NEW WRITINGS

Art and political history through stones and temples– Book Review in the Hindu dated 7th October 2014


UntitledThe book under review is an excellent interdisciplinary study that falls squarely in the shadowy space between art history and political history, and, given the present day academic scenario, there is virtually very little communication between such disciplines and their methodologies. However, once one discovers the area where they overlap and become sensitive to the insights that would follow thereon, it is certain that new and newer collaborative perceptions are bound to emerge, as Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner reveal through this magnificent work. Architecture and cultural landscapes especially in the Deccan in peninsular India bespeak of conquest, dominion, destruction and redefinition. Exquisite stone temples, synonymous with cultural inscapes define this territory. The three issues highlighted in this study are power, memory and architecture. The book is very well produced and illustrated liberally: a delight for those interested in the contested sites of the Deccan.
It took me a-while to read through the volume because I dwelt on each page, poring over the pictures and delighting in the art historical perspective as it emerged. And in the process, there were two similar works that I was immediately prompted to fish out from my shelf to consult alongside: Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, and Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the God’s in the World of Men. “Intriguing,” is perhaps the one word that jumps to one’s mind while perusing all three. Land and memory are inextricably connected and built-environments suffer from invasion and conquest leaving traces of the depredations and maraudings of colonizer as much as those of defeated rivals. In the vision of the authors of Power, Memory, Architecture, invaders of Deccan, were confronted with complex cultural situations and were in turn left with a range of options: they could continue to patronize pre-existing structures in a similar manner like of old or rebuild them in the same sites in their own manner. They could also redefine or alter them in imitation. In some cases they could destroy them or as in other cases they could ignore the cultural sites altogether and turn a blind eye. In any of those cases—examples of each are elucidated in the various chapters of the book—what emerges is the struggle of power over cultural landscapes and people’s memory.
The broad area that this book captures is the Deccan with its monumental architecture – specially the fiercely contested sites of Kalyana, the one-time capital of the Chalukyas; Raichur (another area of struggle between Vijayanagara and the Bahmani sultanate); and Warangal the power base of the Kakatiyas. From the tenth to the fourteenth century (continuing to the seventeenth) the desperate struggle between political power and architecture as the visible and palpable expression of the cultural life of the people, becomes especially intense. Temples are chronicles of a narrative of this interaction of power and memory.
The book is divided into four sections, titled respectively: Orientations; Kalyana and the Chalukya Legacy; Warangal and the Kakatiya Legacy; The Raichur Doab in the Age of Gunpowder. Power is the lynch pin of this book: and relying mainly on the available architectural and epigraphic record, the authors read beyond crude stereotypes of clash between Hindus and Muslims and attempt to identify and explain the wide range of ways at critical points in the Deccan’s history, conquerors, administrators, and even local chieftains interacted with the key cultural monuments of this area. As they argue, historians have often tended to neglect the Deccan during the 1300-1600, and this book proffers different perspectives from the usual ones toward a better understanding of how regional politics operated at the ground level. The authors approach monuments and other material evidence as dynamic texts that tell their own tales about how they related to different communities over time.
Memory is identified as playing a crucial role in the close encounters during the 16th century in the Deccan interacting between power and architecture in more significant ways than it was during the 14th and 15th centuries. What is perceived is the shift from non-interference to re-assemblage with active patronage, ranging between the desecration and redefinition of monuments. While earlier with the expansion of Delhi Sultanate into the Deccan a fusion of temples and mosques came into prominence, during the 16th century by contrast, a deliberate revival of earlier times and cultures were infused. As art historians have always emphasized, Chalukya architecture was to be seen as a distinct taxonomic entity, and the 16th century patrons actively sought them out for recycling in their royal projects. Both the variant versions of Chalukya architecture– the Dharwar and the Bijapur styles—were reintegrated into the nascent emergent style apparently infused with a political motive deliberately in the Vijayanagara to invoke a continuity with the past. In a similar manner to the north the Sultanate of Bijapur (1490-1686) whose sovereign territory covered much of the Chalukya’s former territory, displayed its own awareness and interest in the past. The battle of Talikota spelt catastrophe for Vijayanagara while for Bijapur it was a physical and ideological transformation, and its Sultan Adil Shah used the plundered wealth to upgrade Bijapur from a mere provincial outpost to a major Indo-Persian capital. Architectural narratives reveal this process of fusion, transformation, and reintegration. It is not unusual for scholars of history to refer to the plunder and pillage of Hindu temples by Muslim invaders. But as this book attempts to reread in the remains of Deccan’s architectural monuments, desecration and destruction were not the sole process but a deliberate cultivation of aesthetic and architectural history integrated with memory of place also was in the scheme of things.
Another polemical re-reading that is sure to engage the interested reader’s attention in the book is with regard to the implications of Sanskrit and Persian cultural perceptions and universality of dominion. This is revealed in the situation of the Deccan after the Delhi Sultanate’s decline in the 14th century and the subsequent rise of the Bahmanis and the Vijayanagara during the next two centuries. Whereas the Sultanate’s invasion had been recognized as having reconfigured the political geography of Deccan, what is yet to be reckoned is the impact of this conquest that worked as a catalyst for accelerating the diffusion of the ideals of the Persian cosmopolis in a region where those of the Sanskrit cosmopolis had already sunk deep roots. As the authors argue the Persian cosmopolis crystallized at about the same time that the literati under Chalukya patronage were yoking the ideals of the Sanskrit cosmopolis to both Kannada vernacularism and Chalukya imperialism. Stones and temples do have much tales to tell. The disruption of power centres and reestablishment of new nodules for dominion and rule have left several traces that resonate down centuries for the attentive ear and eye to perceive and rearticulate—an intricate interplay of power, memory and architecture. This book is a treasure.

Prof Murali Sivaramakrishnan is Professor of English in Pondicherry Central University. He can be reached at s.murals@gmail.com

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