Cogut Institute for the Humanities

2018. How Secular is Art? On the Art of Art History in South Asia

In South Asian art, the distinction between the “secular” and the “religious,” further complicated by the “spiritual,” has been fraught with contestations. In this symposium, art historians, historians, and philosophers examine the entanglement of art history’s categories and practices with the politics of the present. The symposium positioned itself at the cusp of two dominant discourses: (i) the lingering Orientalist and nationalist projections that emphasize the “religious” nature of South Asian artistic traditions as against Western secularization; (ii) the assertion of the place of art within the modern secular life of nations, which posits the transitions of objects from earlier religious to new artistic denominations.

Speakers and Participants: Amanda Anderson, Brown University; Ariella Azoulay, Brown University; Akeel Bilgrami, Columbia University; Iftikhar Dadi, Cornell University; Finbarr Barry Flood, New York University; Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and Cogut Institute; Kajri Jain, University of Toronto; Santhi Kavuri-Bauer, San Francisco State University; Sonal Khullar, University of Washington, Seattle; Jinah Kim, Harvard University; Leora Maltz-Leca, Rhode Island School of Design; Saloni Mathur, UCLA; Sumathi Ramaswamy, Duke University; Tamara Sears, Rutgers University; Kavita Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Foad Torshizi, Rhode Island School of Design; Laura Weinstein, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Karin Zitzewitz, Michigan State University.

The symposium, which took place on October 26 and 27, 2018, was co-organized by Tapati Guha-Thakurta and Vazira Zamindar, the symposium was presented by the Cogut Institute for the Humanities as part of its Collaborative Humanities Initiative and by the Center for Contemporary South Asia of the Watson Institute as part of Art History from the South.

View the conference playlist on YouTube

Welcome by Tapati Guha-Thakurta (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and Brown University) and Vazira Zamindar (Brown University) | Chair: Amanda Anderson (Brown University)

Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University), "Is there an Indian Secularism?"

Akeel Bilgrami’s lecture poses the question of its title and constructs an historical and philosophical argument with a view to giving a negative answer to it. The argument speaks to the long anti-colonial freedom movement as well as the moral psychology of secularism around the political and legal issues since decolonization.

2018 Biography: Akeel Bilgrami got a BA in English Literature from Elphinstone College, Bombay University and went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar where he read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. He is the Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, where he is also a Professor on the Committee on Global Thought. He has been the Director of the Heyman Centre for the Humanities as well as the South Asian Institute at Columbia. His publications include the books Belief and Meaning (Blackwell, 1992), Self-Knowledge and Resentment (Harvard University Press, 2006), and Secularism, Identity and Enchantment (Harvard University Press, 2014). He is due to publish two in the near future: What is a Muslim? and Gandhi's Integrity. His long-term future work is on the relations between agency, value, and practical reason.

Chair: Jinah Kim (Harvard University) | Discussant: Finbarr Barry Flood (New York University)

Tamara Sears (Rutgers University), "Rebuilding Konark in the 20th Century: Postcolonial Philanthropists, Legacies of Colonial Archaeology, and Premodern Architectural Historiography"

Between 1984 and 1988, the industrialist magnate and philanthropist B. K. Birla built a remarkable new temple in Gwalior. Modeled specifically after the famous yet presently ruined thirteenth-century Sun temple at Konark in Orissa, its conception coincided significantly with the moment that the earlier monument was under consideration for UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Taking the Gwalior temple as a point of departure, my presentation brings together four temporally disparate yet interwoven strands of history: (1) that of the "sarvajanak mandir" that arose in conjunction with Gandhi’s secularist vision; (2) mid-century debates around architectural revivalism; (3) the politics of archaeology on various scales; and (4) the emphasis in architectural history on treating the premodern temple as a living religious form.

2018 Biography: Tamara Sears is Associate Professor of Art History at Rutgers University. Her first book, Worldly Gurus and Spiritual Kings: Architecture and Asceticism in Medieval India (Yale University Press, 2014), received the PROSE award in Architecture and Urban Planning. Her essays have appeared in well over a dozen volumes and journals, including The Art Bulletin, Ars Orientalis, and Archives of Asian Art. Her research has been supported by grants and fellowships from Fulbright, the J. Paul Getty Foundation, the National Humanities Center, Dumbarton Oaks, and the Clark Art Institute.

