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VA 2006-1 – Visual and Material Cultures of the Himalayas

Course Description: 

This course focuses on the Himalayan regions of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Tibet to understand how art, material and ritual cultures are intrinsically connected with the idea of ‘place’. How did the field of ‘Himalayan Art’ emerge? Where do we ‘locate’ this field; which geographical areas and religions are made emblematic of this discipline; which cultures are excluded and why? The course will examine how places, cultures and people are constructed through representations — visual and written — both by ‘outsiders’ as well as local communities.  Students will engage with critical questions about the ethics of representation in imaging ‘other’ places and people, the political and social processes that inform the making of ‘tradition’, and the entanglements of politics and culture in the formation of regional and national identities. 

Methodologically, the course will explore a wide archive of material from the 10th century to contemporary times. It will include colonial and contemporary photography, travel accounts, art historical writing, temple and monastery sites, performative rituals, museum displays, films and representations in popular culture.  A key area of study will be major museum collections of Himalayan art. How were these collections built and in what historical circumstances? What curatorial strategies are used to reconstruct the sacred auras of objects? How are objects of worship segregated into categories of art and ethnographic things? How is culture constructed through acts of museumization? The course will examine the recent museum-making impulse in the Himalayas through case studies of a range of museums situated in these borderlands — war memorial museums, community museums of conflict and trade route artifacts, and museums in Buddhist monasteries to understand the relationship between heritage and religion, the impact of the movement of things from sacred sites to ‘secular’ museums, and to ask how a politics of remembrance may manifest in cultural production. The course will conclude with an introduction to contemporary Tibetan art and Tibetan Buddhist culture-in-exile.

Learning Objectives: 

By the end of the course, students:

  • will be familiar with the broad field of the visual and material cultures in the Himalayas as well as major art-historical sites in Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh.
  • will learn about major museums and collections of Himalayan Art and be able to critically analyze the framing of objects as art/ ethnography, and basic questions of provenance research and label writing in object displays.
  • will be conversant with critical questions around ‘heritage’, the politics of museums and the role of ‘tradition’ in the construction of contemporary cultural identities.
  • will acquire critical tools to interrogate the nature and impact of ‘representation’ of regions, cultures and communities in images, writing and art history.
  • will be able to critically ‘read’ images and texts, with a focus on meaning making through vocabularies and terminologies, and ‘apply’ this thinking in a practical curatorial project.

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka