The shaping of the disciplinary the practice of art history in the Indian context has been a fascinating process and brings to the fore a range of viewpoints, issues, debates, and methods. Changing perspectives and approaches in academic writings on the visual arts of ancient and medieval India form the focus of this collection of insightful essays.
A critical introduction to the historiography of Indian art sets the stage for and contextualizes the different scholarly contributions on the circumstances, individuals, initiatives, and methods that have determined the course of Indian art history from colonial times to the present. The spectrum of key art historical concerns addressed in this volume include studies in form, style, textual interpretations, iconography, symbolism, representation, connoisseurship, artists, patrons, gendered readings, and the interrelationships of art history with archaeology, visual archives, and history.
Based on the papers presented at a Seminar, “Historiography of Indian Art: Emergent Methodological Concerns,” organized by the National Museum Institute, New Delhi, this book is enriched by the contributions of some scholars who have played a seminal role in establishing art history’s disciplinary orientations in the Indian context, and by those who offer more recent perspectives on the subject. Lucid and informative, this is an indispensable resource for all those engaged with the history and historiography of ancient and medieval Indian art in universities and museums across the globe, and will also be of interest to the general reader.
Parul Pandya Dhar is Associate Professor in the Department of History, University of Delhi, and specializes in the history of ancient and early medieval Indian architecture and sculpture. For several years prior to this, she was teaching in the Department of History of Art at the National Museum Institute, New Delhi.
The study of ancient and medieval Indian art and architecture emerged as a nascent pursuit about two centuries ago. In the late eighteenth and through a major part of the nineteenth century, it are out of a keen and unrelenting interest in Indian antiquities — as curiosities, as admirable handicrafts,’ as mysterious ‘monstrosities,’ and above all, as ‘artefacts’ or sources of past histories a country then colonized by the British. These ‘objectives set the tone for and determined the methods adopted in the study of Indian archaeology and art history during the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century. Despite the marked colonial bias, this period is crucial to the formal inception and institutionalization of art history in India.
Art and the Interpretation of India’s Past
Survey, Documentation, Archiving
The potential of the visual artefact in comprehending India’s past was well-appreciated by the British antiquarians of the nineteenth century, even as steps were being taken during the period to understand Indian history and culture through written records. The setting up of the Asiatic S:cietv (of Bengal) in 1784 by William Jones had institutionalized the study of India’s past. For Jones, however, the remains of architecture and sculpture were mere “monuments of antiquity and not specimens of art, which seemed to share their origins with the arts of Africa.” At the .are time, he lamented the loss of silpa sastras, the treatises, which he felt may have contained important information on traditional Indian arts and manufactures. In fact, it was as ‘handicraft’ or manufacture’ that Indian art first evoked British interest.Art and architectural remains received some attention as part of the regional surveys undertaken to understand the geography, history, customs, languages, literature, and folklore of a people. Important work emerged from individual initiatives such as those of Cohn Mackenzie (1754_l82l).6Working with a team of draftsmen and learned Indians or pitIits7, Mackenzie acquired translations of inscriptions and manuscripts- and had detailed maps and drawings of some southern Indian sites prepared. His efforts at documenting the Amaravati stupa and site are of particular art historical significance (Howes 2010). Several traditional Indian scholars played an important part in the colonial project of recovering India’s past but were usually assigned subordinate roles.
The study of written sources to interpret varied aspects of cultural history, however, remained more or less detached from the object- or monument-centric approach to Indian art and architectural history. Descriptions of ancient and medieval Indian monuments had been part of the travelogues of European travellers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Visual records of India’s built heritage and landscape found representation in the aquatints and paintings of artists such as William Hodges (1744—1787) and the Daniells (1795—1808). Picturesque views of Indian monuments in ruins, or those covered in dense forests of prolonged neglect, were favourite subjects that were painted, published, and displayed at exhibitions in Europe. The ‘Picturesque’ as a style of visual representation lent itself well to conjure the mystery, beauty, and romance of India’s past and to project the contrast of her impoverished present.
These early attempts acquired rigour and greater scientific basis from the mid nineteenth century. The most significant contribution of the period lay in the method of extensive survey, documentation, archiving, and reporting. All through, the image as aquatint, drawing, plaster cast, lithograph, stereoscope, diorama, and finally, photograph was sought after, painstakingly prepared, archived, and commented upon (Guha-Thakurta 2004:3-42). The incipient stages of the photographic juncture in the colonial history of Indian art are addressed as a photo-essay in this Volume by Joachim Bautze. Bautze discusses rare photographs, now in a private collection, taken from the Delhi Fort during the time of the mutiny of 1857, and correlates these with a diary maintained by Lady Coopland, a Britisher who spent almost five months and a half taking refuge inside the Delhi Fort during the mutiny. Bautze then uses another sequence of photographs taken from the fort of Agra in 1902 to weave a contextual visual narrative of the monuments of medieval Agra as understood by the British in early twentieth century. Seen together, the two photo-narratives offer important insights into British reception of and their disposition towards the monuments of the preceding Mughal era. In doing so, the intersections of these monuments as symbols of appropriation, power, strategy, control, and ‘empire,’ with the intended purposes and aesthetics of the monuments at the time of their making, are brought to the fore. Bautze thus convincingly demonstrates important cross-overs between issues of spectatorship, ideology, and aesthetics in art historical studies.
The visual had thus become an important tool of analysis for cultural interpretation and historical reconstruction during the British colonial period. Despite the biases and drawbacks, this image- centric approach did have its advantages and left a lasting legacy in the scientific documentation of artefacts, archival and museum collections and display, and knowledge dissemination systems in art historical and museum studies. Yet, this was also the period that witnessed the apathetic loss of India’s material heritage and the mass exodus of art remains from Indian into the hands of private collectors and museums abroad.
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