Writing and speaking with a sparkling intensity even days before her death on July 30, Kavita Singh has left an indelible mark on Indian art history. A winner of the 2018 Infosys Prize for Humanities, she had served as a professor and dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Arts and Aesthetics. Her Scroll column, A Thousand Words, was widely acclaimed for its erudition and lucidity.
Here are a series of tributes by colleagues, collaborators and students, recalling her vitality and intellectual engagement at this critical time in India’s cultural sphere.
Finding play in work and work in play
When Kavita Singh received the prestigious Infosys Prize in 2018, it was a major recognition of her contribution to the humanities at the national level. I smiled while watching the awards ceremony online, when the host bestowing the honour said, “Among her many publications, I find this one the most interesting: No touching, No spitting, No praying.” This is because I too have often experienced the way people stop to comment on the title of the volume that Kavita and I collaborated on –- No Touching, No Spitting, No Praying: The Museum in South Asia. “I love this title,” or “That’s a great title!” are by now familiar responses to that 2015 book.
The title was Kavi’s idea, of course. It bears her signature stamp. It is sparkling, witty, playful and curiosity-arousing, but also conceptual, and forever continues to draw a smile. We had seen actual signs that said “no touching” or “no praying” posted in museums throughout the subcontinent, and found stories in the archive about how the spitting of beetle-nut juice was driving British museum officials to distraction during the colonial era (hence, the “no spitting”). But the gesture of bringing those words together in this humorous and rhythmic way, and signalling the relationship of the past to the present, involved a kind of charismatic flourish that was entirely Kavi’s intelligence at work.
Kavi was my co-author, co-editor, co-researcher, co-presenter, and ultimately, a dear friend whom I have known and adored for over two decades. Her son, Aditya, was born one month before my own son, Jalal, and our bond of friendship was forged in and across the momentous journey of motherhood too.
She was at the pinnacle of her professional life as a teacher and scholar at the time of the onset of illness, and had authored three monographs, edited or co-edited eight additional books, and was engaged in, quite literally, countless other professional activities involving collaborations and audiences around the world.
Kavi was an insatiably social being, and had a preference for formats that involved working with others. She had a longstanding interest in colonial and national museums, embodied by her early work on London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, or her now-canonical essay on museums and nationalism, whose title stated punctually that The Museum is National.
Over the past decade, these studies proliferated and expanded to include a broader range of themes related to museums, cultural heritage and local communities. She wrote on repatriation politics and the Global South; the implications of the universal survey and the holocaust museum paradigms for the non-Western world; and the micropolitics of clashes between communities and museums on the stage of “world heritage”. The 2017 volume she co-edited with the cultural historian, Mirjam Brusius, concerned with museum storage as a space of meaning, had another marvellous title: Tales from the Crypt.
Alongside this prolific activity, Kavi increasingly turned, in the past decade, to the study of Indian court painting, the field of specialty in which she trained for her PhD under the mentorship of BN Goswamy. In these studies, she found new meaning in her work, attained new heights of knowledge, acquired new audiences, and arrived at a truly maestro-like voice. She relished every detail of a visual composition, and managed to fire up audiences with her own pleasure in the material. Her eye was drawn to that which had been overlooked, to the oddity on the margins, to the minor, seemingly innocuous item that became like a riddle or a clue to an entirely different way of seeing. She made it all seem effortless, even though this was hardly the case.
Behind every lecture was rigorous preparation, countless hours of reading and research, and the anxiety, stress and burden of deadlines. I marvelled that she could feel ready for a class or a lecture by preparing only a Powerpoint presentation, without an accompanying written text of any sort. This was because, for Kavi, narrative spun out so easily from a visual object that a sequence of images on their own could provide the structure and logic of an argument.
A brilliant storyteller, she also immersed herself in the myths and legends that humanity has historically attached to artworks. Thus, in her writings and lectures, the dry stuff of what art historians call “formal analysis” was enlivened by tales of dragons being slain, the thrilling details of a sensational hunt, and the drama of love in all its manifestations, especially broken hearts or scandalous affairs.
She relished these stories, recounted them with mischief and pleasure, even as her own narrative arrived, rigorously and somehow reliably, at the talent and ingenuity of the artists themselves. Kavi sought a certain emotional register in her work, and she wanted others to be as moved and inspired by art as she was. She strove for a language that matched the beauty of the object. In her work, as in her life, she always prioritised beauty and love.
