Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 14, 2005
Tapati Guha-Thakurta Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post-Colonial India New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 432 pp.; 132 b/w ills. Cloth $80.50 (023112998X)

To understand museums and art history, Foucauldians say, we need to understand the changing political roles of these institutions. Knowledge of the past is never neutral, for it always serves present goals. Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s very ambitious, splendidly achieved book, Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India, tells the story of the development of art history in India. Her study explains how English figures such as Alexander Cunningham developed their vision of Indian art’s history, contrasting the elegance of Buddhism with the degenerate excesses of Hinduism. The book also shows how the early colonial museums were constructed, creating a coherent historical narrative of the origin and development of visual art in India from scattered material evidence, and it indicates how this narrative was rewritten under the spell of pre-Independence nationalism. The past, Guha-Thakurta writes, prepared “the way for a present where tradition and modernized knowledge would together frame a new national self” (140). She tells how exhibitions of Indian art in England and America were understood before and after Independence and discusses how sculptures showing women were interpreted: “If prudishness and repugnance about sex were derided as a product of India’s Western past, the erotic was valorized as a unique and integral feature of Hindu religion and aesthetics” (258). One famous sculpture, the Didarganj Yakshi in the Patna Museum, became “the equivalent of an Indian Mona Lisa” (227), hence the discussion of the complicated conflicts that arose when the work was slightly damaged while on exhibition in the West. And, finally, the book tells the recent stories of two contentious sacred sites: Ayodhya, said by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Rama, which contained a sixteenth-century mosque that was demolished by ultramilitant Hindus; and Bodh Gaya, supposedly the place where the Buddha was enlightened, which contains a temple that has been the subject of contention between Hindu priests and Buddhist monks. Here the academic search for a story of the past as it really was has become linked to pressing present-day political conflicts.

Guha-Thakurta’s survey of this vast material, which must have been extremely difficult to synthesize, is effortlessly lucid. As a reader who knows India directly only from a too-brief lecture tour to New Delhi and Mumbai, I found her presentation of this highly complex story very clear. The author has a marvelous ability to foreground the essential issues, while also giving full details. Everyone interested in Indian art will find her analysis of great interest, as will specialists dealing with other countries who seek an engaged perspective on these interpretative issues that affect the history of every art-making culture. Guha-Thakurta has the rare ability to present extremely passionate issues in clear prose and to offer a well-thought-out position without the intrusion of pedantic allusions to the debates about theory. Readers of Keith Moxey’s The Practice of Persuasion: Paradox and Power in Art History (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001) will find many echoes of his account of Dutch and German art history in her accounting of perspectives on Indian art. Like Moxey, she can get to the point.

Precisely because Guha-Thakurta’s analysis is so clear, it poses what in my opinion is a serious problem inherent in any such relativistic analysis. Her central contention seems to be that there are ultimately no facts about the history of art in India, only interpretations. This, surely, is a natural way of understanding the implications of her Nietzschian perspectivism. (Guha-Thakurta does not mention Friedrich Nietzsche, but his follower Michel Foucault plays an important role in the analysis.) She presents a great deal of intuitively plausible evidence in support of her analysis. As colonial rulers of a country whose Hinduism many of them found morally repugnant, the pioneering English historians would naturally offer a biased view of that culture. When, in response, Indian scholars wrote a history of their own art, they unexpectedly presented a very different reading of the evidence. Finally, recent disputes have pitted secular-minded Indians against Hindus, Muslims, and foreign Buddhists, who may not fully comprehend the pressure of partisan political forces. The problem, then, is how to understand Guha-Thakurta’s own perspective. Is she claiming merely to offer another interpretation, a look at the history of art in India from her point of view? Judging by the acknowledgments and the concluding remarks about communal strife, she takes the perspective of a frequent visitor to the West, a cosmopolitan feminist professor who is alarmed at the sectarian violence in her country; like her precursors, she seems to be responding to political forces in a partisan way. Or, rather, does she think that an objective account of this history is possible? These hard questions are not easy to answer.

If my evaluation of Guha-Thakurta’s position is correct, what argumentation would support her interpretation? Traditional art historians claimed, I believe, to offer the most truthful possible interpretations while always acknowledging that further research might overturn their conclusions. The history of art history, it was optimistically claimed, was the story of progress toward better interpretations. A consistent perspectivist cannot adopt that way of thinking, and I am not sure that the author ultimately does so. In her last paragraph, Guha-Thakurta writes: “Dead or living, demolished or refurbished, monuments seem destined to lead contentious public lives in contemporary India, always testing the limits of archaeological jurisdiction and historical meaning” (303). For a perspectivist, what drives interpretation is the concern to project values. Ultimately there are no right or wrong ways of understanding history or the present political struggles, only different perspectives. Museums, by contrast, claim to show the reality of the past, but—here she alludes specifically to Foucault—“like the archive of images that sustained them, they were to serve as a panoptical theater: a space for seeing and commanding the subject art large” (59–60).

Although the subject of Monuments, Objects, Histories is India’s art, Guha-Thakurta’s methodology comes entirely from the West. Her ways of thinking about art’s institutions, historiography, and political power owe nothing, so far as I can see, to any specifically Indian tradition. In characterizing this situation, Dipesh Chakrabarty writes:

Insofar as the academic discourse of history … is concerned, “Europe” remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call “Indian”…. [A]ll … other histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called “the history of Europe.”1

He then asks, “Why cannot we … return the gaze?" 2 Historians of India borrow frequently from their Western colleagues, but there is as yet little return traffic in scholarship. That is why the parallels I have noted between Guha-Thakurta’s and Moxey’s ways of thinking are so striking. My hope is that future historians of European painting and sculpture will learn from their colleagues who deal with art from other cultures.

If multiple interpretations all consistent with the facts are possible, then how are we to choose among them? I find Guha-Thakurta’s way of thinking very suggestive, but then that is because I share many of her beliefs. We secular intellectuals could hardly find a better defender of our ways of thinking. But a Hindu or Christian or Muslim Indian, or a nationalist from some other Asian country, most probably would adopt a strikingly different approaches. Perhaps the recent history of India allows us to anticipate developments within the art history devoted to that country. For some decades after Independence, India was governed by a secular political party. Now that Hindu nationalists have come to power and have provoked a response by Muslims and other religious factions, the role of art’s institutions has become more complicated. Perhaps the development of an indigenous Indian art history will lead some scholars to reject secularizing Western styles of interpretation. When that happens, we Americans may find the claims of our Indian colleagues more difficult to comprehend. Art history is intellectually challenging, Guha-Thakurta’s suggests, because in collecting, displaying, and interpreting visual works of art we adopt what might be called a morality, a way of projecting values. This wonderful book will surely play an essential role in all future discussions of Indian art.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar

1 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?,” in A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986–1995, ed. by Ranajit Guba (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, in association with Oxford University Press, India, 1997), 263.

2 Ibid. 265.