Tahmidal Zami: What drew and sustained your interest to India and its architecture?
Catherine Asher: I came to India the day after I was married, almost immediately after graduating from college, and knowing nothing about the subcontinent. I had read two books about India, both quite depressing, and so the reality of the situation was much better than the one portrayed in those books. My husband, Frederick Asher (Rick), was coming to do research for his dissertation, which ultimately ended up as a book, The Art of Eastern India, 300 – 800. I loved doing the field work, trekking across rice fields to find old sculptures and temples. So, as you can see, my initial introduction to Indian art was not to Islamic art but to older material. As time went on, and I came to India several times, I decided to earn an advanced degree in South Asian art-history. But I didn't want to follow Rick's path, so I decided to study Islamic material. At that time, very few people studied Indian Islamic architecture. Those who worked on Islamic material were mostly concerned with painting and with style. There wasn't much interest in architecture. I would say that in part, this was because just reaching many of the monuments was a challenge. It was a bit easier for me since my husband and I would, when our children were young, try to find places to work where we could be together. Field trips were family projects. I'm very happy to see that these days scholars across South Asia as well in Europe and North America are taking a serious interest in Islamic architecture.
History is a deeply politicised issue in South Asia, as different kinds of politics appropriate history for different purposes. How does the politics of history figure in your work? Interreligious relations have time and again returned as a central theme in your assessment of pre-colonial Indian history. Is this related to the rise of modern communalism and right-wing historiography? Or do you think interreligious relations is an important lens through which to understand the society and culture of medieval India on its own, emic terms?
Muslims in South Asia were not a majority until the modern nation-states of Pakistan, and then Bangladesh, came into existence. I have always felt that South Asia's cultural traditions need to be understood in a more holistic manner. But all the same, until 1992, I did teach courses with titles such as “Art of Muslim India”. After the destruction of the Babri masjid, my entire approach to teaching changed, as I'm sure my scholarship did as well. I no longer taught courses on just Islamic material but then started teaching classes that included multiple traditions. That was one of Cynthia Talbot's and my goals in writing India before Europe. That said, even before I completed my dissertation on Sher Shah, I was deeply interested in Man Singh as both Mughal amir and Rajput raja. To answer one of your questions, I believe that interreligious relations is an important lens in understanding the society and culture of India. By the way, I dislike the term, “medieval” that you used in your question, for I don't know what it means in terms of South Asia, and I don't think it is used in any consistent manner. We avoided it for those reasons in India before Europe. But to return to your question (related to interreligious relations), I do think that one way to respond to communalism and right-wing historians (as if they would ever listen to reason), is to consider South Asia's interreligious relations.
In your work, you have highlighted the fusion of motifs and architectural styles between Islamic and indigenous elements in pre-Mughal architecture as well. Would you agree with the common characterisation that the Mughals by and large present a more moderate approach to interreligious relations compared to the Delhi Sultans and regional dynasties preceding the Mughals?
Perhaps one of the reasons that the Mughals lasted longer than any pre-Mughal or regional dynasty is that the Mughals did have a moderate approach to interreligious relations. However, the earlier and regional houses were often much more tolerant than they are given credit for. That was another theme we addressed in India before Europe.
As a leading expert on North Indian architecture, what do you think should be the approach towards the question of temple destruction and iconoclasm in Indian history?
Ideally one would use a dual approach while dealing with temple destruction and iconoclasm. That is, one would approach it from both a political and religious viewpoint, but I don't think this is always possible. You can only use the evidence at hand. I think Richard Eaton has gone overboard in estimating that only 80 or so temples were destroyed, but certainly not the 1000s imagined by right-wing writers, most of whom are not properly trained historians. Temple destruction/ construction is an issue that I'm working on. I think it is more complicated than just wilful desecration but involves neglect, population movement, and natural calamity as well. I've seen this with old temples that have been abandoned when a population shifts or when the funds to support it vanish. Next, vegetation grows and ruins the building. I know that in 19th century Lucknow there were originally at least 13 Jain temples but now there are only two because people moved to more lucrative positions in other cities as patronage in Lucknow decreased. I'm not suggesting that wilful destruction isn't involved, but it's not the only factor. I also believe that people imagine temples in north India were huge edifices like those in south India, but the evidence suggests that they were not.
How do you think archaeological and art historical studies re-shape our reading of and approach to medieval texts and literary works?
Historians and those primarily using written texts as sources for history need to realize that visual evidence is also a text; it is just presented in a different manner. To my mind, the best way to approach history is to use every resource available. To only use the visual can be misleading, and to only use written sources can be so as well. A combination of every available source, including a consideration of the original intended audience, is one excellent approach.