Impressions of the Workshop “Landscapes of the Long 18th Century: Mediating Places, Powers and Pasts in South Asia and Beyond”

by Nobuko Toyosawa (Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences)

The two-day workshop, “Landscapes of the Long 18th Century: Mediating Places, Powers, and Pasts in South Asia and Beyond,” which was held on 21-23 June, 2017 was a remarkable event, giving me an opportunity to think about my own work by relating it to the context of non-Japanese [non – East Asian] experience of early-modernity. I heard several specialists mainly concentrating on South Asian art speak about the significance of the landscape and how the landscape shaped its cultural and communal identity.  Being a historian of early modern and modern Japan, this was certainly not my field of expertise, but I was inspired to learn that poets, painters, artists, and patrons of the early modern India actively deployed the landscape and built environment as a rich layered category and critically engaged with the audience. The painters attributed feelings and emotions of native place, as well as its connection with the past and popular memory, to the landscape and built environment of India so that these representations would invite the viewers to imagine the ideal time and future. As the participants pointed out, the creative energy of the artists who depicted the rivers, mountains, monsoon rains, the moon, and the like, or the palaces, temples, and the gardens, considerably differed from the colonial or nationalist accounts of the time.  Their depiction of romantic night or pastoral landscape appeared to me in the first glance almost apolitical. And yet, the rigorous analyses and the reading of these images made it clear that the artists were experimenting and searching for alternative methods to communicate certain feelings that had been expressed by the conventional methods. By reinterpreting the conventions and readjusting them, the artists strove to find ways to express the space of India while developing its distinct aesthetics and philosophical ideas. While the conventions were definitely becoming more fluid and multiple, the landscape, whether it was the pastoral landscape in early modern Persian poetry and painting or that of the background in Mughal architecture, functioned as the vital medium to experience feelings and senses of place, and think about the present, past, and future of the place.

By grounding the positionality of artists fully in the production of the landscape paintings and poetry, this workshop has allowed me to think beyond the ideological landscape that surrounded the artists and focus more fundamentally on their subjective engagements with the colonial presence. The centrality of the objects and artifacts highlights the subjective engagement of the artists, which cannot be explained solely by the impact or influence of colonial power, or even the native’s attempts to appropriate the colonizer’s gaze. The works of art are the sites and embodiments of a certain time. By carefully excavating how the artists planted history, memory, or knowledge in their work of art, that configuration will enlighten historians to find out the sign system shared by the artists and scholars, and further, the process of an epistemic shift from early modern to modern.

The Workshop “Landscapes of the Long 18th Century: Mediating Places, Powers and Pasts in South Asia and Beyond” was organized by Dipti Khera (NYU/ Art Histories Fellow 2015/16) and Hannah Baader (Art Histories/ KHI Florenz MPI). It took place on June 21 – 23, 2017 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. It seeked to explore how painters, poets, historians and intellectuals have imagined landscapes and urbanisms in and of early modern South Asia, particularly over the course of the long eighteenth century. The mediation of memory and place in pictorial and literary practices in this time period was shaped by aesthetic, and philosophical ideas and an epistemic situation that had deeper genealogies in the subcontinent and the broader Asian and Islamic world. Nonetheless, images, moods and ideologies encapsulated in British landscape painting and colonial photography have constructed the dominant lens that has shaped historical inquiries into spatial imaginings in the South Asian context. The focus on the long eighteenth century enables us to establish conversations between the intersections, connections and comparisons that emerged in visual practices commissioned by diverse patrons from regional kings, Mughal emperors, trans-regional merchants, and British officers.

Published in:
TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.08.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7497