Aparna Andhare & Sonia Wigh
KAVITA SINGH, the distinguished art historian, died on July 30 after a battle with cancer. She was our teacher and mentor.
A proud homegrown scholar, Kavita Singh obtained her BA in English from the University of Delhi, before pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) in Art History from MSU, Baroda. She went on to work on her PhD in art history at Panjab University, Chandigarh, under the supervision of Prof BN Goswamy. She joined the School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA) at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2001, where she spent the next two decades teaching, nurturing, and transforming the personal and intellectual lives of a multitude of students.
‘Gift of imagination’
Kavita was a talent. She had the gift of imagination and of friendship. As I saw it as a teacher, she took her time to select a theme to work on, but after she had done it, she polished and burnished it, endlessly: stretched its limits, and deepened our understanding of it. What else can we ask of an art historian? Prof BN Goswamy, Art historian
Kavita’s classes were a revelation and taught us how to engage with a painting on several registers: visual, textual, contextual, and to appreciate beauty and joy. She could weave compelling narratives, talking about politics with as much ease as poetry, and drove home the point that to be art historians, we needed to cultivate a wide range of interests and knowledge.
She was a generous scholar; her reading lists were long and detailed, and she kept nothing to herself, pointing students in the direction of appropriate materials, making connections and introductions, and always offering her insights without reservation. She wrote letters of recommendation, responded to queries, and did this for scores of students over the years. We graduated in 2012, but for the decade that has gone by, we counted on her for advice and support, which she unflinchingly offered. Her schedule was always demanding — alongside cutting-edge research, she taught courses, gave talks and public lectures in various places, curated shows, organised conferences, edited special issues — but she always had time for her students, old and current.
Kavita’s research was truly interdisciplinary. She published numerous scholarly articles and books on various aspects of South Asian art history and museology. Her research covers diverse topics, including the development of art forms, artistic and intellectual exchanges, religious influences, and cultural interactions in the Timurid-Mughal, Rajput and Deccani worlds.
Scholars from around the world like Ebba Koch, Avinoam Shalem and John Seyller visited SAA and Kavita ensured her students had the opportunity to learn from them, ask questions and interact freely. In the same spirit, she encouraged students to share their work, most memorably, an Afghan student to discuss Farsi calligraphy with the class; and Kavita slipped effortlessly into the role of a student. She once spent an entire class discussing a Mughal ‘Razmnama’, the Persian translation of the ‘Mahabharata’, where apart from the obvious symbolisms, she opened our worldview to concepts like the spatial movement of time, colour and mood therapy, and material histories of art.
Kavita also made a special effort to reach out to a non-specialist audience, by writing on art, engaging with paintings, manuscripts, architecture and museums in the mainstream media. She wrote with flair and created compelling narratives that incorporated facts (details of artistic production), the artists’ intent, and her own insight. This kind of writing opened avenues of comprehension of the image, and enhanced the viewer’s (past, present, and future) engagement with the work at hand.
Her approach to art writing was passionate, multi-faceted, and she laced astute observation with humour. Reading her — on any topic — is a delight and an immense learning experience. This quality of prose and thought set her work with the best in the world. Her research and collaborations with scholars worldwide have strengthened the global discourse on South Asian art history and post-colonial museum studies.
All through her career, she was actively involved in advocating the preservation and conservation of South Asian cultural heritage. She addressed issues related to heritage conservation, as well as the protection of historical monuments, especially in the face of recent incidents of vandalism as well as state apathy towards their care. This did not endear her to the powers-that-be. But Kavita was a fighter.
Her research and activism brought her well-deserved international recognition. She was the Slade Professor of Fine Arts (2023) at the University of Cambridge. She was also awarded the prestigious Infosys Prize for Humanities in 2018.
But the Kavita we remember and cherish the most is standing in the iwan of Humayun’s Tomb, throwing toffees at students who answered her questions correctly, and telling stories, her eyes sparkling, laughing and drawing attention to secrets hidden in plain sight. While we must make peace with her passing away, it is to echo her own words about a painting depicting the death of King Dasharatha — ‘untimely, undeserved and unjust’.
— Andhare is an independent art historian and curator and Wigh is a postdoctoral researcher
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