Cultural History of Early South Asia (A Reader)

Item Code: NAG491
Author: Shonaleeka Kaul
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9788125053590
Pages: 388 (25 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 560 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


Cultural History of Early South Asia: A Reader presents a wide-ranging survey of the diverse art forms of early South Asia. In doing so, it departs from the dominant tendency of treating the arts as static 'heritage of the past' with just exhibition value, and instead perceives them as dynamic processes of meaning and communication in the past. It connects cultural production with ordinary life, to explore the various roles which literature and visual arts played in the lives of their communities. Here, art is investigated as objects of aesthetic enjoyment, but also as creations of rhetorical or philosophical moment, as well as of utilitarian value.


Through its broad chronological sweep covering the earliest specimens of cultural expression like the prehistoric rock paintings of Bhimbetka, the ornaments of the Harappan culture, the frescoes and rock-cut temples of Ajanta and Ellora, the Pali Jatakas, and South Asian folklore, the book argues for a variety of audiences in ancient and early medieval South Asia.


Bringing together authoritative voices on South Asian history, archaeology and literature, the book presents complementary views which will help in understanding the popular dimensions of the subcontinent's art and culture. It will acquaint its readership with fundamental contributions to the region's art history, and yet do so in a way that questions and opens up received wisdom, and initiates a new understanding of early cultural processes.


Scholarly, yet accessible, it will be of enduring relevance for researchers, students of history and cultural studies, as well as lay readers interested in the artistic traditions of South Asia.


About the Author


Shonaleeka Kaul is Assistant Professor of History, University of Delhi




THE IDEA OF PUTTING TOGETHER A READER ON THE cultural history of early South Asia-as vast a topic as there can be-arose back in 2008, when Hemlata Shankar of Orient BlackSwan (then still Orient Longman) approached me to take up the task. This book owes itself to Lata's patience and faith. I was then on a visiting chair at Yale University and Lata waited for me, not only till I returned to India, but till after I had worked my way through critical illness and death in my immediate family, and several months of upheaval in my circumstances thereafter. It was only in 2010 that we got down to discussing what it was that I wanted to do with this book.


Compiling a cultural history of early India (which I later expanded to South Asia for reasons explained in the Introduction) was not an obvious or easy mandate. Any number of masterly works on different aspects of India's vast and varied cultural past had been published over the last century. Not least among them was a collection of essays edited, appropriately, by the Indophile A. L. Basham, and named precisely A Cultural History of India, which attempted a sweeping coverage of Indian religion, philosophy, art, architecture, literature and so on, in one volume. Though obviously the potential for fresh research was nowhere near exhausted, fresh research is not quite what a Reader based on already published, representative works purports to do. So what could we say that would be new and yet only introductory? What tack or line should the Reader adopt that would acquaint its readership with fundamental contributions to the region's art history, and yet do so in a way that questions and opens up received wisdom, and initiates, hopefully, a new understanding of early cultural processes?


I decided that the answer may lie in somewhat democratising the study of art and culture in early India. This would take two forms-namely, broadening the choice of objects selected for study, and more so, the questions asked about those objects. Hence readers will find the inclusion of ornaments, on the one hand, and folklore, on the other, in this collection of essays; these were and arguably continue to be widespread forms of cultural production that emanate from people's daily lives, but have rarely been incorporated in standard surveys of South Asian cultural history. Then, apart from commonplace culture, this volume also takes up more visible and conventionally regarded cultural forms, like temples, stupas, sculptural reliefs, or, of a different order, drama and poetry composed in ancient times. But here too, it seeks to broaden the perspective and nudge the focus beyond their production to the much wider phenomenon of their consumption or reception. What did an art form mean to its audience? Indeed, who constituted its audience, its community of response, its clientele and user base? How did art speak to their lives-to their beliefs, practices and identities? And how did the dialogue between culture and its communities contribute over the centuries to the formation of South Asian traditions?


The guiding principle of the book is thus a quest for elucidating culture's varied contexts of consumption. Despite challenges, including the paucity of writings that explicitly interpret culture from this vantage, this book raises these questions about an eclectic-though, necessarily, not exhaustive-range of cultural forms, each marking a unique innovation, from chronologically ordered periods of South Asia's past, beginning with prehistory down to approximately the beginning of the early medieval. Readers shall judge for themselves the proffered answers.


