Dr Mehreen Chida-Razvi is an Islamic Art Historian specializing in the art and architecture of Mughal South Asia. She is the Deputy Curator of the Khalili Collection of Islamic Art and the In-House Editor for their publication series, is an Associate Editor for the International Journal of Islamic Architecture, and regularly teaches courses and lectures on Islamic and Indo-Islamic art at universities and museums in London and Oxford.
Since 2012, Dr Mehreen has been the Hon. Secretary of the Indian Art Circle, and was named a Trustee of the Luigi & Laura Dallapiccola Foundation in 2020. She has published extensively on Mughal and Persianate art, architecture and urbanism. Mehreen has further shared her academic expertise with wider audiences through her participation in and consultation for documentaries, including on the Taj Mahal; programming on BBC World Service Radio, BBC2 and BBC4; participation in the Lahore, Jaipur, and Heidelberg Literary Festivals; and as an expert lecturer on cultural tours.
We talk to Dr Mehreen about her journey to becoming a specialist in the art and architecture of Mughal South Asia, experience working with museums, galleries and collections and why preserving architectural heritage important for the future.
You are an Art Historian specializing in the art and architecture of Mughal South Asia. How did you embark on this area of expertise specifically?
My path to art history was certainly unconventional, as was my journey to studying the art, architecture and material culture of the Mughals. I did my undergraduate studies in the USA, at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and I planned on going to medical school. I was double-majoring in Microbiology and Food Science & Human Nutrition, while minoring in Zoology and Art History. I had taken an Advanced Placement Art History course my final year of high school and really loved it, so decided to minor in Art History during my undergraduate degree in order to alleviate all the heavy science and math courses I had to take for my science degrees. My final summer before graduating, and a few months before I was supposed to submit my medical school application, I studied abroad in Rome. I took classes in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture, and it was the first time I had ever studied buildings, objects, or paintings in person. The experience of actually engaging directly with a work of art or a building, rather than via a slide, was eye-opening, and made me think about Art History as a career rather than a hobby. I returned from Rome having decided not to apply to medical school, so I completed my BSc undergraduate degrees, and the next academic year started a Post-Baccalaureate degree in Art History, focusing on the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance.
I decided to do my Master’s degree in London, and was fortunate enough to get into my 2 top programmes: The Gothic Cathedral at the Courtauld Institute of Art with the late Professor Paul Crossley, and the History of Islamic Art & Archaeology at SOAS, University of London. I decided to do both MA programmes, as I had the intention at the time of going on to do a PhD exploring relationships and interactions between medieval Islamic and European architecture. On completing both degrees, however, I had not yet found a topic I wished to pursue further at the PhD level. I took a year after completing the second Master’s at SOAS to further explore PhD topics, during which time I worked as a research assistant for an exhibition. During that time, I decided I wanted to pursue a topic related to funerary architecture, and that I still wanted to focus on an area of specialization which would allow me to draw on my European art history background and explore cultural and artistic interactions with Europe.
As some of the best examples of Islamic tombs were constructed in South Asia, I began to explore the Islamic architectural history of the region, particularly of the Mughal period as there were so many cultural, diplomatic, mercantile, and artistic interactions taking place between the Mughal empire and the wider world. During that initial period of research, I realized how much the material fascinated me, and that there had not been any proper research done on the tomb of the fourth Mughal emperor, Jahangir, in Lahore, Pakistan. This was surprising as the tomb is an outlier amongst the small corpus of imperial Mughal tombs, and there are some interesting questions to be asked about its construction, decoration, and location. This mausoleum and its wider funerary complex became the subject of my PhD, which I did at SOAS with Professor Doris Behrens-Abouseif, leading me to the wonderful and fascinating material created during the Mughal era, particularly of the 16th and 17th centuries, the period I largely focus on in my research.
(West Façade, Jahangir’s Tomb, Shahdara, Lahore, 1628-38)
What interested you to pursue a career in museums, galleries and collections as well as academia?
As I wanted to teach and research, academia was my primary focus when I entered the field. I began doing occasional lectures for postgraduate courses at SOAS and the V&A Museum, which transformed into more permanent roles with both programmes once I completed my PhD. I also began to do occasional lectures for Sotheby’s Institute of Art, and teach my own courses for the Continuing Education Department at the University of Oxford, Morley College in London, and a regular summer school course for the Courtauld Institute of Art. All this solidified my enjoyment of teaching and allowed me to continue with my own research and publishing.
My courses have always incorporated museum visits and object viewing sessions- with the amazing collections of Islamic and Mughal art in London and Oxford how could this not be the case! Due to my own experiences and my path which led me to art history, I have always valued the importance of experiencing an object, a painting, a sculpture, or a building, and so when the opportunity arose to work with the Khalili Collections as their In-House Editor, it made sense to me to take a role that was based on research, object-based studies, and that would allow me to engage with one of the premier private collections of Islamic art.