Santhi Kavuri-Bauer (San Francisco State University), "Enchanting Mughal Monuments and the Secularity of Wonder"

The Indian state as a dispassionate and neutral protector of national patrimony is every day proving itself a fiction. However, the same hollow premises of secularism continue to frame art historical inquiry and its suppression of the sacred and transcendent meaning of Indian monumentality. Using Mughal monuments (16th-17th c.) as a case study, this paper considers a new interpretation of secularity that replaces progress with wonder as the transcendental signifier of the creative impulse of monument building. This reframing of the national monument allows scholars to write its history from a position of proximity, where we stand in awe alongside others and theorize and historicize humanity’s enduring need for spaces of enchantment and curiosity.

2018 Biography: Santhi Kavuri-Bauer is an associate professor of art history at San Francisco State University, where she teaches the art and architecture of South Asia and the Islamic world. Her book Monumental Matters: The Power, Subjectivity, and Space of India’s Mughal Architecture was published in 2011 by Duke University Press. Her new research is concerned with the influences of Islamic discourses on wonders or ‘aja’ib and ethics or akhlaq in the design and form of Indian Islamic cities and architecture.

Vazira Zamindar (Brown University), "Coomaraswamy in Ruins: Provincializing Indian Art History"

Ananda Coomaraswamy's essay "Origins of the Buddha Image" (1927) provided one of the most rigorous critiques of contemporary art historical scholarship that attributed the emergence of the anthropomorphic Buddha image to the Greeks, and in a determined search for Indian originality it marked a pivotal shift from the "archaeological and Eurocentric" to an "aesthetic and Indian" point of view. However, by taking the bristling anticolonial lineaments of his arguments back to the sites of antiquity, to colonial violence and anticolonial nonviolence on the northwest frontier, this paper explores the consequences of parsing "Indian" out of Gandhara, and the problem of "spirituality" for art history as it gave content to nation in a predominantly Muslim frontier.

2018 Biography: Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar is a historian of modern South Asia at Brown University, with an interest in twentieth century histories of decolonization, displacement, war, non-violence, the visual archive and contemporary art. Her book, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories, was published by Columbia University Press in 2007, and has inspired a number of different kinds of performances including Dastangoi's Dastaan-e-Partition. An edited volume based on two Harvard-Brown Pakistani Film Festivals, Love, War and Other Longings, is forthcoming this year, and she has written essays on the artists Sadequain and Zarina. At present she is working on her monograph, Civilizational Matters: Art and War in the Ruin Archive of Empire, on the history of archaeology and war on the northwest frontier of British India.

Chair: Foad Torshizi (Rhode Island School of Design) | Discussant: Leora Maltz-Leca (Rhode Island School of Design)

Saloni Mathur (University of California, Los Angeles), "Against Esotericism"

The close link between abstraction and spirituality has a long history within the narratives of Euro-American modernism. Spirituality was viewed as a key inspiration for the pioneering abstract art of Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich, for example. These modernists, as the story goes, drew heavily from theosophy, mysticism, “eastern” philosophies, and the occult to formally bust-loose from realism/materialism, giving birth to abstraction in the 20th century. One result is that, a hundred years later, all manner of clichés about abstraction’s proximity to spirituality abound. My paper will challenge some of the enduring assumptions of this discourse, which I dub esotericism, and consider some of the ways it has imprinted upon our frameworks for modern and contemporary art in South Asia. I turn, in particular, to contemporary artists of Muslim origin in the subcontinent – Nasreen Mohamedi, Zarina, Waqas Khan, Seher Shah, and Lala Rukh – whose work, in spite of significant formal differences, provides an opportunity to think against esotericism, and towards new understandings of the synergy between abstraction, the secular, and the spiritual.

2018 Biography: Saloni Mathur is Professor of Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is author of India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display (UC Press, 2007), editor ofThe Migrant’s Time: Rethinking Art History and Diaspora (Yale University Press/Clark Art Institute, 2011), and co-editor with Kavita Singh of No Touching, No Spitting, No Praying: The Museum in South Asia (Routledge, 2014). Her current book, A Fragile Inheritance: Radical Stakes in Contemporary Indian Art, is forthcoming with Duke University Press.

