Sun. Apr 21st, 2024
“A Cat”; Francesca Galloway sales catalogue, work from the collection of James Ivory (all images courtesy Aleph Books)

In Sanskrit, the term marjara-nyaya refers to a method of devotion in which a devotee completely surrenders to the deity, much like a kitten surrenders to the mother’s protective grasp (marjara is the Sanskrit word for cat). In contrast, marjara-vrata stands for “cat’s vow” — an opprobrium attributed to the cat’s deceitful ways. These dual perceptions of the feline can be traced back to many cultures’ ancient oral and written folklore. A few of these tales, predominantly from the Indian subcontinent, form the source of The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs — the last book by art historian B.N. Goswamy, who passed away on November 17.

As the title suggests, Goswamy sketches a portrait of the Indian cat through four sections, beginning with an eclectic compendium of Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim fables. The paradoxical nature of felines — now virtuous, now treacherous — comes across in these stories, which lean toward the latter. In Islam, however, the cat has been a figure of reverence, owing to the Prophet Muhammad’s love for them. The animal’s simultaneous elevation to a symbol of worship and relegation to a lowly being is peculiar to Hinduism, which doesn’t surprise Goswamy, who refers to the ambivalence inherent in the religion’s philosophy. 

“Cat in the Ashoka Vatika”; British Library (all images courtesy Aleph Books)

Reproduced in the book are 58 Indian paintings from several museums around the world, illustrating our affection for cats — from royalty to courtesans to mystics, the cat’s company has been enjoyed across classes. Interestingly, a few Mughal representations of Biblical themes feature cats, yet they’re absent in most European works. Goswamy observes this as a possible attempt by the Indian painters to make the settings more naturalistic. 

Drawing on poetry in multiple languages spoken in India, including Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, and English, Goswamy shows that the cat appears mostly in a positive light, as poets like Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Ghalib wax lyrical about their pets. 

“The Goddess Shashthi, Protectress of Children”; Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The author saves his signature quirkiness for the final section. As with his book on the 18th-century painter Nainsukh, in which he imaginatively voiced the painter’s thoughts, he lends the cat a voice to express her thoughts on the proverbs and loose talk surrounding her ilk. While she refutes allegations of pretension and hypocrisy, she admits to devouring food and milk if kept unguarded in her vicinity. 

With The Indian Cat, Goswamy joins scholars like Annemarie Schimmel who have fondly documented felines. All in all, the author endearingly presents the cat like Vikram Seth did in his poem “The Cat and the Cock” — as clever, practical, and ultimately good. 

“Cat in the Ayodhta Palace”; Freer-Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC
The Trapped Cat and the Frightened Mouse (Rat ?)“; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
“The Nayika Springs Into Action”; Victoria & Albert Museum
“A Sufi Saint Seated Under a Tree at a Hermitage”; Bonham’s auction catalogue, 2011

The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs by B.N. Goswamy (2023) is published by Aleph Books and is available online and in bookstores.

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