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A Historiographical Journey

Anisha Saxena

Edited by Parul Pandya Dhar
D.K. Printworld and National Museum Institute, New Delhi, 2011, pp. x+279, Rs.1600.00


This collection of essays on changing perspectives in Indian art history is based on the proceedings of a seminar on 'Historiography of Indian Art: Emergent Methodological Concerns,' organized by the National Museum, Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology, New Delhi in 2006. The volume opens with an introductory essay, 'A History of Art History: The Indian Context' by Parul Pandya Dhar and is followed by fourteen essays on varied aspects of ancient and medieval Indian art historical methodologies. The thirty-two page introduction by Dhar will soon become compulsory reading for students of Indian art history. The sheer breadth and detail of updated information on Indian art historical discourse that Dhar shares and discusses critically is commendable. She has meticulously mapped the historiographical journey of ancient and medieval Indian architecture, sculpture and painting. Beginning with the documentation and collection phase of Indian art history during the early colonial period, she proceeds to analyse the colonial formative period of the discipline as seen in the works of James Fergusson, Alexander Cunningham and others, and next, analyses the writings of 'nationalist' art historians such as Ananda Coomaraswamy and Stella Kramrisch, bringing the reader gradually to later developments right up to the present. What is special about Dhar's essay is her analysis of the art historian's approach in its specific historical setting and with the relevant socio-political meanings attached to their writings. Dhar is also particularly attentive to the most recent methodological trends that have emerged in studying Indian art history such as regional studies, gendered readings, and social interpretations of art, and rightly emphasizes the need to adopt a more interdisciplinary approach to the study of Indian art, which is a primary focus of the book. Two further essays also dwell on interdisciplinarity in Indian art historical studies: the first by Kapila Vatsyayan, 'The Discipline of Art History: Its Multidimensional Nature' and second, by Himanshu Prabha Ray, 'Questioning Art History: Locating Religious Identities'. Vatsyayan's essay stresses the multidimensional nature of art history as a discipline: 'It is the art piece or art expression which has the in-built capacity of polyvalent multilayered meaning and significance. The artistic expression thus, although situated in specific time and place, is the symbiosis of the historical, social, ideational, symbolic, and natural skill and technique' (p. 33). Vatsyayan in her essay charts a well-developed trajectory of various methodologies adopted by art historians from the early nineteenth century to ...

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