Iftikhar Dadi (Cornell University), "Situating Contemporary Art and the Secular"

The presentation will look at two frameworks for situating the question of the secular in Pakistan and its diaspora. The first is exemplified by Rasheed Araeen, who has deployed “Islamicate” forms in his practice, along with his criticism of valorizing exoticized subjectivity and cultural difference. Araeen brings to the idea of “modern Islamic art,” a persistent practice of self-critique and social engagement. By contrast, another framework has emerged in Pakistan during the last few decades, in which social concerns are peripheral to emphasis on repetitive practice. What are possible terms for evaluating these intensive formalist procedures? This paper will offer tentative lines of inquiry into these developments, informed by recent theoretical debates on secularism.

2018 Biography: Iftikhar Dadi is an associate professor in Cornell University’s Department of History of Art, director of the South Asia Program, and co-director of The Institute for Comparative Modernities. Research interests include modern and contemporary art, and popular culture, with emphasis on South and West Asia. He is author of Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (UNC Press, 2010) and the edited monograph Anwar Jalal Shemza (Ridinghouse, 2015). He has co-edited Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space (Green Cardamom, 2012); and Unpacking Europe: Towards a Critical Reading (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2001). As an artist, Iftikhar Dadi collaborates with Elizabeth Dadi. Their practice investigates popular media’s construction of memory, borders, and identity in contemporary globalization, and the productive capacities of urban informalities. They have exhibited widely internationally.

Kajri Jain (University of Toronto, Mississauga), "In Which Contemporary Indian Iconopraxis Devours Some Sacred Cows of Art History"

This avowedly polemical presentation takes stock of various ways in which the contemporaneity and novelty of South Asian religious images have been heretical for the frames and presuppositions of art historical method, particularly its linear temporality, and for the Judaeo-Christian (largely Protestant) underpinnings of the notion of religion. In doing so it argues for alternative models from philosophy and recently resurrected heterodox strands of art history. For many at this conference the sacred cows sacrificed here may be dead horses, yet their spectral presence palpably pervades art historical scholarship and institutional structures, and it needs careful, conscious work to recognize if not to exorcise them.

2018 Biography: Kajri Jain is Associate Professor of Indian Visual Culture and Contemporary Art at the University of Toronto. Author of Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art (Duke University Press, 2007), she is currently completing a book on the emergence of monumental iconic sculptures in post-liberalization India, Gods in the Time of Democracy (Duke University Press, forthcoming). Recent essays have appeared in Third Text, Current Anthropology, and Identities and the edited volumes Places of Nature in Ecologies of Urbanism, Art History and Emergency, Cambridge Companion to Modern Indian Culture, and New Cultural Histories of India.

Chair: Laura Weinstein (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) | Discussant: Ariella Azoulay, Brown University

Kavita Singh (Jawaharlal Nehru University), "For the Love of God"

Time was when one could distinguish at first glance between Indian artifacts or monuments that had remained sacred and those that had been secularized. They had very different “looks” which derived from the protocols applied to them. Sculptures placed in the museum were to be stripped, cleaned, and protected from touch or other sources of corrosion. Temples that were declared monuments had to be preserved in their original form without additions, alterations and coats of garish paint. An entirely different regime applied to temples and icons that remained under worship. Regardless of their antiquity, living temples had to serve congregational needs and their structures were often expanded and altered. Icons under worship were daubed with vermilion and sandal paste, and had to be nurtured through regular lustrations and offerings of clothing and food. Today however, in an emergent trend of “crossovers,” the norms and protocols of the museal regime are being applied to temples and icons — but  as a form of devotional care. This paper will trace this growing trend by describing a religious foundation that sponsors the careful excavation of medieval temples; a voluntary association that rebuilds ancient temples while scrupulously adhering to conservation norms; and a group of art sleuths that tracks stolen icons in the art market to effect their recovery and return. All of these groups speak of these icons and temples as sculptural or architectural masterpieces of great historical and art historical value and strive for their physical preservation. At the same their goal is to return these buildings and sculptures to active worship. What are the implications of the merging of the museal and the sacral in the actions of these individuals and groups? And how does this phenomenon intersect with Hindutva politics of today? This paper offers some conjectures.

