Priyani Roy Choudhury: The Plantain on the Pillar: A Visual Arc Between Fatehpur Sikri and the Indian Ocean Rim

Certain pillars in the palace complex at Fatehpur Sikri carry micro representations of the banana or plantain tree. Sometimes laden with heavy conical flowers, every blade of leaf is marked with subtle alterations each time it’s repeated. Scholarship on Fatehpur Sikri consistently describes this and those of similar heritage as ‘Hindu/ Jain motifs’. Thereby it feeds a narrative which fashions Fatehpur Sikri as a monument to ‘syncretic’ values. Yet in the very demarcation of individual traditions, such descriptions become exclusionary of the cultural complex histories and meanings that these motifs embody. How does one, for instance, read the plantain on the pillar crafted in sixteenth century Fatehpur Sikri in juxtaposition with the same motif found on the grave of Umar al-Kazeruni (c.1333) in Khambhat (Cambay) in Gujarat or on a gravestone in Oman from the fourteenth century and another found in Sumatra from the fifteenth? Preeminent ports such as Cambay served as axes of maritime trade and as well as sites of production. The conquest of Gujarat beginning in 1571 allowed the Mughals access to these pivotal hubs of aesthetic heritage. The last decade has seen a turn towards connecting art histories over large geopolitical matrices. It has therefore become imperative to reassess our approach to ornamental motifs used in the Indian sub-continent, especially when they do not stay confined to a single artistic lineage or to territorial boundaries. Roy Choudhury’s paper will attempt to address this through an exploration of the translocation of a single motif between completely different temporal, spatial, and material contexts.

 

Priyani Roy Choudhury is a researcher currently based in New Delhi. She is pursuing her PhD at the Institut für Kunst-und Bildgeschichte at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her doctoral research, Fashioning of a Mughal City: Fatehpur Sikri, takes a close look at the making of the city in the context of the architectural and cultural environs of sixteenth century India. Between October 2013–2017, Roy Choudhury was a fellow of research and fellowship program Connecting Art Histories in the Museum: The Mediterranean and Asia 400–1650 (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut/ Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Under its aegis she was placed at the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, where she co-curated, alongside Julia Gonella, the exhibition Mystic Travellers: Sufis, Ascetics and Holy Men in 2016.


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