The manuscript was ready by 2011. A number of people offered encouragement in the course of its preparation. I should thank first the scholars whose essays are carried here, or their heirs, who were supportive of the concept behind this Reader, and enthused at the novel line of enquiry their work was being both deployed for and subjected to. They all gave readily of their consent. I am thankful to my colleague Professor Kesavan Veluthat who showed a warm interest in the project and put me through to Professor Indrapala in Sydney who, in turn, I thank for putting me through to the family of the late K. Kailasapathy in Colombo. My gratitude to Professor Himanshu Prabha Ray for all the help with copyright issues and contacting other contributors, and to Professor Uma Chakravarti for battling commercialism in the publishing world for this Reader. Special thanks to Dr Uma Shankar Pandey but for whose knowledge of French, I could not have corresponded with Paleorient. Amit Chhikara thoughtfully chipped in at a critical moment with library and photocopying work and I thank him for that.


At Orient BlackSwan, Mimi Choudhury was receptive to all my ideas and suggestions. Nilanjana Majumdar helped with complex negotiations revolving around permissions that were an exercise in great patience. Shubhro Datta copy-edited the manuscript with unfiagging diligence. He and I worked hard to bring uniformity and completion to the state of the references and citations across the many essays, but with some of these written a long time ago, gaps in publication details at places have been difficult to fill. With the essays teeming with indigenous terms and diacritical marks that accompany them, we decided not to use diacritics in the Introduction and the Glossary, making these more accessible thereby to the general reader. For the same reason we did not add diacritics to the odd essay that did not originally use them, even though this then meant there would be a slight variation in spellings in this book.


Finally, a word about my family. My father is no more but remains the blessing in my life. My husband Nachiketa is a very loving support in all my endeavours, and surely knows more history than I do! My sister Devika continues to be her gentle self. My fourth standard school teacher, Mrs Usha Chaujer, has gone from being ma'am to ma for me in the last couple of years.


In 2012, heartbreakingly, I lost little Tulip, my beloved dog of eleven years and exemplary person; this book is dedicated to her abiding presence. I also found littler Jim, a rescued dachshund, who has brought light and life back into our home.


For these people and this book, I thank God.




WHAT IS CULTURE? THE TWO COMMON, INTERRELATED meanings are culture as way of life and culture as art. Broadly, the former is an anthropological definition and the latter, aesthetic. In the discipline of history, where the approach has tended so far to be closer to the latter, individual detailed studies abound on early South Asian forms of art, architecture, sculpture, music and literature. Volumes that do a sweeping survey of all these aspects are also available, usually compiling major theoretical principles or features of various arts and their important specimens. This is often undertaken against the backdrop of the religious context of these art forms-religion as a way of life that infuses and motivates the production of these art forms-thereby making a survey of religions, sometimes in their own right as philosophies, a regular part of cultural histories of South Asia.


The present volume departs from these approaches; it attempts neither a vertical nor a horizontal perspective, but one that is conceptual. It seeks to contextualise, rather than objectify, cultural forms, looking at art less as a static 'heritage of the past' with just exhibition or display value, than as dynamic processes of meaning and communication in the past. In other words, taking off from the contemporary discipline of cultural studies, this book aims to connect cultural production with ordinary life, to explore cultural form as cultural experience-the variety of roles that paintings, sculptures, monuments and works of poetry or drama played in the lives of their communities.


So in the several articles brought together here, art is investigated not only as objects of aesthetic enjoyment, but also as creations of rhetorical or philosophical moment, as well as of utilitarian value. These furnish the variety of cuntexts of consumption within which this book seeks to place early South Asian cultural forms. This is a departure from the emphasis on patronage, or contexts of production, which has already received considerable and able attention from scholars looking to historicise acts that produce culture, like temple-building or composition of texts. Seeing mainly materialist motives and processes behind the creation of culture is to adopt the political economy approach-a cultural materialism that tends to shear culture down to power-effects. But did all art serve little purpose other than to perpetuate or mediate hierarchy and domination?


