India and the World: New Arcs of Knowledge – Convener’s Report

By Nachiket Canchani

The recently concluded Transregional Academy, “India and the World: New Arcs of Knowledge,” organized in collaboration with the Forum Transregionale Studien (Berlin), Kunsthistorisches Institut-Max Planck Institut in Florenz, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Mumbai), Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (Kolkata), and Dakshina Chitra Museum (Chennai) brought together 18 graduate students and postdoctoral scholars interested in opening up new archives, exploring innovative critical research methods, and honing rhetoric to be communicable to global audiences. While the doctoral and postdoctoral scholars were the Academy’s primary participants, many academics, contemporary artists, curators, and museum directors also participated in the Academy as discussants, expert interlocutors, panel chairs, and resource persons.

Two considerations motivated my organization of the Academy. First, a recognition of a scenario: that for decades, in India, competing pressures exerted by bodies that regulate curricula and legislatures that control funding have made it difficult for graduate students and early career scholars to freely cross disciplinary boundaries and identify and interact with colleagues working on similar projects as theirs. Electronic resources are just beginning to become widely available and the flow of human resources across boundaries is only beginning to be loosened. Opportunities for affording more face-to-face interaction at conferences are still limited.  Second, a desire to nurture new scholarship on connected histories. For India and the world have interacted with one another in so many domains for many centuries, so to think of these phenomena separately is to tear apart a tightly woven textile.

Walk led by Mustansir Dalvi (J.J. College of Architecture)

The Academy began in Mumbai on 24 November with a walk led by Mustansir Dalvi, professor of architectural history at the J. J. College of Architecture. As we walked from Marine Drive through the Art Deco and Victorian Gothic urbanscape, Mustansir exhorted us to read the city’s urban fabric as “an archive beneath one’s feet,” one that allows for writing of new histories of aspirations, coalitions, and flows. The walk ended at lunchtime at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) where we spent the afternoon. First, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the museum’s director general, addressed the group on prospects and difficulties in conceptualizing and organizing the recently concluded blockbuster exhibition, “India and the World.” Next, the group walked through an ongoing special exhibition on artistic exchanges between seventeenth-century Mughal and Dutch painters with its co-curator Vandana Prapanna and her colleagues Renuka Muthuswami and Vaidehi Savnal.  Following high tea, Anju Dodiya and Gieve Patel, two contemporary artists, joined us at CSMVS for a conversation. They showed us images of their artworks and spoke movingly about how diverse visual traditions—from Italian Renaissance paintings to Ukiyo prints—serve as resources for creating their own artworks. These artworks are highly personal visions, offering hints of narrative amid seas of abstraction.

The next day, Academy participants traveled to Kolkata and reached the Jadunath Bhavan Museum and Resource Centre (JBMRC), a unit of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC) at lunchtime. We spent the afternoon with Tapati Guha Thakurta, professor of history at CSSSC. Following a tour of JBMRC, formerly the residence of distinguished historian Jadunath Sircar (d. 1958) we visited a wharf that offers a panoramic view of the Hooghly, a river that has linked Kolkata to the world. Thereafter, we proceeded to Victoria Memorial Hall for a special tour of the largest museum of modern Indian history. Onsite, Tapati and Jayanta Sengupta, the museum’s director, spoke to the group about the building’s design and conception, logics guiding the placement of architectural sculpture on the memorial’s grounds, and outlined how the institution amassed a vast art collection in the early twentieth-century.

Over the course of November 26 and 27, each of the 18 participants presented 20-minute long papers at a workshop held at JBMRC and received in-depth feedback from humanists and social scientists. The first panel brought together two papers on the cosmopolitan nature of early Buddhist India: Natasha Kimmet considered the morphology of clay sculpture excavated at Akhnur and its links to statuary crafted across a mosaic of kingdoms that extended from Kandhara to Jammu. Joeeta Pal reflected on the afterlife of the Buddhist rock-cut sanctuary at Kanheri. Hannah Baader served as the discussant. As Sanjoy Mallik (Vishvabharati) noted in his remarks as the discussant of the next panel, both Ross Bernhaut’s paper on the making and remaking of Jain sculptures at Gwailor and Parul Singh’s presentation photo-mimetic portraiture in an Ishqnama manuscript considered issues of alterity and mimesis. Next, Mrinalini Sil and Nimra Rizvi spoke on collecting impulses of European and Indian elites even as the British East India Company extended its authority and influence over the eighteenth-century. Tapati served as the discussant. Mohit Manohar’s presentation’s “Making and Remaking the Tomb of Sher Shah Suri in British India,” and Pimmanus Wibulsilp’s paper “Reconsidering the Indo-Anglo Cultural Encounters and Exchanges in the Late Eighteenth-Century Nawabi Karnatak Through the History of the Chepauk Palace” followed. As discussant for this panel, I reflected on issues of taste, architectural typology and agency raised by their papers.  The final panel of the day featured papers by Nuno Grancho—on architectural transactions between India and Portugal—and Sarojini Lewis’s presentation on indentured laborers who were taken from India to islands on the Caribbean and Indian Ocean islands. Lakshmi Subramanian (BITS-Pilani) responded to both papers. November 26 concluded with a dinner where participants joined discussants, steering committee members, CSSSC’s governing board, and other well-wishers.