You are the Deputy Curator of the Nasser D Khalili Collection of Islamic Art and the In-House Editor for their publication series, what was your journey to taking on that role?
Luck, really! I have been very fortunate to have made a successful career as an Art Historian without holding a full-time academic post. I teach courses and lecture at universities and museums in London and Oxford; organize a monthly lecture series on South Asian art at SOAS which runs during the academic year; am on the editorial board for the International Journal of Islamic Architecture; work as a specialist lecturer on cultural tours; and am able to research and publish.
This type of portfolio career has suited me very well, and allowed me, when I was approached by the previous In-House Editor of the Khalili Collections to see if I was interested in taking on the role, to contemplate this new career avenue as an additional opportunity. I met with Sir David Khalili for an interview, and was offered the position. I was drawn to the job as it gave me an opportunity to not only work with the material in the Khalili Collection of Islamic art, which is superb, but to collaborate with fantastic scholars. The Collection publishes academic catalogues, each of which focuses on a particular topic/theme or a specific medium, and each is written by a specialist, or specialists, on that specific topic. As the In-House Editor, I work closely with the authors to see their books through to completion once they have finished writing the manuscript.
I was appointed Deputy Curator of the Islamic Collection just before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, but now that things have started to properly normalize again I hope to be able to fully embrace the role once I have completed work on the final catalogue volume I am working on. This volume, Monuments and Memorials, will be on the architectural pieces in the Khalili Collection, including: items used for architectural decoration, like tiles; tombstones and funerary steles; and hearths, to name a few of the categories.
Did you always want to be a specialist in Mughal and Islamic art?
No, I can’t say that I did! As I already mentioned, I intended to go to medical school. That had been my career goal from the age of at least 14, and everything I had done throughout high school and university was geared towards that. I wanted to either go into surgery or be an ophthalmologist! When I changed my mind and decided to pursue Art History, I was at the University of Florida (UF). The art history courses on offer there did not, at the time, include any Islamic art options. It was when I was discussing possible Master’s programmes and future career options with one of my professors at UF that the idea of focusing on Islamic Art was presented to me. Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom had just published their article, ‘The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field’ (2003), and my professor gave it to me to read. It seemed like the field would be an interesting and stimulating one to get into. While I knew nothing about Islamic art and architecture at the time, as a Muslim, the idea of studying this unknown aspect of my cultural and religious heritage appealed to me. It was not until I started my second Master’s degree on the History of Islamic Art & Archaeology, at SOAS, that I formally studied any aspect of Islamic art; and as mentioned above, my interest in Mughal art did not come about until I started my PhD. Prior to my SOAS MA, my studies had focused on European art and architecture, particularly of the Medieval and Renaissance eras.
What are your thoughts on the inclusion and representation of Islamic art in mainstream cultural institutions?
I think that this answer will vary depending on what exactly is categorized as a ‘mainstream cultural institution’. There are the obvious spaces of museums and galleries, but I think we now need to expand this to include the realm of social media, particularly on Twitter and Instagram, and the entertainment industry, in its broadest terms. On the latter, Dr Glaire Anderson, for example, is doing really interesting work on trying to make Islamic art, architecture, and culture accessible and accurately represented in video games. These digital worlds are now hyper-realistic, and as they are a mainstream medium by which people engage – both proactively or passively- with the spaces and historical eras being represented, it is important to have accurate depictions. In a way, video games and the digital universe are becoming the new avenues by which people are engaging with, if not learning about, history.
Social media has become an element of this as well, with Bayt al-Fann itself being one of the most successful examples of how digital space can be and is used to promote Islamic art, engaging with a large population to share images and information. I am often struck by how many comments on your posts are by Muslims who see themselves and their identity in the material being shared, or who are being introduced to elements of their cultural heritage that they didn’t know about, or were unfamiliar with. I think the level of outreach which can be attained on social media makes it a potent force for the representation of Islamic art. It creates an inclusive public space in which people get exposed to Islamic art in a way that has not happened before.
Why is the study of Mughal art history important? Where does it fit in to the cultural history of South Asia?
We are living through a moment in time where the Islamic history of India is literally being erased; for example, street names changed, buildings destroyed, and textbooks rewritten. There is a mass denial of India’s Muslim past taking place for ideological and political reasons, and this must be challenged. To speak of Indian history without including the Mughals as an integral part of it, or to include them but only for the purposes of demonizing them, is ludicrous. Now more than ever there needs to be awareness of the shared cultural heritage that all Indians are a part of. The syncretic nature of the Mughal court, its arts, and its built heritage can contribute to this by as they are visual markers of this shared past, and so the study of Mughal art history becomes exceptionally important in this context.
