Art historian studies the makers of medieval India

Two temples at Pattadakal in India.
Friday, January 25, 2019

Subhashini Kaligotla, assistant professor of art history, points to a photograph on her computer screen of elaborate sandstone towers at Pattadakal, a medieval temple complex in northern Karnataka, India.

“I always ask my students if they see different architectural styles,” she said, seated in her office at the Loria Center.

She points out two distinct types of tower: One is curvilinear and rises vertically while the other is pyramidal and tiered. The first style is associated with the architecture of North India, the other with South India.

About the size of a New York City block, Pattadakal features nine Hindu temples and a sanctuary dedicated to Jainism — a religious tradition that advocates nonviolence as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment — as well as numerous smaller shrines. The complex, which was built in the 7th and 8th centuries C.E, is located on the Malaprabha River in the Deccan  — a vast plateau that stretches over the center of peninsular India. The region is widely considered a crossroads where art makers incorporated architectural styles and artistic ideas from various parts of the Indian subcontinent.

Kaligotla’s research critically examines the premise that makers in medieval Deccan — architects, artists, poets, and patrons — unconsciously borrowed from their counterparts in neighboring regions.  

“I’m looking more carefully at the choices the makers in the Deccan made — not just that they knew about these styles and ideas from other regions, but how they adapted them for their Deccan milieu, and how they gave new meanings to these forms that they may have known from other contexts,” said Kaligotla, who joined the Yale faculty late last summer.

Pattadakal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the pivot for a book Kaligotla is writing on the agency of the makers who designed and built sacred sites in the Deccan during the medieval period.

The sites present intricate hybrids of architectural styles, languages, scripts, and religious traditions. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are represented at places Kaligotla studies. Temples and monuments are inscribed in Sanskrit as well as local languages.

“I’m trying to give context to the makers’ choices in the architectural realm and situate them vis-a-vis other kinds of choices that were made, whether in the realm of religion, or politics, or language,” she said.

Subhashini KaligotlaKaligotla is not only interested in studying the individual buildings at Pattadakal and other Deccan sites, but also the structures’ relationship to one another and to the landscape. She notes that many of the sites, especially sacred sites like Pattadakal, are located near water. While noting that water has a ritual importance, Kaligotla asserts that other reasons must have driven medieval makers to build close to rivers, such as agricultural and economic considerations, or for pleasure and scenic beauty.

“These sites were the locus of a great amount of social activity,” she said. “People visited these places because they were beautiful and they were the site of festivals and other social occasions. The presence of water was significant to that experience.”

The blending of northern and southern styles occurred not just between structures in a complex, but also among the elements of a single building, Kaligotla said.

“You see so much hybridity and mixing in the microarchitecture of individual buildings,” she said. “A temple’s tower may be curvilinear, which is the northern style, but a cornice, door lintel, or exterior wall may feature southern forms. The makers were playing with many different forms.”

The makers covered the temples in elaborate ornamental details.

“The entire surfaces of these temples — exterior and interior — are heavily sculpted and deeply faceted,” she said. “It’s figural imagery, floral imagery, geometric, and abstract imagery. You have to imagine that you are surrounded by ornament: the walls, ceiling, and pillars. You are enveloped in sculpted surfaces replete with imagery.”

Kaligotla is exploring how ideas about ornament can be used to understand the medieval temples and the people who made them.

The ornamentation was essential to each building’s form and function, drawing a contrast from the modern day, in which ornament is considered decorative but inessential to a structure’s purpose, she explained. 

“That was not the medieval or ancient Indian understanding of ornament,” she said. “They thought of it as necessary for a building’s completion. Without ornamentation, these buildings couldn’t function. They wouldn’t be protected from malevolent forces. Ornament in the medieval Deccan has many functions: It augments, magnifies, and strengthens.”

The temples at Pattadakal and other sites Kaligotla studies bear inscriptions about their makers, providing important textual evidence, including the names of architects and sculptors. An inscription on a temple at Pattadakal explains that the building’s architect fashioned cities, temples, and palaces, while also designing furniture, such as seats and couches, Kaligotla said.

Whether an inscription is in Sanskrit or a local language offers clues as to a maker’s status as the former was considered more prestigious and cosmopolitan and likely would have been used to describe an important architect or patron, Kaligotla explained.

“At least some of these makers seemed to have had a high status,” she said. “It’s not copious amounts of evidence but it is enough to suggest that there were categories of makers using different languages to represent themselves. There seems to have been differences in the way these makers were perceived.”

Kaligotla is a maker in her own right. She is a practicing poet whose debut poetry collection, “Bird of the Indian Subcontinent,” was published in January. Her research, including her reading and fieldwork in India, inspired many of her poems, she said.

Kaligotla’s debut poetry collection, “Bird of the Indian Subcontinent.”“Certainly my scholarship has fed my poetry,” she said. “I also think writing poetry and inhabiting that sort of consciousness has helped me as a scholar. I’m grateful that whether I’m working as a poet or an art historian, I am shaping language. I appreciate that and hope that I bring the crafting of language from poetry to art history and also vice versa.”

Kaligotla was born in coastal Andhra in southeast India. She moved with her family to the Middle East when she was nine years old. She came to the United States to attend Rutgers University, where she got a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and worked in the telecommunications field for many years before changing course and earning an M.F.A. in creative writing and later a Ph.D. in art history and archaeology from Columbia University.

“I have a hybrid background,” she said.

 Before coming to Yale, she was a postdoctoral research fellow of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz and based in the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin.

Kaligotla says she appreciates Yale’s invigorating scholarly environment.

“I just knew that my colleagues would be doing excellent work, and it would be a vibrant and stimulating intellectual community, which is necessary to one’s work,” she said.

She taught two undergraduate courses in the fall and appreciates the ability to teach from Yale’s collections. 

“It’s been exciting to think of the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art as extensions of the classroom,” she said. “To transition from images in textbooks to actually being with the objects is a great experience for students and teachers.”


Written by Mike Cummings for YaleNews.