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A heritage of words

India?s manuscript tradition is lovingly preserved in hardcover, enthuses Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2006 18:08 IST

The Word Is Sacred Sacred Is the Word
B N Goswamy
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Price: Rs 1,850
Pages: 248
Format: Hardcover

If ever a book was worth its price, it is art historian B N Goswamy’s new work on the Indian manuscript tradition. It was brought out to accompany the first consolidated exhibition of Indian manuscripts last month at the Museum of Applied Arts in Frankfurt.

Goswamy is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Panjab University, Chandigarh. His books on Pahari miniatures, Sikh darbar paintings, on various private collections of Indian art and especially on Nainsukh, the accomplished medieval miniaturist of Guler, are canonical and beloved works.

In this satisfyingly large, well-illustrated volume, Goswamy takes us through the fascinating history of the written word in India, with worthy contributions by Dhritibrata Bhattacharya, Yashaswani Chandra, Kakul Fatima, Jagdish Mittal, D K Rana, Rita Devi Sharma, Sanjukta Sundareson and Gitanjali Surendran. The Indian reverence for the written word, co-existing with its rich oral tradition, is delivered in the book’s title itself.

A German-English text tells the story of an ancient civilisation’s textual and visual engagement with a medley of material: palm leaf, birch bark, cotton, silk, paper, wood, copper, brass and stone. The written and the illustrated showcased here carry the tides of our history in them: Buddhist and Jaina texts, Korans in copper, the Rathore Vamsavali (chronicles of the Rajput dynasty of Marwar), the farman of Akbar.

Clues to ancestral personality lurk laughingly in these pages: skill and control, a nice eye for composition, proportion and colour, sly irreverence and affection for the deities of Sanatana Dharma betrayed in a Ganesha’s quirky smile, a Saraswati’s little moue of mischief. Above all, there is joy that dances in the bold contrast of vermilion with saffron in a Jain manuscript cover, the wistful green and pink of an Arabic scroll or the daring swoop of Islamic calligraphy.

First Published: Dec 11, 2006 18:08 IST