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

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.

NJ and AD: Why is it important to look at the historical and political function of museums?
KS: 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. I have particularly been interested in looking at these things at crisis points along history. Different countries have a different sense of themselves and the need to produce a heritage that is useful to this sense of the self. I am interested in what happens at that critical point.

Another crisis point I am interested in is the implication of museums in national identity and nationalism with the topic of repatriation. One of the central debates in museum studies nowadays concerns repatriation. A lot of post-colonial nations are questioning the right of the coloniser to hold on to the artefacts that they have taken away. Several “source countries” are asking for the return of precious objects [that were] taken to London or Paris or Berlin in colonial times.

Since this demand for repatriation assumes that there is one “right” place for the object to return to, I wanted to ask what meaning “repatriation” would have when it wasn’t quite so obvious where an object “should” belong. What does repatriation mean in another kind of crisis situation where you have a nationality that doesn’t have a nation?

This led me to look at the Tibetan exile community in India and elsewhere and the tensions and debates around the question of where Tibetan art belongs. Many precious Tibetan artefacts were taken away by violent colonial expeditions. Today these precious and often sacred artefacts survive in Western museums, but much else that remained in Tibet was destroyed in the twentieth century in the Cultural Revolution [in China]. Today, China’s attitude towards heritage is more in keeping with international norms and they are restoring damaged objects, and commissioning new ones, but the Tibetan community says these are leached of meaning. What one learns from such studies throws light not just on that particular example of Tibet, but leads one to question the seemingly settled assumptions that occupy the centre of the field—that there is one “right” place for objects to return to.

NJ and AD: Sociologists whom we’ve spoken to have commented that India now needs narratives arising from the humanities more than ever. Would you agree? What are the challenges in the kind of research you do?
KS: For an art historian, these are very interesting times. Issues around culture, heritage, and tradition are not just sparking debate, but riots. People are adhering to certain beliefs with a kind of vehemence, as though their lives and identities depend on it. Something has happened for this to take a feverish pitch and this is not just in India, it’s a global phenomenon.

As part of this global phenomenon, we see that there seems to be a sustained attack on humanities and on institutes of higher education in many places. What I am experiencing in my institution is part of something happening on a global scale. A very important institute in Hungary—the Central European University—is being shut down by the new government. Similarly, the new Brazilian president is also saying things against universities and academics.

I am sensing that a lot of people are finding the increased need to have stronger group identities by invoking ideas which may or may not be true—it could be an invented tradition to consolidate these group identities. This is where the work we do in art history and cultural heritage studies is important. From here, a counter-narrative can emerge. At least, you have some information before you to choose whether it is worth spilling blood to defend a certain idea. This kind of work takes on more importance and relevance at these crisis times than ever before. Yet, these are also the times when our voices, disciplines, institutional positions, freedom to publish, the platforms available to publish are diminishing. It is not in the interest of certain people to have these options being made available.

NJ and AD: What reason did the JNU vice chancellor give for denying your leave application to attend the award ceremony?
KS: Our university is currently under attack by its own administration that is taking many steps to discomfit and hamper both faculty and students. In order to do so, the administration is distorting decision-making processes at every level. Often there is no relationship between what transpires at committee meetings, and the minutes, which claim all sorts of things in the committee’s name. This process was used to “pass” policies of compulsory attendance, first for students, and then later for teachers, which the vast majority of JNU has decried, not just for the policies but for the falsehoods through which they have been imposed.

I am currently serving as the dean of my school which unfortunately makes me the intermediary between the administration and the school. I have been caught up in many instances when decision making processes have been distorted and I have had to register my dissent. That has made me very unpopular with the administration. Some of my recent applications to come to Bangalore for the Infosys award ceremony or to attend a conference in Delhi were turned down allegedly for not marking attendance. But if the university wanted to know whether or not I was doing so, they should have kept the application pending and asked for my records, instead of assuming I am not and summarily rejecting my leave. Other more consequential applications for leave next year for prestigious fellowships have been kept pending for five months before being turned down with no reason given. Leave denial has been used as an instrument by the administration as they realise that we have losses—academic, financial—through this and many of my colleagues have suffered as a result.

