The History, Art and Architecture of the Mughal Empire

Archive for Interviews & Commentary

Conqueror of the World


The controversy of Aurangzeb’s religious policies still holds currency in current political debates on the subcontinent. In his attempt to vindicate the emperor, Habib Saddiqi ‘explains’ the confusion compounded by school books.

He has been hailed as anyone from a “Saintly or Pauper Emperor” to one who “tried hard to convert Hindus into Muslims.” Depending on one’s religious rearing, one will favor one view over the other.

But while he sets out to ‘untangle the myth’, Saddiqi appears disabled by a myopia not unlike that which features so prominently (and not at all implausibly) in his initial diagnosis. Claims of Aurangzeb’s intolerance, he rages, are to be put down to an intellectual dishonesty

…more explosive and more damaging than nuclear bombs. We have already seen its hideous effect with the destruction of Muslim historic sites (including the Babri Mosque) and recent riots in India that killed thousands of Muslims.


Neo Orientalism is the New Orientalism


From Daisy Rockwell’s review of Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights:

Said’s thesis has unfortunately made little effect in the US outside of the academy. The greatest ostensible change seems to be on the use of the term “oriental” for persons of Asian origin, which is no longer deemed politically correct. Beyond this I have found that when trying to explain his theory, there is a strong desire to reject it on the part of those who enjoy the cultural artifacts of traditional Orientalism, such as the writings of Kipling, or Orientalist paintings. I have never taken from Said the need to denounce or cast off all Orientalist works. There is no need to wrap your well-thumbed copy of The Arabian Nights in brown paper when taking it to read on the train. You can hang onto your Ingres print and display your little bits of chinoiserie about your living room without fear. We are not coming for your Rimsky-Korsakov records. Take heart! If all the world’s art and literature were rejected for its association with the project of empire building there would be little left to enjoy.

More than Half the Story

A fascinating (French and English) interview with Sanjay Subrahmanyam by Anne-Julie Etter and Thomas Grillot. From the interview:
On his current work with 17th century French materials:

Although there has been a certain amount of work done on Bernier, including a recent reedition of some of his writings, there is a set of questions concerning him that nobody has really broached. And behind him there is a bunch of people that nobody has touched at all in three hundred years! The person I am focusing on right now is François le Gouz de la Boullaye, a gentleman who, like Bernier, was of Angevin extraction and who arrived in India in the 1640s, returned to France, and then went back and died in India in 1668 or so. What I want to do with these French sources is to cross them with the Dutch and English sources on the French, so as to give them more depth. Eventually, I am interested in looking at how the French looked at the Mughals and the Mughals looked at the French – there are very few direct sources, but implicitly one can understand a certain number of things.

On conformity and marketing:

In a refereed article, you are often invited to cite “ten important books or articles” on the subject at the outset. But they are either often implicitly present in the argument, or irrelevant to it – so why cite them? It’s just a matter of doffing your hat to those authors – three of whom are probably your referees anyway. If this sort of pressure – what I think of as academic food processing – did not exist, we might have a lot more creative work, and a greater desire to play with both form and content in history writing.

On Textures of Time (2001):

If there is an interest outside India, I imagine it will come from regions where the issues are not so clear. It could be Southeast Asia or Africa, but also interestingly Persian historiography, which is not as secure in its self-perception as Arabic historiography. The issue of African historiography is a complicated one. The problem of Ethiopia or that of Mali is not the problem of Great Zimbabwe; there is also a line of influence there of Arabic-language historiography. A whole debate went on there, which began with Jan Vansina’s writings on oral tradition. However, in spite of the obvious differences between the African and Indian experiences, a lot of it became about how history is this object which was imported from the West along with colonization. This is the cliché, which we have had for at least two hundred years. If people want to re-examine this question, I think that going to some of the ideas developed in Textures of Time could be useful to them.

The Elusive Simplicity of a History of Equal Parts

Javanese painting by Tirto de Gresik (c. 1890) showing Surapati killing captain Tack in 1686
© Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam

Romain Bernard proposes remedies to Eurocentrism and discusses his book on the subject in an interview with Laetitia Bianchi.

C’est très bien, l’émotion esthétique, mais ça ne nous dit rien… Faire au pas de course une exposition où on a vu de très belles enluminures, et se dire qu’on a vécu un voyage en étrangeté, je crois que c’est sous-estimer grandement l’épaisseur de l’étrangeté.

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