Book Title: The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs
Author: BN Goswamy
I know something about the subject (cats), but know little about art, literature, or history. Reviewing ‘The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs’ by scholar BN Goswamy (BNG), I am as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Disclaimer: since ethics committees and enforcement departments are on an overdrive, I want to state my conflict of interest upfront. I am a sucker for autographed first-edition art books. Read this review with a pinch of salt (salt also alludes to corruption and is the root of the word, salary).
This is an unusual book. In its introduction, BNG confesses he has ‘strayed from the area of Indian art’. He abandons his conventional writing format and adopts a more speakeasy style. Though lighter, this work is scholarly. BNG limits the book to the female domesticated cat of India (not the subcontinent). Those wanting to see a survey of Mughal, Rajput and Pahari paintings of jungle cats, caracals and lynxes will be a tad disappointed.
The book has four parts. Part one (A Clutch of Cat Stories) covers 50 pages of parables, couplets and hemistiches, drawn from diverse classics like ‘Hitopadesha’, ‘Mahabharata’, ‘Kathasaritsagara’, the Hadith, and a story from Tenali Rama.
The second section (Cats in Paintings, Past & Present) has images from museums and auction house catalogues. Most of these are rare, and only BNG could have accessed them for the reader. The designer has adopted a clever device, a cat motif alongside the caption to help the reader find the feline. The cat, BNG tells us in his introduction, is ‘marjara’ in Sanskrit, hinting at its excessive cleaning and grooming. An etymological extension (‘marjarahh’) alludes to yearning, bordering on sexual pleasure. BNG hints to yearning in the Pahari painting (A Nayika’s Clever Ruse), and to pleasure in lovers (Ragini Patamanjari) with a solitary cat as company. My favourite image-story is A Monkey’s Tricky Justice, housed in the Government Museum, in BNG’s home city of Chandigarh.
My favourite cat from Indian art does not find a place here. This is not BNG’s fault. This is because mine is hewn in a rock and BNG has focused on paintings. The one I refer to is Mahabalipuram’s iconic gigantic bas-relief called Descent of the Ganges or Bhagiratha’s Penance. Visitors stare at the rounded grey rock with a curious carnival of animals, arranged around two giant elephants. If you happen to see the image or are there, look to the bottom left of the trunk of the elephant. There is a cat standing on one leg with one eye shut. It depicts the Jataka tale about a clever ruse and false prophets. But I am not complaining. BNG’s selection of paintings is sumptuous and impeccable.
In the penultimate section (Gleanings), BNG dives to bring us a choice of shlokas, dohas, shers and verses. Each selection presents a feline emotion or idiosyncrasies that a poet and writer felt. Mir and Ghalib loved their cats to distraction. Vikram Seth saw her as full of mischief and cleverness. The great Bangla poet Jibanananda Das saw himself as a solitary and invisible cat, who perambulated in columns of sunlight and shade.
In the last section (The Right to Speak), BNG chooses proverbs and idioms from various Indian languages. BNG speaks for the cat-folk. He wants to set the record straight. He picks up each kahaavat and voices why the cat-kind approves or chides it. In doing so, BNG’s wit shines through. His translation of Urdu couplets shows his impeccable knowledge of the nuances of the language. Works of Vikram Seth, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, P Keshava Murthy and others are translated or reproduced. Short biographical notes about them would have been useful. A few more paintings from other regions and styles (Pithora, Cherial, Ganjifa, Patachitra) would have made this book richer. Now I am being greedy.
I can imagine several curatorial spin-offs. A dastaan by Mahmood Farooqui perhaps? Like all of BNG’s books, this one must be owned. Gift it to people who love cats or the arts. After all, it’s Diwali season. This book is also for adults who enjoy reading stories to children. The resplendent paintings will instil a love for good writing and a generous serving of art and history. I am not sure about the price of the book, but knowing that I will have an author-signed copy, it’s already priceless.