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  • The Historiography of Reuse in South Asia
  • Alka Patel

It is little wonder that the historical phenomenon of architectural and sculptural reuse has attracted the attention of scholars investigating many regions and time periods. The late Roman empire and its immediate cultural diaspora (4th–5th c. CE), the Byzantine and Islamic worlds (6th–11th c. CE), and medieval Europe (12th–14th c. CE) are among the geographies and time periods known in scholarly ambits for reuse of architectural and sculptural fragments.1 Reuse of older elements to create new buildings or other composites is an eminently pragmatic human activity, with, additionally imaginative, allusory, and less tangible implications. To modern scholars and other viewers, historical instances of the integration of older and sometimes non-local elements into new works seems to signal, at least at first sight, the physical bringing together of different cultures and eras. Where scholars and/or the public have defined religions, states, or communities as mutually antagonistic, one group's reuse of its rivals' creations—whether wholesale or in part—seems to promise especially rich historical insight, indicating either the ultimate triumph of one over the other, or alternatively, their ultimate resolution of differences.

The promise of greater historical understanding is surely one of the reasons that many scholars of South Asian art and architectural history have investigated instances of visible reuse ever since the first systematic surveys of physical remains during the nineteenth century.2 In keeping with the particular interest of periods of confrontation between supposedly opposing forces, a majority of scholarly as well as general attention has been directed toward the late twelfth century and onward. In nineteenth-century scholarship, the successful Ghurid campaigns of conquest during the 1190s, east of the Indus in modern north India, and the subsequent Islamic states of the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries, were collectively cast as adversaries of "Hindu" civilization.3 In recent years, though the binary narrative pre-supposing "Hindu" and "Muslim" societies as monolithic and inherently opposed has been superseded in scholarship by more nuanced approaches, historians, art and architectural historians, scholars of South Asian religions, and non-specialists4 have continued to be fascinated by instances of architectural reuse dating from this span of five centuries.

Until the 1990s5 the academic and public focus on acts of reuse dating from the late twelfth through sixteenth centuries had left even historically documented instances from earlier times little explored.6 This decontextualization and implicit privileging of Islamic-Indic7 encounters has resulted in an inaccurate understanding of the overall significance(s) of these historical events.

Asher and Metcalf's Perceptions of South Asia's Visual Past (1994) largely corrected the analytical imbalance in studies of South Asian reuse, until then myopically fixed on Islamic-Indic confrontations. But this collection of essays had a wider purpose than simply righting a scholarly and public misperception. At the outset the volume's editors state, "[accepted] attitudes toward South Asia's visual past shaped . . . a distinctive historical consciousness." Furthermore, this "canon," which offered a coherent, authoritative mode of understanding South Asia's visual past, though not identical with the narrative of colonialism, was inextricably bound up with it.8 Although some essays in the volume analyzed architectural and sculptural reuse as tangible evidence of specific pasts at particular historical moments,9 instances of reuse were by no means the only available glimpses into these moments. Other articles also bring more intangible evidence to bear on the seminal question of how pasts were perceived during various presents throughout time: whether the artist was thought to have chosen historicity or contemporaneity in the depiction of religious narratives, or whether an architectural style was used consciously in emulation of a historical moment.10 Noticeably, the volume altogether omitted analysis of reuse in Islamic contexts,11 perhaps as an overt gesture of compensation for the bias of past studies.

In the wake of Perceptions' timely questioning of the attitudes and "canons" informing analyses of South Asian pasts, a panel convened at the 2005 meeting of the American Council on Southern Asian Art revisited the phenomenon of reuse during various periods of South Asian history.12 The panel's aims were more limited than the...


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