Kavi’s writing contained not an ounce of jargon or theory-speak. Instead, her texts are punctuated by penetrating questions, always presented in an accessible way. Some essays contain, literally, dozens of questions like these: What should we make of the dual world conjured up by painter X?; Why, when he had painted such a triumph, would artist Y hang back so modestly in the composition?; Why did the exhibition garner such controversy?, and What can we learn from these flashpoints of conflict and misunderstanding?
Such questions worked rhetorically in her texts to signal a shift in direction, to lead her readers through the next portal of issues, to inspire curiosity and harness wonder. But they were also a sign of her inquisitive mind, and spoke to her thought practice itself as a continual process of critical interrogation. She became, quite organically, an advocate for the vocation of art history, its methods and unique contributions at a time when its subject matter – especially the artistic production of India’s Mughal past – is being subjected to increasing hostility and erasure.
It is well known that she also became an institutional fighter during her tenure as Dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, stepping up to challenge the government-appointed administration’s malpractices in a defiant and principled manner. The way she modelled all of this for her students – thinking and acting robustly and ethically – meant that she was adored as a teacher both inside and outside the classroom. The magnitude of the loss that her students have expressed in the wake of her death has been heart-breaking.
Anyone who has been to the home where Kavi lived with her husband, Arunava Sen, and Aditya, knows that it is located on an intersection at the bustling entrance of a South Delhi colony. That she lived every day in a dynamic, relational and intersectional way is more than just a metaphor. I have an image of Kavi continually opening the gates of her home at this (often hectic) traffic junction, to all manner of family, friends, colleagues, students, children, visiting scholars, curators, artists, and pets on any given day. She extended herself equally to each and every one of us, and our worlds were enriched by her stunning life-force.
Like so many, I loved this beautiful woman, and am still shattered by the immensity of her loss. But she has left us with a giant gift – in the form of her essays, books, exhibition catalogues, published and unpublished videos and lectures, and the huge community of students and colleagues whose lives she transformed – that will continue to counter the pain of her passing.
Thank you, Kavi. I miss you, dear friend. Your life was ruthlessly cut short by cancer, but the gift of having worked and played with you will forever continue to energize my own.
Turning art history into visual studies
In 2000, Kavita Singh joined Shukhla Sawant and I as part of the founding team which started work towards establishing the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. With Kavita’s enthusiastic support in setting up a curriculum that would change older approaches to the study of Indian visual arts, we went beyond the obsolete conceptions of the discipline of art history and expanded our horizons to “Visual Studies”.
This then took the scope of art studies from mere chronological and stylistic evolution of art forms into deeper explorations of visual cross-currents, social and political agencies, as well as the ideas around collective tradition versus individual expression. It was under this rubric that we thought out new courses on Indian art and architecture, Indian popular visual culture, photography, cinema and performance studies within the framework of new theoretical developments. Kavita’s role in making the School unique and contemporary was fundamental.
Her passing at the peak of her brilliant career has caused a deep loss to the already shrinking space of meaningful studies on Indian art, and has left a vacuum which cannot be easily filled.
I will always miss her friendship and affection.
Caring for an institution and its people
Parul Dave Mukherji
My nickname for Kavita was “Pun-jabi Kavita” for her irrepressible wit and humour. Whether in a classroom, faculty meeting or a conference, she had this large, dynamic presence that filled the room.
My association with her goes back to our Baroda days in the mid-1980s, when we were both studying at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University. Being her senior by a couple of years, I used to pass on my notes and handwritten assignments to her, sure that she would give up on my awful handwriting and throw them into a dustbin.
I was first introduced to Kavita through her classmate, YS. Alone, at the wedding reception of a common friend in Baroda. Throughout our first conversation, she kept humming a classical tune in an undertone, which would get louder in between, making me wonder who this weirdo was. Later on, while living in the same hostel, we grew closer through our common interests in cooking and Western classical music.
Years later, we reconnected when Kavita persuaded me to leave MSU (where I had been teaching for almost a decade and a half) for Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she was part of the core team setting up the new School of Arts and Aesthetics. When I was still undecided, she burst out impatiently: “How can you refuse this top post falling in your lap!” Kavita, the master persuader, soon won.
