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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Two New Books 2013

Two New Books from
Authorspress,New Delhi

Communication and Clarification:Essays on English in the Indian Classroom        

Murali Sivaramakrishnan

  • Sri Aurobindo’s Aesthetics and Poetics:New Directions  

  • Murali Sivaramakrishnan

from Introduction to Inter-readings: Text, Context, Significance (2010)

Interreadings:Text, Context, Significance,2010,
© S.Murali & Clement Lourdes, Department of English, Pondicherry University

from Introduction
Murali Sivaramakrishnan
The Act/Art of Inter-reading

Reading is a not a simple process of transaction of meaning from the text to the reader. Of course, such a simplistic view is but a naïve manner of understanding the complex linguistic, lexical, syntactic, socio-political and aesthetic circuit of the author-text-reader continuum— so much intellectual and academic discussion and analysis over a long period of time has gone into the dissection of this triangular relationship, and it is not yet over. And quite understandably so. In fact, this may even be nothing new after all when we take into account the scholarship that has accumulated over the last century in the related fields of human sciences and the social sciences and turn our heads backwards into our own past. The virtue of hindsight could proffer us newer perspectives, no doubt. And, literature, it augurs well to remember, is not the only domain where these issues are problematised, of course. The consequences of the decode-encode complex and its dimensions in terms of the cultural-historic rhetoric/fabric has been discussed and debated ad-nauseum by now in academic circles all over the world, in as varied a discipline like Anthropology or Cybernetics, Geography or Ecology Nevertheless what all this has entailed for us in brief is the self-reflexive foregrounding of the author-text-reader complex. As Jeremy Hawthorne has put it succinctly:

“Meaning, significance, fulfillment are not to be found sitting obediently and expectantly in literary works, waiting for the pages to be opened so that they can troop out into the reader’s head. What we get from our readings we get as a result of a mental struggle which is informed and directed by our theories and ideas– whether or not we are conscious of these.” [Jeremy Hawthorne Cunning passages: New Historicism, Cultural Materialism and Marxism in the Contemporary Literary Debate. London:Arnold, 1996.]
The point well worth reiterating is that the mental struggle we engage in when we encounter texts could be conscious or unconscious—no reading thus could be free from theorizing on its own, every reading is an informed reading! In short, the common reader is most uncommon! Let us now take a closer look at the trigonometry of this relationship:

In brief, one could say that the movement of the arc of literary theorising has been historically decided by the instress of one of the three points of the literary triangle: the author, the text and the reader. Those theories in the past that accorded prime importance to the author like the Romantic or the Phenomenological theories could be grouped together on one end as against those formulations of the New Critics or the Formalists who argued for the autotelic nature of the text removed from all contexts. Post Structuralism and its aftermath challenges the very orthodox nature of these relationships and unties the very lynchpin of textuality and the fabric of reading. While socio-politically self-reflexive theories like Feminism(s) and postcolonialism read against the grain of that fabric situating themselves not outside this trigonometric relationship but firmly securing themselves within the eddy of the meaning making process, whether it be the inquiry into the ontology of the text/meaning .
Theorising in one form or other has gone on in our universities for several decades by now and we have come to recognize the act of theory as moving toward new and newer positions within this paradigm and evolving Strategies of Reading. In all, the idea is not to be bogged down to a sort of reading and interpreting of individual texts but untying the very process of meaning– formation and the dynamis of the trigonometry.
In all, the range of literary theories from Formalism through New Criticism and Structuralism to Deconstruction and their critical practices has been in more than one sense instrumental in creating a meta-language of literary production, meaning and receptivity.
And the academic institutionalisation of literature and literary studies – focus on how literature is –Created, Constructed, and Conditioned. Thus theory did usher in a paradigm shift. And the reading process as one discovers was never simplistic.
Now, if the academic institutionalization of literature and literary studies could be said to have brought about a sort of Copernican revolution—a paradigm shift—in the focus of how literature is created, how it makes meaning, or even how such an awareness is itself constructed and conditioned, one could say that the intense history of theoretical enterprise itself has brought about even an even profounder paradigm shift in the manner in which such theories themselves have been interrogated and applied in various cultural contexts. For instance, Postcolonial theory is necessarily a historical recognition of the status and relevance of theory, and at the same time it foregrounds a resistance and challenge to the inordinate theorizing of literature in non-European cultural contexts
Well, whatever its demerits might be, the emergence of theory in our academia has brought forth newer and newer perceptions for discovering cultural locations. The trigonometry of reading has evolved from the almost two dimensional Euclidian plane geometry into the pluralistic trajectory of a post-Einsteinian world of multiverse(s). The dynamic of this movement cannot be underestimated: it entails a new world of interpretative possibilities. The reader is as much ingrained into the text as the text is de-centred in the process.
This is the point where I propose to implant the theory of inter-reading that this book aptly bears out. Quite distinct from the deconstructive entertainment that the play of text-author-reader poses, this process would re-organise and recognize value and signification. Inter-Reading does not play down intertextuality neither does it inter/hinder the reader/writer. It allows for a slow percolation or osmosis of the trio I mentioned at first into one another. The writer does not cease to be, neither does the text, when the reader enters the play ground. The text in the sense of being a tissue, a woven thing— woven of former texts—is by virtue of being itself, a process of engagements, of con/texts. And the inter part of the theory that the reader ushers in does not inter the text, in the sense of inter – bury or put into the ground, neither does it hide the reader’s act of playing. The text proffers the vast but structurally limited playground where in the deconstructive play takes place. For as long as the reader can, the play goes on and it could also end in a tie! Meaning and interpretation are here not mere strategies but palpable sensations that bear out the testimony of delight—the ananda or beatification of being. And the implied value in literary texts do not go unrecognized. As pointed out earlier, caste, race, gender and history could be seen as conceptual tools in engaging with the textual territory. We recognize the category of nature without the text as also another criteria for this engagement. I have discussed this process at length in another context. Suffice it to say that the idea of the text does prefigure the work of human mind(s) and the process of meaning production hastens in the outside/inside continuum. The text opens itself before it encloses the fabric of its own destiny. Ancient Indian Sanskrit linguists have spoken about mahasatta—the great essence. This is in part what each individual reading would participate in. To stretch this anlogy further would be to essentialise, to narrow it down would be but to fragmentalise. Either way Interreading (without the hyphen) would lead us to mediate between the text and the author, to allow for the play to happen, and also to retain our integral beings. After all it is the human being that creates cultures and counter-cultures!

….Read More in Inter-readings: Text, Context, Significance (2010)

Interreadings:Text, Context, Significance,2010,
© S.Murali & Clement Lourdes, Department of English, Pondicherry University

Published by the Pondicherry University Pondicherry 605014, India
First edition, April 2010

No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission from the editors. The views expressed in various essays are those of their authors alone and the editors are in no way responsible for those.