A symposium held on Tuesday in the Loria Center aimed to highlight new research in the field of 18th and 19th century Indian art in a variety of media.
“Hybridity, Art and Material Culture in India, 1700-1850” brought together a diverse group of scholars for presentations of original findings on Indian textiles, paintings and sculpture. Three of the four presenters — Sylvia Houghteling, Holly Shaffer, and Heeryoon Shin — are candidates in the History of Art department’s Ph.D program at Yale. The fourth speaker, John Guy — who is the curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — gave the event’s keynote address, titled “Waging Europe’s Wars in Asia: Problems of Reading an 18th-century Chintz.”
Guy’s discussion, which emphasized that Indian textiles played a central role in the nation’s trade relations with the rest of the world, centered on a ‘chintz’ — a type of fabric frequently exported from India to Europe — that the Met recently acquired.
“Painted cloths are to India what porcelains are to China,” said Guy. “Nobody did it better.”
Depicting a military conflict between European parties, the chintz was likely commissioned by the directors of the East India Company at Fort St. George to hang in their boardroom, Guy explained. He mentioned difficulties that scholars had experienced in trying to date the cloth, but noted that it likely hails from the period following the French loss of the Pondicherry region to their British foes.
Both Houghteling and Guy highlighted textiles in their presentations. Guy explained that Indian textiles were used as the principle medium of exchange in the international spice trade, and that the history of textiles in India is largely driven by the global demand for spices that emerged in the period. He added that these textiles primarily consisted of painted cottons, manufactured through a labor intensive process that often involved various combinations of two major techniques: “mordenting” and resist-dying.
Houghteling expanded the discussion to the broader subject of textiles as an art medium. Her hope, she said, was to reassert the importance of the dyer in the history of chintz and look beyond the painted cloths’ surface decorations to the dyes that give color to the designs. In doing so, Houghteling continued, one has the ability to understand the fabric “outside of the narrative of Western intervention.” While painters were obligated to base their designs on patterns sent by patrons — often Europeans — dyers retained control over their processes. She added that she was equally interested in the histories of the cloths themselves, not just in the designs that adorned these fabrics.
“There was a lot of movement between regions: Circulations of artisans due to famine, or due to patronage opportunities,” she noted. “What I’ve tried to do is think about the kind of stories that are built into the cloths themselves, [such as] the migratory stories of artisans.”
Shaffer, for her part, examined the paintings in the collection of Nana Fadnavis, an influential statesman involved in the Maratha Empire’s Peshwa administration. Considering works on paper as well as the wall murals that adorn three of the rooms in Fadnavis’s ancestral home in Menavali, Shaffer discussed the development of a distinct artistic style in the Peshwan period, particularly during Fadnavis’s reign.
Shin’s research shifted the symposium’s focus into a detailed analysis of sculptural decorations on the Amethi Temple in the Indian city of Banaras, while emphasizing the series of winged figures that adorn the temple’s exterior. Though “celestial women” such as these figures have traditionally been featured as temple decorations throughout India’s history, Shin said, these figures differ in their long robes and elaborate headdresses — a nod to contemporary Islamic courtly contexts.
History of Art Professor Tim Barringer explained the symposium’s purpose as both an opportunity for Houghteling, Shaffer and Shin to share “nuggets of their dissertations as they come to fruition,” and a platform for Guy to present his own research, stemming from an exhibition at the Met titled Interwoven Globe.
“Before, I hadn’t ever really considered these particular aspects of either architectural decoration — wall paintings and sculptures — or textiles in this way, so it was really illuminating to hear these presentations by such distinguished scholars,” said Mollie Ritterband ’17, who attended the event.
The “Interwoven Globe” exhibition was on display from Sept. 2013 to Jan. 2014.