In our current political climate, art history is more important than ever before: Infosys Prize winner Kavita Singh

Shahid Tantray For The Caravan
Shahid Tantray For The Caravan

On 5 January, Kavita Singh, an art historian, was awarded the Infosys Prize in the humanities category. The Infosys Science Foundation awards the annual prize to recognise the work of scientists and researchers. The award includes a gold medal, a citation, and a cash prize of $100,000. Singh is currently a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and the dean of the university’s school of art and aesthetics. According to the Infosys Science Foundation, she won the award for her “illuminating study of Mughal, Rajput and Deccan art” and for her “insightful writing” on the role of museums in an “increasingly conflicted world.”

After Singh arrived in Bengaluru for the award ceremony, she received an email notifying her that the JNU vice chancellor had rejected her leave application. In her acceptance speech, Singh joked that her presence at the ceremony was “illegitimate,” and described the current state of affairs at JNU as “comically bad.”The independent journalists Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra interviewed Singh after the award ceremony, and later continued over email. Singh spoke about working at JNU under the present administration, the role of gender in academia, and the political significance of her research on museums. “The museum is the key institution that really decides for us what survives, what becomes heritage, how we think about it and why we should value it,” she said. “My writings in this area have addressed nationalism and the role of the museum in shoring up national identity.”

Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra: Tell us more about your work on Mughal, Rajput and Deccan art and the significance of museums. What is its importance in today’s times, especially when there is an effort to erase, for example, parts of India’s Mughal history.
Kavita Singh: I work on two different areas in art history—the history of Indian courtly painting and museum studies. I always thought of museum studies as the more explicitly political area of my work, but as time progresses, the work on Indian painting takes on unanticipated political significance. As you rightly point out, the erasure of the role of the Mughals in Indian history, for instance, means any sort of work in the area shines a light in a corner that some would rather was left unseen.

The work of many eminent scholars of Indian painting has explicitly or implicitly treated Mughal culture as exclusively Islamic and Rajput culture as exclusively Hindu. The two spheres are presented as though they are independent of each other and the art produced is entirely distinct in form, function and inspiration. This is not true. The two spheres were deeply enmeshed with each other. I have tried to show this in some of my work, by pointing out how artists migrating from Mughal to Rajput courts reuse Mughal imagery to serve new needs, or to suggest the way in which Radha-Krishna imagery underlies a painting of a Mughal emperor with his beloved. I hope to demonstrate the ways in which our current-day simplifications and binaries are distortions of the past.

My museum-studies work was always more explicitly political because it looks at what are intended to be stable and authoritative institutions that convey weighty messages to the public—“This is our culture,” “This is a masterpiece,” “This was a dark phase in history”—and studying this inevitably becomes a study of the operation of forms of social power. Some of my writings in this area have addressed nationalism and the role of the museum in shoring up national identity.

Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra are independent journalists who founded the feminist science media project They are currently writing a book on the realities of Indian women in science.

Keywords: art history museums Infosys Prize JNU Mughal art and architecture academia