“Hikes and pilgrimages to peaks and temples only increased my desire to learn more” – 5in10 with Nachiket Chanchani

Nachiket Chanchani (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 2012) is a tenured associate professor jointly appointed in the Department of the History of Art and in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His first monograph, Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains: Architecture, Religion, and Nature in the Central Himalayas, was published in Spring 2019 by the University of Washington Press. In the academic year 2018-2019, he is a fellow of Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices, a program of Forum Transregionale Studien.

Section of the Vasanta Vilasa scroll, 1451 CE, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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

Growing up in a boarding school in the Himalayan foothills, I learnt a great deal about world history but precious little about the variegated past of the locale that we lived in. Hikes and pilgrimages to peaks and temples – through fragrant cedar forests, gurgling brooks, and wildflower meadows – and my parents’ memories of the nearly two years that they spent in a montane hamlet in the early 1980s only increased my desire to learn more. Eventually, I returned to the region to undertake my dissertation research and to write my first book, Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains: Architecture, Religion, and Nature in the Central Himalayas which has just been published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle.

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

My current research project brings together the disciplines of art history and philology through a pointed discussion of a single scroll prepared in 1451 in the Sultanate city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Western India. The text of this sumptuous scroll, which is eleven meters long when unrolled, is of a poem entitled Vasanta Vilasa, or “Spring Diversions,” accompanied with a set of paintings. Or, perhaps, one might say that the paintings are accompanied by the text of the poem. Composed in three languages – two classical and one a peculiarly medieval one with a scant literature – the Vasanta Vilasa has had a unique history as a material object. It is also a foundational literary and visual monument to the development of a local culture in early-modern Western India. My research focuses on the interplay of a poly-linguistic literary text and visual imagery in a context of vernacularizing social, political, and aesthetic realities and suggests that the poem represents a newly burgeoning form of an accessible classical literacy for communities that hitherto functioned without it.

 An itinerant storyteller unfurling a painted scroll, Gujarat, 1990s. Courtesy of Jyotindra Jain.

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

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to study at complementary institutions including the University of Pennsylvania, University of Minnesota, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and Muskingum College. I also learnt a great deal from internships at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

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

Recently, I was invited to participate in a 3-day intensive  Salon for Slow Reading and Deep Looking organized by Professors Sumathi Ramaswamy (Duke University) and Monica Juneja (Heidelberg University) in Rüdesheim am Rhein. I found the format conducive to reflection.  Our conversations on how monuments, materialities, and memories today interact with urban design and development, and how they cement concrete construction, postcolonial politics, democracy and decentralization, have given me a lens to consider contemporary culture.

How is it to do research in Germany?

It is an exciting moment to be based in Berlin as final preparations for the new Humboldt Forum get underway and conversations on the place of world cultures are unfolding across the city.  I have also learned a great deal from exchanges with colleagues at Humboldt University, Bonn University, Heidelberg University, and Hamburg University. I have also enjoyed the opportunity to reflect upon the value of each of these approaches compared to those favored by peer European, North American and South Asian institutions of higher learning.


Citation: “Hikes and pilgrimages to peaks and temples only increased my desire to learn more” – 5in10 with Nachiket Chanchani, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.08.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19446.


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