In 2020 I was featured as the specialist historian on the BBC podcast ‘You’re Dead To Me’, with Greg Jenner (BBC Radio 4), for their episode on the Mughal Empire, and I spent the last minutes talking about the this issue. I said at the time that while the Mughal court came to be defined by many things, the current Indian government wants to define it solely by religion, and by othering it, to make the notion that the Mughals are expendable in Indian history acceptable. Except, through Mughal art history, it becomes clear how integral the Mughals were to Indian history, and how integrated they were into the cultural landscape.
You are particularly interested in Islamic architecture, why is preserving architectural heritage important for the future?
In order to answer this, I need to first digress slightly - but it all ties together so stick with me! I think there are two primary ways to approaching the study of art history. In one, the object under scrutiny is the focus. Such an art historical study will examine the object, trying to determine, for example, why it looks the way it looks, why it was made the way it was. The other way uses the object as a starting point to find out more about the context of its production. What can an object tell us about the political situation during which it was made? About the culture which made it? About the patron? About the economy during the time it was created? It is this second way which informs the majority of my work. For me, buildings best exemplify an artistic production that can speak to us about the wider context of its creation.
Architecture, by its nature, is emblematic of a particular past. We have seen the most extreme examples of how potent architecture’s association with history and identity can be in grand acts of erasure and destruction of built space. I am thinking about, for example, the destruction of historical structures in Palmyra by ISIS; of the demolition of the Baburi Masjid in Ayodhya. These architectural sites were monumental reminders of a particular historical past that specific groups of individuals wanted to invalidate. By eradicating built-heritage these groups deemed to be heretical, it allowed them to reframe a historical narrative into a created one that could be utilized and manipulated to further promote their beliefs. The same type of erasure can be attempted without destroying a structure, but by appropriating it. Take the recent resurgence amongst certain groups of the idea that the Taj Mahal was either not built as a Mughal tomb, but rather as a Hindu temple, or that if it was built as a tomb, it was built over the site of a temple. In either instance, these groups would like to see the Taj Mahal given a new identity which would replace its Mughal, Muslim context with a Hindutva one.
(The Taj Mahal, Agra, 1632-36)
These are obviously extreme examples, but they exemplify one reason why preserving architectural heritage is so important. When we lose it, we lose history. How much have we learned about the past, about history, because of buildings and built-space? How many historical questions have been raised though the examination of architectural remains or ruins? Imagine trying to talk about, for example, ancient Egypt, without talking about the pyramids and Egyptian burial traditions. The historical built record allows for deeper understanding of and engagement with the past, but is also integral to sustaining knowledge and culture going into the future.
Since 2016 you have been a specialist lecturer on cultural tours, including to Iran, Central Asia and India. What was the most memorable experience in this role?
I have had so many incredible experiences on these tours, meeting such fascinating people and getting the opportunity to go to so many incredible places. It’s always a thrill to go somewhere for the first time, but this is heightened when I am going somewhere that I have studied and taught about for years, like Iran. I would say that the Iran tour I lectured on in 2016, particularly my first time in Isfahan, was my most memorable experience. I had taught classes on the Great Mosque of the Seljuks in Isfahan for perhaps 7 or 8 years by that point, and also on the architecture of Safavid Isfahan, so to finally go and see the sites I had been teaching students about for years was very special.
Outside the Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan (2016)
Are museums important?
Absolutely. Just look at the different roles that a museum can hold. Museums are repositories of history and culture, a place where it is possible to share that history and culture widely. But they are also places where it is possible to have a reckoning with the past, where challenging questions should be asked and answered. They are places of learning and research, and of teaching, engagement, and outreach. They are places of preservation and conservation. At a time when nations and countries are becoming more inward looking and more polarized, it is important to have places like museums. where the shared values/pasts/heritages of humanity are on display and can be seen and appreciated.
Are you working on any research projects at the moment?
I am indeed, too many it seems! I have a few currently underway which are all publications-in-progress: the use of stucco to mimic marble in Mughal architecture; the gardens of Kashmir during the reign of Shah Jahan; Mughal women and their roles in art and artistic production; and the architectural space of the harem in Mughal-era palace architecture. These are the most pressing of the projects I have underway at this moment. I’m also working on my book proposal; I am finally getting to work on writing a book on Jahangir’s mausoleum, based on my PhD thesis.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you and how can we work towards its development?
This is a huge question which cannot be answered in a satisfactory, succinct manner, except to say I think it will be messy. It comes down to the basic question so many scholars in the field have grappled with- what is Islamic art? As an umbrella term, ‘Islamic art’ covers a geographic and temporal scope which is vast, too vast to be able to make general statements about the field in its entirety. I say I think it will be messy because it is an ever-expanding field, which is going to lead to inevitable questions of limitation, categorization, and hierarchy. ‘Unwieldy’ was the term Blair and Bloom used to describe the field in 2003; it is still a very apt descriptor.
For more information check out: Twitter & Instagram @mchidarazvi
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