Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 11, 2000
George Michell and Mark Zebrowski The New Cambridge History of India: Architecture and Art in the Deccan Sultanates, I Cambridge University Press, 1999. 298 pp.; 16 color ills.; 200 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (0521563216)

This book forms part of the New Cambridge History of India’s commendable effort to integrate art history into its historical concerns. It was preceded by three earlier volumes, Architecture of Mughal India (Catherine B. Asher), Mughal and Rajput Painting (Milo C. Beach), and Architecture and Art of Southern India by one of the authors of the present volume (George Michell).

The volume amply fulfills the agenda of the Cambridge Histories laid down in the general Editor’s Preface, namely not only to “record an existing state of knowledge” but also “to focus interest on research” and to provide “stimulus to further work” (xviii). Both authors were well equipped to shoulder this task. Michell came to the architecture of the Deccan through his work on Vijayanagara, the Hindu kingdom that closely interacted on the political as well as on the cultural level with several of the Deccani sultanates, and he became familiar with the specific problems of the Islamic architecture of the Deccan by editing the 1986 Marg volume Islamic Heritage of the Deccan. Mark Zebrowski established himself as the leading authority on Deccani painting with his 1983 volume on this subject, which was based on his dissertation; he has also published widely on his other research interest, Deccani applied arts. He died soon after the appearance of the present volume, in which he regrettably leaves us his final views on the subject. Zebrowski and Michell divided their work according to their interests. Michell took on chapters 2 (Forts and Palaces), 3 (Mosques and Tombs) and 8 (Temples). Zebrowski authored chapters 5 (Miniature Painting: Ahmadnagar and Bijapur), 6 (Miniature Painting: Golconda and Other Centres), and 7 (Textiles, Metalwork and Stone Objects), and they jointly wrote the Introduction, the Historical Framework, chapter 4 (with a creative approach to architectural decoration), and the Conclusion.

Both authors define their approach in the Introduction, where it is stated that because of a paucity of historical information “much of what we can learn about Deccani art must come from directly looking at it” (2). Accordingly, their main focus is on recording and identifying the monuments and art objects.

George Michell puts a large amount of new monuments on the map of our knowledge. He had very little to go with besides Z. A. Desai’s very useful chapters on architecture in History of Medieval Deccan (1295-1724), II edited by H. K. Sherwani and P. M. Joshi (Hyderabad, 1974), and E. S. Merklinger’s fragmented approach in her Indian Islamic Architecture: The Deccan 1347-1686 (Warminster, 1981). Michell filled the lacunae with his own field work, guided by remote publications hardly accessible to Western readers. He also provides us with an assessment of Deccani temple architecture after the Muslim conquest, the revival of temple architecture under Maratha rule in the 17th and 18th centuries for which the architects, as he shows, had to rely on forms borrowed from Sultanate and Mughal architecture as the most readily available models. Michell presents a body of monuments through descriptions, plans, and photographs; what one misses is the identification of architectural themes and forms, and a discussion of the specific Deccani way of treating them, especially in the face of the powerful presence of Mughal architecture. One also wonders whether and how the religiously motivated link to Shiite Iran affected architecture.

In his chapters, Zebrowski refines his previous differentiation of Deccani painting schools and provides us with new insights, especially about the “Indianness” of the Deccani styles and their dialectic relationship to Mughal painting, opposing its rationalism but adopting much of its iconography and techniques. He also points out new links to the regional schools of Rajasthan and establishes convincing connections between painting and the applied arts. Highly rewarding is Zebrowski’s analysis of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s (ruled in Bijapur 1580-1627) patronage of painting and his deep involvement in Hinduism; the author uses the expression “infatuation” (167) and draws our attention to Ibrahim’s literary work Kitab-i Nauras, where the sultan describes himself as the son of the Hindu deities Ganesh and Sarasvati (164). This chapter makes salutary reading for scholars still clinging to a monolithic notion of Islam.

The book would have greatly profited from more discussions of such larger issues, from a greater attempt to link formal concerns with contextual ones. But this brings us to a general challenge of the art historian working on South Asia, especially on such uncharted terrain as the Deccan. On one hand he or she has to establish his or her basic material as it was done for Western art history in the earlier periods; on the other hand he or she has to face all the questions the discipline has asked since then in the course of its development.

As an art historian chagrined by the gap between history and art history that makes itself markedly felt in South Asian studies, I wish that the authors would have made better use of the opportunity to make the main readership of the Cambridge History, namely historians, aware of the value of art history as a historical source. But it is probably unfair to ask this from a volume dedicated to the Deccan, the least art historically studied region of India.

Students and scholars alike will be greatly indebted to Michell and Zebrowski for providing a first comprehensive survey of Deccani architecture and art that provides the basis for all future studies.

Ebba Koch
University of Vienna