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Configuring Cultural History

Lakshmi Subramanian

Edited by Shonaleeka Kaul
Orient BlackSwan, Noida, 2014, pp.371, Rs. 850.00


Ideally a Reader is intended to showcase a selection of iconic essays which have contributed directly to the configuration of a particular thematic. This is not easy when the subject at hand is as broad as a cultural history of early modern South Asia and especially so at a time when the idea of cultural history itself has gone through several modifications and mutations. It is therefore, entirely to Kaul’s credit that she has introduced a volume that takes up both a quick guided tour through the messy domain of culture, (as aesthetic expression and as lived experience) as well as presents essays that augment the larger formulations of the introduction and do much more than that. The introduction sets out the broad agenda of the volume which is to look at a variety of art forms over time and in their context in order to theorize issues of patronage, circulation and consumption—ideas that have enjoyed extensive currency and multiple connotations for cultural and specifically art historians. Very brief, almost tangentially, the introduction clarifies that it adopts a cultural studies perspective in the sense it wishes to look at cultural forms as embodiments of and embedded in experience and meaning making. This allusion to cultural studies is not developed further, and while it does not detract from the formulations that follow, it certainly raises issues about method and methodology that the new cultural historian is now forced to consider. While the essays chosen demonstrate the rigours of historical method and the introspective consideration of decoding meanings, the introduction does not say very much on the challenges of interdisciplinary methodology that cultural studies and new cultural histories have had to grapple with. In order to do some justice to what is a well-articulated introduction, let us look at some of the issues that are raised here. The first concerns the issue of patronage, a factor that has increasingly come to be an explanatory category in understanding certain processes in art forms and practices and which has both spatial and sociological connotations. Here too, the act of patronage is seen not so much as part of a political economy as that of a social development that determined production and consumption of art and art objects. Such an approach, it is argued helps us access the more subtle layers of meaning making and signification and at comprehending both the mental universe ...

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