Saumya Agarwal: The Heterogeneous Temporalities of the Painted Cenotaphs of Shekhawati

The Shekhawati region in Rajasthan is famous for its painted buildings. Financed by the Marwari merchant community, the paintings flourished during the period of accelerated European contact (1750–1950). Hybrid images are thus the hallmark of these structures. Images like Christ smoking a cigar; Hindu gods listening to the gramophone and flying in automobiles; Queen Victoria glancing askance at a copulating couple, are some iconic examples. Hybridity though, in both architecture and art, predates the colonial contact. Telling examples of this are the opulently painted mortuary monuments or chatris. A result of the Indo-Islamic encounter, the chatri, was popularized by the Mughals, and subsequently emulated by Rajput royalty. In her paper, Agarwal will analyze the appropriation of these structures by the merchant community of Shekhawati as an entry into history, that is, an attempt to defeat death and oblivion through monumentalization. Yet, such memorialization is at odds with Hindu notions of eschatology, and the thematics of the paintings decorating these structures, like the representations of the avatars of Vishnu, often create a counter-narrative. By analyzing the competing notions of time, one linear and the other cyclical, created by the structure and the paintings within, Agarwal will elucidate hybrid temporalities. Furthermore, she will use this discussion on temporalities to reflect upon the contemporary heritagization practices in the area that are often divided between conservation and preservation efforts.

Saumya Agarwal is a PhD student at the Cluster of Transcultural Studies at Heidelberg University, Germany. In her thesis, she historicizes the wall paintings of Shkhawati, an under-researched area of visual culture. Agarwal analyses visual material to understand transformations effected by transcultural contacts. The primary transformation, she sheds light on, is the changing conception of the temporal with the introduction of a mechanized clock time. Concepts of temporality are also linked to her larger research interests in heritage practices and archives. Agarwal actively engaged in exploring both themes in a global context during her time as a research fellow at the Musée du quai Branly, Paris (2016–17). She holds an MPhil, MA and BA in Literary Studies from the University of Delhi. She has worked as an English Literature lecturer at the University of Delhi for several years. As an extension of her research interests, she frequently writes commentaries on visual culture, iconography and contemporary politics for newspapers and independent news websites.


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