trying to give formal shape to the idea that he had come up with. From those shared musings, the one thing I remember is that it was his desire to ‘expand the constituency of readership in art matters’. Readers want to know, even learn a bit perhaps, but there was nowhere for them to go, certainly not in the newspapers, as he put it. So, anything, anything at all, written free of jargon, untouched more or less by heavy scholarship, clear of complex formulations, would be of value, he said. I liked the idea but went quiet for a moment, and then said, more to myself than to him, that I will come back if I am able, without much stress, to think in this strain of a hundred subjects to say something on.
The next day, I surprised myself for, as I sat down to draw up a quick list, it did not take me more than fifteen minutes. Ananda Coomaraswamy came calling, as it were, as did William Archer and Gautam Sarabhai and Mulk Raj Anand; I thought of the Guruji of the Kudiyattam troupe at Zurich, and of the visit of the Prince of Wales to India; the ‘projecting eye’ of Jain painting flashed in front of my eyes, so did the thoughtful, care-worn mien of the emperor Akbar; I could see myself having tea with Kakuzo Okakura at one moment, and, in the next, gazing with wonder at that ‘axis of the universe’, the mount Meru, which Assamese painters of the past had conjured up in their imagination. I knew then that all this was not beyond me, and I let the chief editor know, agreeing to his kind suggestion, but with the rider that I will write every fortnight, not every week — since I had other things to do too; will choose my own ‘title’ for the series; and add some visual content to each piece. That is how it all began, and it has not ended yet, for I have, till date, contributed more than six hundred columns to the newspaper by now. What appears in this book is a selection. The standing title that I chose for the column was ‘Art and Soul’, taking two letters out of ‘Heart’, but adding ‘Soul’, since I did not wish to find myself too hemmed in. This addition gave me the opportunity to look at things happening around me and add an occasional comment, although untouched by malice for the most part.
For being able to publish so many columns over a sustained period of time, or for having a book such as this take form, I turned to kindnesses, at various levels, and these I have received in rich measure over the years. My first debt naturally is to The Tribune, Chandigarh — to its trustees and its editors and staff — which carried all my columns. Since 1995, when the first pieces appeared, the successive editors-in-chief of the paper could not possibly have been more friendly or more supportive.
— BN Goswamy’s last column, his 707th, appeared on November 12, 2023
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