The Aesthetics Project , A fresh look at old treasures

The inaugural seminar of the Aesthetics Project in Delhi will include a workshop on Mughal miniature ateliers and a talk on palace architecture
Chanpreet Khurana January 24 2014 (Livemint)

Delhi is steeped in history, yet we have little appreciation for—or in-depth knowledge of—the artistic and architectural treasures that surround us, says Renu Judge, trustee and sponsor of The Aesthetics Project. The Aesthetics Project, a platform for academics, performers and “eventually artisans” to explore topics of Indian art history and aesthetic heritage, was launched in Delhi this month to bridge just this sort of gap in our knowledge base.

In accordance with this mandate then, the inaugural three-day annual seminar being organized by the project from today will focus on some of the “new research in exciting areas” such as Mughal miniature painting, Rajasthani palace architecture and ceramic design in India. The seminar, starting this evening with a performance by Bharatanatyam exponentMalavika Sarukkai, will have workshops, talks and discussions by an “eclectic group of speakers”.

On Friday, John Seyller, professor of art history at The University of Vermont, US, and author of titles such as Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Walters Art Museum, Khamsa of Amir Khusraw of Delhi and The Adventures of Hamza: Painting And Storytelling in Mughal India, will conduct a workshop on Mughal miniature ateliers. “Briefly, participants should expect to learn more about how Mughal artists worked within an elaborate system devised by the Mughal library and painting workshop,” says Prof. Seyller in an email interview. Among the works that he plans to discuss is Akbarnama (1586-87). “Its importance comes from its historical subject (a contemporary history of Akbar’s reign), its many fine paintings done by the leading artists of the time, and especially its physical anomalies, which point to an unusual revision during the course of the project,” he explains.

Also on Friday, audiences can expect to attend talks by City College of New York associate professor Molly Emma Aitken and Indian jewellery expertUsha R. Balakrishnan, best known for her seminal work Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India. Each talk will be 60-90 minutes, and will include a discussion by the moderator and a question-answer round with the audience.

Saturday’s list of speakers includes independent scholar Giles Tillotson, who will talk about “The Last Jaipur Palaces” such as Rambagh, and the Narain Niwas residence built by courtier and diarist Thakur Amar Singh of Kanota. Ceramic artist and researcher Kristine Michael will speak on the interstices of crafts production, design and functionality in ceramic practice across India; and Nayanjot Lahiri of the department of history at the University of Delhi will share an archaeological perspective on our art and cultural heritage.

Judge says the logic of inviting these speakers was to put together a list of scholars who are doing new work in exciting areas, not “regurgitating” the same arguments we have heard before. She cites the example of Tillotson, who works out of India and has been working on the palaces of Jaipur for some time but is yet to publish his research in book form.

In an email interview, Tillotson explains that this is because some of his sources, including documents and records, have only recently been retrieved. He says: “…(Jaipur’s) Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II (1911-70) was a patron of architecture. First, he extended and refurbished the existing Rambagh, which was designated a palace and his chief residence from 1930. He also built Jaipur House, a palatial residence in the imperial capital at New Delhi (1938), and a new shooting lodge at Ramgarh. Records and drawings of these commissions, including the interiors, have recently been rediscovered in the collections of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum in Jaipur City Palace, and again they reveal much of the patron’s method in commissioning and selecting designs.” It is such findings and their implications that Tillotson plans to bring out in his talk.

The concluding session on Saturday, Judge indicates, will be special. It is a conversation between American-Italian contemporary artist Francesco Clemente and art historian Jyotindra Jain. “Francesco is a great Indophile. He’s never spoken here before,” Judge says. She adds that the discussion will focus on the artist’s “India work”.

Judge says she hopes the participants at the seminar will come with an open mind, sans expectations or agendas, and chances are that they will receive “upliftment and enrichment from what they are listening to (at the seminar). That’s when ideas begin to flow, and you gain aesthetic awareness of the things around you”. And that, by her own admission, is what they are setting out to do—making you more aware of, and hopefully more engaged in, the aesthetic beauty around you, right here in India.

The dance performance Darshan: Seeking the Divine by Malavika Sarukkai is on today at 6.30pm, at the India International Centre, 40, Max Mueller Marg, Delhi (24619431). The workshop and talks will be held from 10am-5pm on Friday and Saturday, at the main auditorium, IIC.

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