November 27 began with papers by Vivek Gupta and Priyani Roy Choudhury that traced the formation and circulation of new visual idioms and tropes in Sultanate and Mughal South Asia and benefited from Rajarshi Ghose’s (CSSSC) incisive comments. Sandipan Mitra’s paper, “Human Models: Colonialism, Anthropology, and the Global Circulation of the Clay Works of Krishnanagar” and William Bamber presentation “From Ottoman Istanbulin to Hyderabadi Sherwani, A Transnational Men’s Style in late-19th Century South Asia” followed. Discussant Rosinka Chaudhuri (CSSSC) encouraged Mitra and Bamber to probe interconnections among and between masculinity, color, ornament, and the figure of the maker in the wake of new reform movements. The two papers in the next panel probed issues of temporality, mimicry and hybridity through carefully selected case studies: Saumya Agarwal focused on the painted cenotaphs of Shekhawati and Shradda Bhatawadekar spoke on the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Railway Terminus in Mumbai. Both gained from feedback offered by discussant Prachi Deshpande (CSSSC). Trina Nileena Banerjee presided over the final panel which featured papers on complimentary topics: the meeting of Indian dancers and the Parisian Avant-garde in the early twentieth-century and on the history of Soviet book consumption in post-colonial India. Jessica Bachman and Irene López Arnaiz respectively gave these two papers. At the workshop’s conclusion, all the participants visited CSSSC visual archives with archivist Kamalika Mukherjee and learnt how materials housed therein might allow them to widen and deepen their own research projects.

On November 28 the group travelled to Chennai. Following lunch at Dakshina Chitra—with its founder Deborah Thiagarajan, and its director Sharath Nambiar—Academy participants walked through the campus. About two dozen houses threatened by anthropogenic pressures in their original locales in different parts of South India have been relocated and reconstructed on the museum’s campus. Select artifacts used by ethnic and social groups who initially built and used these homes are set within them. Following the walk, as a group we deliberated the aesthetics and politics of exhibiting cultures and attempted to situate Dakshina Chitra’s endeavor within broader social formations and within critical scholarship on identity politics, heritage management, arts institutions and cultural industries in contemporary India. A dance performance at dusk stimulated a dinnertime conversation on the revival and transformation of performing art traditions.

Next morning we gathered at Dakshina Chitra once again to hear four of the institution’s trustees give short presentations on the south Indian home as an archive. Deborah Thiagarajan gave an overview of architectural treatises and building customs, two unevenly mined repositories. Architect Benny Kuriakose spoke on the material and metaphorical resources that vernacular architecture offers contemporary architects. Rathi Jaffer, director of the Inko Center, exhorted participants to recognize oral accounts as a rapidly disappearing record of how homes and artifacts held within them were valued before the economic reforms of 1991. Finally, critic Sadanand Menon spoke on how pestles, pitchers ­­and other everyday objects held in homes might be scrutinized to reconstruct narratives of household design and labor. A Q&A session followed. After lunch, we traveled to Mahabalipuram with Tapati and Sethuraman Suresh, convener of the Tamil Nadu chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. At Mahabalipuram, rock-cut and masonry Shaiva temples fashioned in the six and seventh-century CE stand near Bay of Bengal’s shores and in the undulating landscape. Participants learnt how studying temple forms can permit the writing of histories on the interplay between sculpture and architecture, vernacular and cosmopolitan culture in the early medieval period, spread of temple Hinduism across South and South-East Asia, and historical consciousness in the early modern period when Mahabalipuram was partially reshaped into a Vaishnava sacred center.                         

November 30 commenced with an experiential learning session at Dakshina Chitra. As participants collaboratively created works with artisans from southeastern India, they debated discourses on continuity and innovation. A final wrap-up discussion followed. Participants reflected on the opportunities proffered in preceding days to ask each other questions, offer support, challenge viewpoints, seek clarifications, provide further evidence, reframe points of view, and to begin to construct new arcs of knowledge to better understand India and the world.


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