While working with her in JNU, I discovered another side of hers – that of a dedicated institution builder. Applying the same standards for herself as for the students, she brought rigour into the curriculum, much of which she designed herself. At times, I did not agree with her on the way she took students to task after their presentation, wondering how anyone would recover from her onslaught. But gradually, I realised this clever strategy worked well in the long run as a sifting mechanism of figuring out the most committed students.
Those who remained with Kavita went a long way to become scholars in their own right, with some even working with her as intellectual collaborators – an extraordinary feat and the best reward for any teacher.
Her intellectual brilliance is much in the news at the moment. Many are getting to know of her numerous hidden talents in music and singing. But there are still other less-known facets which people may not have heard of. For instance, while stoically dealing with her own cancer treatment, Kavita also came to learn about my cook’s terminal cancer. Not a day passed when she did not inquire about his health, sharing with me tips about how he ought to build up his stamina to battle this dreadful disease.
It is from our Computer Assistant that I also recently learnt about how “Madam” took care of his two sons’ school fees, when he was going through the hardship brought on by the Covid pandemic. Behind all that brilliance and cerebral cleverness lay a humane Kavita, who knew not only how to laugh heartily and live in the moment, but also deeply cared for those who came under her emotional radar.
She who could make sense of hairballs in museums
In an essay titled “Material Fantasy” (2009), Kavita Singh offered an overview of the history of museums in India in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Professor Singh – or “K Singh” to me, in the many years that she taught me and supervised my research – was a well-regarded historian of art and art institutions, and a much-loved teacher. In the essay mentioned above, she elaborated on how many colonial-era museums came under the control of the British government, and described them as “foundlings upon it for its [ie the colonial government’s] care”.
With this metaphor, she overturned the long-held understanding of museums as a part of the imperial archive and its overwhelming power. Instead, she showed the reader that far from seeding museums, the history of these institutions in India underscored the colonial government’s reluctant custodianship of them. I have found myself turning to her “foundlings” formulation and citing it repeatedly – for its economy and acuity.
This essay engaged with, and playfully yet firmly skipped away from the Cohnian understanding of the “museological” modality. It pushed open the question that if all of India was being collected, what exactly went into these museums? In addition to the well-known categories of objects, like sculptures, antiquities, economic products and ethnographic materials, Singh also mentioned “hair balls from the stomach of a goat, or the skull of a thug” jostling for space in the museum. That is how the “encyclopaedic” could collapse into the “hotchpotch”.
She knew how to take granularity and texture, as well as the little detail seriously, and better still, to effectively and eloquently demonstrate how it mattered within the big picture. Ever suspicious of binaries and tidy narratives, she took on leading narratives and prised them open elegantly. And she did so with sharp analysis and palpable enthusiasm for sharing her scholarship. This came from a place of great love for, and conviction in the possibilities of art history’s role in illumining the nature of human history.
K Singh as a teacher and doctoral supervisor did the same for her students and research scholars – allowing us to take on seemingly small details, unlikely places and inchoate formulations. Then, through long conversations peppered with references, ideas and on-the-spot lessons, a patient reading and re-reading of drafts, and other kinds of support, she helped many a small voice emerge as critical observation. She knew it takes depth and breadth of scholarship as well as imagination to lift a detail into something that means much more than its own absurdity.
She demanded of her students both scholarly rigour and the ability to weave a narrative that could convey to the reader/listener how the parts fit (or sometimes do not fit) together. So, one could not talk about “hairballs from the stomach of a goat” unless one could use it to highlight something about the nature of museum-making in colonial India.
Rather than understanding museums as an inert repository for collections, or fetishising the very existence of these institutions, Singh was committed to situating them in the here and now, and in the longue duree, within big and small nations, and in the contexts in which they displayed and stored objects. Most importantly, she was invested in explaining how and why museums mattered.
As we reflect on this moment of grief, having lost her all too soon, what is worth remembering is the equal acuity with which Singh engaged with research scholars and students, sprinkling generous amounts of care, humour and sensitivity in her interactions and guidance.
With K Singh gone, I am poorer in ways that I cannot fully fathom yet; this is a feeling shared by so many. What I know, however, is that her mentorship produced an enchantment towards the discipline of art history in me and several others, as only she could have done, even as she actively reconfigured the discipline.
These tributes were first published on criticalcollective.in on August 7, 2023.