NJ and AD: You were one of seven department heads removed by the JNU administration in March 2018 and reinstated after an order by the Delhi high court in April. What has it been like to continue at JNU?
KS: Several colleagues from other departments and I were removed from our administrative positions, as deans and chairpersons, but not from our faculty positions. It has been a challenge to resume our administrative work after being reinstated by the court. Papers move very slowly—things that were feasible suddenly become impossible and funds and opportunities that are with us cannot be used because all sorts of obstacles come in the way. But that is only one side of the story. On the other side, there are the tremendous solidarities that have been forged among the JNU community as we go through these trying times. Earlier, I barely knew anyone beyond my own department. Now I feel connected to literally hundreds of colleagues from across all disciplines. It has been tremendously enriching and heart-warming.

Everyday teaching goes on, though at times like this, research is, of course, impacted. The strictures on travel and the slashing of funds has affected our hosting or attending conferences, which are so critically important to keep up with what’s going on, or to get feedback and inputs for our own work. Then there is the disaster of enormous cuts in the funds for library and journal subscriptions that has already affected our research students. I sincerely hope that some of this will be reversed in the near future.

NJ and AD: The humanities are typically considered a more gender diverse discipline. What has been your experience as a woman in academia?
KS: Misogyny is everywhere. I remember one of my professors being overly encouraging to the male cohort who were quite mediocre, and quite cutting to the many brilliant women in my class. He just assumed that we were not going to stay in academia and all the boys would, so he did not want to invest in us.

Having said that, this is an unusual occurrence in my field. Generally, women have been able to take control and be at the fore of my field because it is a marginal, underfunded and “soft field.” It is very normal for me to have mostly female colleagues and students. The challenge is to see why the small number of men tend to rise higher in the institutional hierarchy and become museum directors, heads of foundations and so on while the vast number of women remain in some middle-management position.

NJ and AD: Have you noticed differences in the way gender plays out in academia? Are women treated differently than men?
KS: I find it startling and heartening that young women now are refusing to put up with things that we quietly bore. Everybody is speaking about serious issues of sexual harassment. Even in my generation that would have not gone unchallenged. But we accepted that it was our fate to be the unacknowledged worker bees for a very long time. We produced work— including ideas that got incorporated into someone else’s work—so often it was too exhausting to fight it every time. I have learned to shrug off disappointments and small injustices and just to get on with my work, regardless of whether it is being acknowledged or not. Somewhere, somehow, you get your breaks. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the crucial breaks I got at early phases of my career came through women who were the heads of institutions, rather than through men. I am very grateful for this and I hope I can pass the favour on.

But even now, even at my level where I am a full professor, patriarchy and misogyny are just part of the air I breathe. In meetings, I can’t help notice how male colleagues are taken seriously, and female colleagues and my views are discounted. I wouldn’t be able to count the number of meetings where a suggestion I make is summarily dismissed, but five minutes later a male colleague recycles my suggestion and it is hailed as a most excellent idea. I could take that in my stride—at least the suggestion I made might shape policy, even if it is being attributed to someone else—but it is hard to then have the male colleague turn to me and explain the great excellence of “his” idea. As they say, if I could have a penny for every time. And sometimes, we even say we know less than we actually know. It even happens with students. I have noticed how they carefully attribute the work of male professors but plagiarise the work of female ones.

NJ and AD: What does this award mean to you?
KS: For me and a lot of my colleagues, it was a wonderful thing to see an award coming to art history, which has such a small footprint in India. We definitely see it as a collective achievement of the discipline, and also of my university, which is embattled at the moment.

I am also hopeful that this award will give visibility to some of my pet projects that have not taken off. As a teacher, I have been very concerned to see that students who come from different education backgrounds have completely different mental universes. When students who are not comfortable with English need to do a term paper, the kind of literature available to them to read is so limited. This really affects the intellectual universe that these students inhabit. I have been trying to talk at various fora about getting a big translation project so that the latest scholarship can be available in Indian languages as well. That has not yet gotten off the ground, but maybe now when I speak, somebody will listen.

This interview has been edited and condensed.