Art and Composite Culture in South Asian History
Can art and architecture help us better understand and teach the history of Buddhism, the rise of early modern empires, or global capitalism?
Art and Composite Culture in South Asian History is a one-week program that takes key instances of art production in South Asia from the past 2000 years to explore the cultural mixing, syncretism, and hybridity that shaped the region’s pluralistic history. The goal of the program is to offer an indispensable toolkit of skills for visual analysis and interpretation that can be used to teach South Asia’s history in dynamic and creative ways. Led by art historians, historians, and museum curators, this week of lectures, discussions, and practicums will allow participants to generate the depth and context required to teach South Asian history through its visual arts. To this end, we will also spend a day at the San Diego Museum of Art for a hands-on study of South Asian paintings. Educators will return to their classrooms ready to engage their students through an exploration of the visual arts.
Why South Asia?
25% of the world’s population—1,969,698,868 people as of October 31, 2021—currently live in South Asia, that is, the region constituting the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Home to one of the world’s earliest known civilizations, South Asia was the birthplace of four major world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) and was perceived as a land of astonishing wealth in European accounts of travel, trade, and empire from Roman times onwards. Indeed, the region was at the epicenter of the two of the pre-modern world’s most robust trade networks, the core component (the professed “jewel in the crown”) of the British Empire, and is now the world’s largest democracy.
But despite its vital role in world history, South Asian history is often allocated only a tiny share of textbook pages. Within common world history narratives, the focus is heavily heavily on the tenets and expansion of major religions, rather than South Asia’s rich and complex history as a major crucible that shaped world politics (think ahimsa), creative cultures (think yoga), and intellectual traditions (think decimal system). This limited focus leaves students with a significant gap in their understanding of the South Asia’s crucial role in shaping the world’s past, present, and future.
Why Composite Culture?
With the worldwide resurgence of ethnonationalist politics in the last few decades, composite cultures—that is, the hybrid cultural practices and beliefs that shape society—are under threat across the world. It is in the context of such global political discourses that this one-week program turns to the composite cultures of South Asia, a region that is home to numerous religions, cultures, and languages. The aim is to explore pluralistic histories of coexistence and cultural adoptions that were shaped both by the global movement of objects and ideas from the first millennia onwards and the longue durée history of syncretic practices in the region.
Learning about composite cultures can help educators (and their students) better understand South Asia within a world historical context. Moving in a chronological order, each day of the program will be built around a set of five to seven artworks that exemplify the composite cultures of South Asia. Lectures by distinguished historians and art historians, plus hands-on practicums involving close visual analysis of the selected artworks, will offer both a conceptual and a pragmatic foundation to teach South Asian history through its art and composite cultures.
Why Visual Arts?
How did material objects shape the development of South Asia’s pluralistic political, social, and cultural history? Art and Composite Culture in South Asian History is not designed to offer a survey of the history of South Asia’s artistic cultures. Instead, moving from the ancient to contemporary worlds, the program uses the visual arts as an archive to excavate the pluralistic and composite histories of South Asia that were shaped through regional, transregional, and global interactions. We will locate art and architecture within the larger world of political economies, religion and philosophy, gender and sexuality, urbanity, and state formations to generate the depth and context required for teaching South Asia through a historical frame.
Thus, we will study Buddhism and Hinduism in the Early Common Era, early modern art shaped by trade and diplomacy across the Persianate world, encounters with Europe fueled by colonialism, and contemporary globalization. The hands-on practicum will allow the participants to learn about the history of visual motifs, formal composition, methods of production, and material components (such as the history of pigments used in artmaking) to develop a nuanced understanding of both individual artworks and the social, political, and economic contexts through which visual worlds were shaped.
Pedagogically, the viscerality of art can invite curiosity and engage students in a process of active meaning-making. Especially for younger students, the concept of a pluralistic society or composite cultures may be too abstract to easily grasp. By contrast, as concrete products of composite cultures, artworks offer a path to understanding this fundamental characteristic of South Asia’s history. The complexity of visual art also provides ready opportunities for differentiated instruction.
The program will model an approach teachers can easily modify for use in their own classrooms, interleaving historical presentations and readings, guided art history analysis, discussions, and independent analysis of artworks.
Why San Diego?
The San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) is home to an extensive collection of South Asian artworks. The program includes a day at the SDMA, where participants will have the opportunity to closely study the museum’s extraordinary collection of South Asian art. At the museum, art historians and curators will lead an exclusive gallery tour for the program participants, followed by a close examination of pieces selected for us by the curator of South Asian and Islamic Art.
Art and Composite Culture in South Asian History has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.