Theses Doctoral

Praise, Politics, and Language: South Indian Murals, 1500-1800

Seastrand, Anna Lise

This study of mural painting in southern India aims to change the received narrative of painting in South Asia not only by bringing to light a body of work previously understudied and in many cases undocumented, but by showing how that corpus contributes vitally to the study of South Indian art and history. At the broadest level, this dissertation reworks our understanding of a critical moment in South Asian history that has until recently been seen as a period of decadence, setting the stage for the rise of colonial power in South Asia. Militating against the notion of decline, I demonstrate the artistic, social, and political dynamism of this period by documenting and analyzing the visual and inscriptional content of temple and palace murals donated by merchants, monastics, and political elites. The dissertation consists of two parts: documentation and formal analysis, and semantic and historical analysis. Documentation and formal analysis of these murals, which decorate the walls and ceilings of temples and palaces, are foundational for further art historical study. I establish a rubric for style and date based on figural typology, narrative structure, and the way in which text is incorporated into the murals. I clarify the kinds of narrative structures employed by the artists, and trace how these change over time. Finally, I identify the three most prevalent genres of painting: narrative, figural (as portraits and icons), and topographic. One of the outstanding features of these murals, which no previous scholarship has seriously considered, is that script is a major compositional and semantic element of the murals. By the eighteenth century, narrative inscriptions in the Tamil and Telugu languages, whose scripts are visually distinct, consistently framed narrative paintings. For all of the major sites considered in this dissertation, I have transcribed and translated these inscriptions. Establishing a rubric for analysis of the pictorial imagery alongside translations of the text integrated into the murals facilitates my analysis of the function and iconicity of script, and application of the content of the inscriptions to interpretation of the paintings. My approach to text, which considers inscriptions to be both semantically and visually meaningful, is woven into a framework of analysis that includes ritual context, patronage, and viewing practices. In this way, the dissertation builds an historical account of an understudied period, brings to light a new archive for the study of art in South Asia, and develops a new methodology for understanding Nayaka-period painting. Chapters Three, Four, and Five each elaborate on one of the major genres identified in Chapter Two: narrative, figural, and topographic painting. My study of narrative focuses on the most popular genre of text produced at this time, talapuranam (Skt. sthalapurana), as well as hagiographies of teachers and saints (guruparampara). Turning to figural depiction, I take up the subject of portraiture. My study provides new evidence of the active patronage by merchants, religious and political elites through documentation and analysis of previously unrecorded donor inscriptions and donor portraits. Under the rubric of topographic painting I analyze the representation of sacred sites joined together to create entire sacred landscapes mapped onto the walls and ceilings of the temples. Such images are closely connected to devotional (bhakti) literature that describes and praises these places and spaces. The final chapter of the dissertation proposes new ways of understanding how the images were perceived and activated by their contemporary audiences. I argue that the kinesthetic experience of the paintings is central to their concept, design, and function.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Dehejia, Vidya
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 22, 2013