“I was fascinated by all the places I could experience in a book” – 5in10 with Shailka Mishra

Shailka Mishra holds a doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and is a post-doctoral fellow of Art Histories and Aesthetics Practices, a research program of the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien. From 2015 to 2018, Shailka was Assistant Curator at Mehrangarh Museum, Jodhpur, where she contributed significantly to a travelling exhibition and its eponymous catalogue called Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India. Her recent essay, Beyond the Imaginary: Paintings of Women in the Courts of Rajasthan, appeared in the catalogue to the exhibition, Visions of Paradise: Indian Court Paintings, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. She is currently completing a manuscript that builds on her PhD thesis on the painting workshop of the kingdom of Amber-Jaipur in Rajasthan in the eighteenth century. Using court records, Shailka demonstrates how wider political circumstances are reflected in the day-to-day functioning of the atelier and other court workshops.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

As far as I can recall, I have always loved stories. I loved to read. I grew up around books. My mother was a voracious reader and encouraged me to read. I was fascinated by all the places I could experience in a book. I did not care so much about science and mathematics but was excited by literature and history. I guess that was my way to apprehend the world around me; to understand how society works. While my friends complained about the rote facts and dates during history lessons, I wondered how past events shaped our present. I saw history as a mode of thought – logical and analytical. To me it was about human behavior – Why did a ruler choose to go to war? How was the Qutub Minar built? What if Mangal Pandey didn’t rebel against the English East India Company?

I have been very fortunate to explore my interest in the humanities. I grew up in the small town of Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi. When the time came to choose my subjects in High School, no school offered Humanities subjects. You could only study Science or Accounting and Economics. I moved to Delhi and lived with my grandparents because I was determined to pursue the social sciences. This was quite a rare disposition. Most people were doubtful of my choices. But my family supported me, and I never gave into peer pressure.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

In my current research project I study the painting workshop of the Amber-Jaipur court in Rajasthan. More than a formal analysis of art works, I focus on workshop practices. In other words I look at the production, organization and circulation of paintings. I answer questions like – How was the painting workshop financed? Where were the raw materials acquired from? Who was employed and how were they paid? Who looked at these paintings and what did they mean to them?

Central to my methodology are the extensive records of the Jaipur state – account books, inventories, daily registers, treasury records, records of court protocol and so on. Through these documents, I examine not only the functioning of the atelier but also how paintings and the arts of the book were valued and appreciated at the Jaipur court. Paintings were regarded as significant tools of diplomacy and kingship, and they were often exchanged as gifts. One of the most exciting discoveries has been the presence of a thriving art market in eighteenth-century India where scores of paintings and manuscripts were available for purchase.

This project sheds new light not only on painting practices at Jaipur-Amber but also indicates the value of studying similar documents for other workshops in other kingdoms. While art historians have identified the kinds of paintings which were patronized, there is little comprehension of how the court workshop operated or how paintings were regarded. Through my work, I demonstrate the rich possibilities for a new understanding of the social world of Indian paintings.

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

My academic journey began to take shape during my MA at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). I was enrolled at the Centre for Historical Studies but also wanted to do art history. So, I took additional coursework at the School of Arts and Aesthetics. Later in my research, the interdisciplinary approach was natural. In many ways my world view has been shaped by the academic freedom that JNU offered. I was able to choose courses that excited me. Professors welcomed questions. I was encouraged to be creative and innovative. The atmosphere at JNU stimulated critical thinking. I was taught to acknowledge multiple views and to not feel threatened by them. 

The central role of the archive in my study would not have been possible without the guidance of Late Prof. Nandita Prasad Sahai. She introduced me to the Rajasthan State Archive in Bikaner. It was incredibly exciting to comprehend the rich possibilities of these records.

Following my PhD, I worked for almost three years at the Mehrangarh Museum in Jodhpur. Mehrangarh is a 15th century fort in western Rajasthan which now functions as a Museum. I gained experience in the fields of museum curation, collection management, accessibility, conservation, cultural heritage and tourism from close quarters. For me, the challenge has been to bridge the gap between the concurrent but disparate worlds of university and museum scholarship.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

The Travelling Seminar to Cambodia with the Art Histories program has been a very special journey. Even before the Seminar, there was considerable intellectual investment – through readings, discussions, lectures and film screenings. But none of them quite prepared me for the experience. To me, the temples and archaeological sites around Siem Reap were familiar yet distinct. I was overwhelmed by the size, complexity and multiple layers of the structures. At the same time, I was also moved by how these temples offered a chance to be intimate – the numerous carvings, patterns and stories allow contemplation and quiet meditation.

However, more than Siem Reap, the time we spent in Phnom Penh has been personally thought-provoking. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center have led me to question my understanding of sites of violence. I realize that as an art historian or curator of heritage spaces, it is easy to get trapped within notions of beauty, magnificence and splendour. Today, most forts and palaces in India are projected as monuments of royalty and glory, but many of them have brutal histories. How often do institutions acknowledge this in their narrative? Is acknowledgement enough or are there more meaningful ways of engaging with difficult pasts in the museum? I believe we need to curate better and re-examine heritage from the perspectives of gender, caste and class. These are ongoing ruminations and I hope to work on this in the future.

How is it to do research in Germany?

The past few months in Berlin have been extremely rewarding. The Art Histories Program is exceptionally supportive. The weekly lectures and discussions with my cohorts have introduced me to new subjects and provide fresh perspectives to my own topic. The resources of the State Museums and the Staatsbibliothek make it very easy to find comparative literature for a researcher like me.

I am affiliated with the Museum für Asiatische Kunst at a very interesting time in the institution’s history; a time when everything is geared towards its new avatar at the Humboldt Forum. I am excited to be working with Dr. Raffael Dedo Gadebusch, Head of the Collection/Deputy Director, on a special exhibition of Indian paintings that will open next year.


Citation: “I was fascinated by all the places I could experience in a book” – 5in10 with Shailka Mishra, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.05.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18591.


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