2018 Biography: Kavita Singh is Professor of Art History at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she teaches courses on the history of Indian painting and the history and politics of museums. She has published essays on issues of colonial history, repatriation, secularism, and religiosity, fraught national identities, and the memorialization of difficult histories as they relate to museums in South Asia and beyond. She has also published on Indian painting. Her books include the edited and co-edited volumes New Insights into Sikh Art (Marg, 2003), Influx: Contemporary Art in Asia (Sage, 2013), No Touching, No Spitting, No Praying: The Museum in South Asia (Routledge, 2014), Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan (National Museum, 2015), Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt (Routledge, 2017), and the forthcoming Scent Upon a Southern Breeze: Synaesthesia and the Arts of the Deccan (Marg, 2018). Monographs include Museums, Heritage, Culture: Into the Conflict Zone (Amsterdam University of the Arts, 2015) and Real Birds in Imagined Gardens: Mughal Painting between Persia and Europe (Getty Foundation, 2016). She has curated exhibitions at the San Diego Museum of Art, the Devi Art Foundation, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the National Museum of India.

Karin Zitzewitz (Michigan State University), "Loopholing the Secular Museum: Bhupen Khakhar, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Rituals of Devotion"

This paper extends my discussion of Bhupen Khakhar’s painting through a productive comparison with the work of Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an icon of the queer artistic response to AIDS. I have argued that Khakhar’s 1990s watercolors lean upon the ritual practices of viewing associated with bhakti. Robert Storr has pinpointed a similar use of the communion ritual in Gonzalez-Torres’s candy spills. In both cases, I argue, these artists find a loophole in the secular practices of museum viewing in order to attest to the truth of gay love at the very moment in which gay bodies are most at risk.

2018 Biography: Karin Zitzewitz is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Michigan State University. Her book, The Art of Secularism: The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India (2014), won the Edward C. Dimock Prize in the Humanities from the American Institute for Indian Studies and was named a 2014 New Republic book of the year. She curated exhibitions by Pakistani artist Naiza Khan (2013) and Indian artist Mithu Sen (2014) for the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. She is also the author of The Perfect Frame: Presenting Indian Art: Stories and Photographs from the Kekoo Gandhy Collection (2003).

Sonal Khullar (University of Washington), "Bahaar Aayi [It is Spring Again]: The Lahore Biennale (2018)"

Taking its cue from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s lyric poem “Bahaar Aayi [It is Spring Again],” this paper examines the inaugural Lahore Biennale in the context of changes to Basant (spring festival) celebrations in Pakistan, notably a ban on kite-flying imposed in 2011. It considers the Biennale within a growing network of regional art events, including the Colombo Art Biennale (established 2009), the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (established 2012), the Dhaka Art Summit (established 2012), and the Karachi Biennale (established 2017), which have reconfigured South Asia and the art world. It shows how the Lahore Biennale engaged local, national, and global histories and politics, and propelled critical debates on postcoloniality, secularity, and religion.

2018 Biography: Sonal Khullar is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Washington. She is the author of Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity, and Modernism in India, 1930–1990 (University of California Press, 2015), which received the Bernard S. Cohn Book Prize of the Association of Asian Studies in 2017. She is writing a book, The Art of Dislocation, on conflict, collaboration, and globalization in contemporary art from South Asia. Her research has been supported by the College Art Association, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Japan Foundation.

Chair: Tapati Guha-Thakurta (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and Brown University)

Sumathi Ramaswamy (Duke University), "The Fine Art of Dying in Secular Time(s)"

Do moderns reach the limit of secular talk when confronted with the question of death, “the ultimate dispersal which remains ungathered” (Taylor 2007)? Is art, then, a “secular consolation” that confers meaning on that which has been rendered meaningless, an ending like no other (Siebert 2013)? With these questions in mind, I explore how the artist of modern India contends with a very special death, the violent passing at dusk on January 30, 1948, of the father of the nation. Gandhi’s death, for it is that of which I write, was no ordinary event since by all accounts the so-called apostle of nonviolence desired a violent ending, and he got his death-wish, his iccha mrtyu. No camera was present as witness. In the absence of photographic verisimilitude, the artistic imagination is free to visualize at will the Mahatma’s much longed-for tryst with his Maker. Even as I explore how and whether the modern Indian artist lives up to this burden, I ask how secular is the art generated around and about this murderous moment.

2018 Biography: Sumathi Ramaswamy is James B. Duke Professor of History and International Comparative Studies at Duke University and Co-Director of Duke’s India Initiative, and President of the American Institute of Indian Studies (2018-2022). Her most recent monograph is Terrestrial Lessons: The Conquest of the World as Globe (University of Chicago Press, 2017). She is currently doing a project on educational philanthropy in colonial and modern India, and working on a collaborative digital humanities project titled “No Parallel? The Fatherly Bodies of Gandhi and Mao.”