Armchair grief – F.S. Aijazuddin

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COVID-19 and politics have made grief an armchair activity. One quarantines us from the present, the other isolates us from the past.

Recently the death of another friend in India has made me aware of the impact an incurable Covid-19 and our irreversible history has had on our lives.

This time it is the death of Dr Karuna Goswamy. She passed away on Oct 25 from complications accentuated by Covid-19. She died in a hospital in Chandigarh, only 246 kilometres away from Lahore. I could have reached Chandigarh in less than four hours by car, had there been no barbed border in between. Instead, I mourn from this side of Wagah, maintaining social distance owing to Covid-19 and long distance because of brittle politics.

Karuna was the wife of Dr Brijen Goswamy, one of the most prolific and respected art historians India produced in the 20th century. There were others before him — A.K. Coomaraswamy, Rai Krishnadasa, Karl Khandalavala, and Dr M.S. Randhawa, to name just a few. None though match his breadth of knowledge, his meticulous research, nor his mellifluous prose.

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The main bond was a shared obsession with art.

He and Karuna married in 1964. In a twist to the Macron duo, she had been his student at the Punjab University, Chandigarh. Since then, theirs became a partnership, both intellectual and domestic.

Karuna made her academic debut with her doctoral thesis: Vaishnavism in the Punjab Hills and Pahari Painting (1968). Despite the inevitable distractions of motherhood to two children and in time grand-motherhood, she pursued her intellectual interests in parallel, publishing many books, particularly two on Kashmiri painting, and a collaboration with Brijen: Wondrous Images: Krishna seen as Shrinath-ji (Pichhwais of the Vallabha Sampradaya) in 2014. Those who saw her more often talk about her generosity of spirit, unobtrusive philanthropy, and expansive friendship.

My wife Shahnaz and I met Karuna and Brijen first in Los Angeles in September 1977, when we had all been invited to attend a colloquium on Pahari painting. We met again a year later, this time in Chandigarh where I had been invited to speak on the Lahore Museum collection of Pahari paintings. Karuna prepared a lavish feast of welcome to their home. Over the years, our contacts remained close if sporadic, by post and later by swifter email.

It would be difficult to extract a single strand from the numerous connections that bound Karuna and Brijen in Chandigarh to us here in Lahore. The main bond was of course a shared obsession with art, especially the mini masterpieces done in the Pahari localities of Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Nurpur, Jammu/Jasrota, and Kulu.

In 1966-67, Brijen and I found ourselves studying miniatures (on either of the border), using the Lahore Museum collection. It had been divided in 1947, as had the Punjab itself following Radcliffe’s butchery, between Pakistan’s West Punjab and Indian East Punjab. We had two thirds, India one third.

In 1968, Brijen published a ground-breaking article: ‘Pahari painting: the family as the basis of style’ that shifted the spotlight from royal Pahari patrons to their menial but talented artists. The article appeared in the prestigious art magazine Marg which devoted a complete issue to it. I had a copy smuggled into Pakistan. In time, he was able to rely upon my catalogue of the Lahore Museum collection after it was published in 1977.

Since then, we have exchanged numerous articles and books as they were published. We ploughed furrows separately in the same field of Sikh art, sharing a platform at the Victoria & Albert Museum during its spectacular ‘Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms’ exhibition in 1999. In 2013, I contributed to a Festschrift in honour of Brijen’s 80th birthday. And in 2014, Brijen provided an appreciative postscript to my lecture at the Chandigarh Museum & Art Gallery on my book The Resourceful Fakirs: Three Muslim brothers at the Sikh court of Lahore.

Brijen was born in Sargodha and Karuna in Lahore. Neither had been to Pakistan since 1947. They came together to Lahore in 2016, when Brijen was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Lahore Literary Festival. Shahnaz and I took them to the Lahore Museum, the Punjab archives in Anarkali’s tomb, and hosted a dinner in our home that could imitate but not rival their more frequent hospitality.

Karuna had studied at Sacred Heart Convent, in Thornton Road. When she was three years old, her grandfather left her, even though she was too young to be enrolled, on the doorstep of the principal’s office. The Mother Superior noticed her and called the grandfather. Over 70 years, that office had not changed. I photographed Karuna, sitting on the same doorstep.

Karuna has rejoined her childhood, leaving fragrant, unforgettable memories such as these of the intervening years.

The writer is an author.

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