In departing from it, however, our emphasis actually takes the work on patronage forward. One of the abiding contributions of the turn to analysing the patronage of art in early South Asia has been the generation of a social understanding of culture, an understanding of the socio-economic and ideological underpinnings of art, thereby affording it a second dimension in addition to that of a purely formal analysis. However, an essential but neglected completive to any social history of art is looking at not only its production but its reception and consumption. For art is hardly produced in a vacuum, in oblivion of an intended or imagined audience: it is not only about self-expression, but also, usually, about communication. It can be regarded as an act of signification realised essentially through the practice of viewership. And early South Asian art was largely public and performative. This meant that its audience or clientele was an important part of constructing its meaning(s). This is confirmed by the emphasis that Indian treatises on art, from Bharata's Natyashastra onwards for many centuries, place on the rasika, who was the taster of rasa, the flavours or emotions elicited by art forms. The very fact that appreciation of works of art evoked enormous theorisation says a good deal about the conscious way in which consumers of art were conceived of in South Asian traditions.


The public character of art also meant that the audience could well on occasion have been a broad and complex social gathering, not necessarily monochromatic in terms of class, caste, gender, ethnicity or the rural- urban contrast. It could, therefore, have brought with it diverse interests and expectations, which could also have changed over space and time. With this focus on the audience or reception of cultural forms, this book examines some entrenched assumptions such as the distinction between classical and folk culture or high art and popular art, as also between the religious and the secular in art. It explores the social presence of culture in early South Asia.

This book proceeds with an understanding of culture as practice through which a society makes sense of itself and the world it inhabits, and through which it articulates its humanity. Art is arguably the most creative of those articulations, usually enshrining a vision with sophistication and/or profundity (hence 'art' is often used interchangeably for 'culture' in this book). Accordingly, with an eye on the visions encoded in cultural forms, some of the articles in this book look closely at representationality-not only what is being represented but its how and why. This book thus seeks to make a case for art as not only an aesthetic experience but also an intellectual institution. The interaction of this institution with a heterogeneous community as audience/clientele, over shifting spatial and chronological contexts, can then immediately be seen as acquiring a complexity and unpredictability that deserve to be investigated and articulated. And, given the sometimes very widespread currency of artistic styles, icons and motifs across early South Asia, this book also highlights the related issue of transmission and mobility of culture.


In fact, the shared cultural forms and traditions across a landmass as vast as the Indian subcontinent are what prompted the adoption of the nomenclature 'South Asia' in preference to 'India' in this book. It is true that these traditions have been, and can tenably be, described as Indic. It is also true that distinct local and regional specificities and exceptions or adaptations of Indic traditions obtained, often as a result of confluence with non-Indic styles. Nonetheless, South Asia, broadly speaking, and not the boundaries of the Indian nation alone, can be said to constitute the cultural region.


Thus the geographical catchment area of the forms and tendencies discussed in this book, though not always made explicit, spans Afghanistan in the west, Bangladesh in the east, Nepal in the north, and Sri Lanka in the south, including of course India and Pakistan. The chronological frame for the exercise is just as sweeping, starting from the earliest known specimens of human cultural expression, namely prehistoric rock paintings, through protohistoric ornaments from the Harappan culture, pillar edicts of Ashoka's empire, post-Mauryan terracottas, the Buddhist stupas from Sanchi and Bharhut, the 'Brahmanical' temples at Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal, the caves of Ellora, the (theory of the) paintings of Ajanta, Sanskrit drama, Tamil poetry, Pali Jatakas (birth stories of the Buddha in prose), and variegated South Asian folklore.





List of Tables and Figures






Publisher's Acknowledgements



Introduction: Producers and Consumers of Culture



'A Figure of Speech, or a Figure of Thought?'



Rock Paintings of the Mesolithic Period



Ornament Styles of the Indus Valley Tradition



Texts on Stone: Understanding Asoka's Epigraph-Monuments



Social Background of Ancient Indian Terracottas



On Modes of Visual Narration in Early Buddhist Art



Archaeology of Early Temples in the Chalukyan Regions



Ellora: Understanding the Creation of a Past



Theory and Practice of Painting: Introduction to the Visnudharmottara



The Jataka as Popular Tradition



The Functions and Social Location of Kavya



Bards and Bardic Traditions in Early Tamil Poetry



Who Needs Folklore? The Relevance of Oral Traditions to South Asian Studies


A. K. Ramanujan

Glossary of Select Terms


Notes on the Contributors



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