Fields of Study: South Asian Art

The study of South Asian art has a long and distinguished history at Penn.  W. Norman Brown, Penn’s first professor of Sanskrit, was also a scholar of India’s illustrated manuscripts and an advisor and consulting curator of Indian art for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He founded the first Department of South Asian Studies in the US at Penn in 1947. Among his appointments were Ernest Bender, who specialized in medieval Jainism and its associated literature and art, and Stella Kramrisch, one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished scholars of India’s art, whom he recruited from Calcutta. She also became Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she organized pivotal exhibitions over many years.

Penn has also had two distinguished proto-historic archaeologists of South Asia, George Dales and more recently Gregory Possehl. The History of Art Department continues to have close links with the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art. Students have interned in both museums and participated in gallery changes and organizing exhibitions. There have also been opportunities for students to work with faculty on site in South Asia.

Michael W. Meister, W. Norman Brown Professor of South Asian Studies, was appointed in the History of Art Department at the same time the University established the South Asia Art Archive — an American-based duplication of the American Institute of Indian Studies’ photographic archive at their Center for Art and Archaeology, Gurgaon, India — housed in van Pelt library. The Gurgaon archive has been partially digitized for use by scholars around the world through Chicago’s Digital South Asia Library. The resources of these archives have augmented development of the American Institute of Indian Studies’ Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture project over a number of years, and assisted doctoral students in completion of PhD’s. The Penn files currently contain over 100,000 photographs. There are in addition substantial and sometimes unique study materials incorporated into the Fine Arts Library’s on-line Image Collection.

In addition to Prof. Meister, Darielle Mason (Ph.D, Penn), Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is an active member of the Graduate Group.  Her catalogue, Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal, received the College Art Association’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award in 2011. The wealth of faculty at Penn who support the study of South Asia’s visual legacy extend in many directions: South Asia Studies, Religious Studies, and even Landscape Architecture. From ancient to contemporary, the curriculum has accommodated a wide variety of doctoral projects. Students have received fellowship support from AIIS, AIPS, Fulbright-Hayes, SSRC, Asian Arts Council and other sources and now teach at institutions from Vancouver to Chapel Hill and New Haven; or are curators in museums in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York.

For a list of faculty and their teaching areas in South Asia Studies, see Penn’s South Asia Center’s faculty page. Professor Meister’s Website also offers information on past and present students, courses, and events.