The Arts

Why It Is Necessary to Remember Catherine Asher

The scholar's works on art and architecture of Mughal India blended 'the insights of art history with those of sociocultural history.' Her work is invaluable and she will be fondly remembered.

Eminent art historian Catherine E.B. Asher, professor at the Department of Art History at the University of Minnesota, passed away at her residence in Minneapolis on April 14, 2023. Born in 1946, Asher was a stalwart in the field of South Asian art history. She devoted her life to researching and exploring South Asian art and architecture through her works. 

Cathy received her Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Minnesota in 1984 on ‘The Patronage of Sher Shah Sur: A Study of Form and Meaning in 16th Century Indo-Islamic Architecture’. She later went on to become an Assistant Professor and then Professor at the same university. She was married to Prof. Frederick M. Asher, who passed away in 2021. 

Asher authored and edited some major books, including Delhi’s Qutb Complex: The Minar, Mosque and Mehrauli, The Architecture of Mughal India, India Before Europe (co-authored with Cynthia Talbot), and Perceptions of South Asia’s Visual Past (co-edited with Thomas Metcalf).

She also published and contributed numerous articles to various publications. She was known for her work on the Mughals but also ventured into the territories of sub-imperial patronages, the Taj Mahal, water traditions in the South Asian landscape, the architecture of Lucknow and Islamic art and the politics of Indian nationalism, among various other themes. She was also the chair of the American Institute of Indian Studies, Center for Art and Archaeology for two terms.

Architecture of Mughal India (The New Cambridge History of India), Catherine B. Asher, CUP, 1992.

In her seminal work Architecture of Mughal India (The New Cambridge History of India), Asher shows that many features that are often associated with the Mughals had antecedents in the Delhi sultanate – state patronage of Hindu temples, the architectural use of organic imagery, use of red sandstone and white marble, the style of architecture. She studies architecture in a wider sense of its environment and historical information. In this book, she talks about how Akbar’s monuments served a range of purposes, such as vilifying state enemies, legitimising the dynasty by linking it with a particular line of Muslim shaikhs, etc. On the issue of temple destruction in premodern India, Asher argued that in the Mughal period, state-sponsored iconoclasm had more to do with a challenge to political authority than the emperor’s religious fanaticism. 

In her review of this book, Ebba Koch mentions, “The author’s most original contribution is, however, the information she provides on two largely unexplored topics: sub-imperial patronage, of both the emperors’ Muslim and Hindu subjects and architectural development under the later Mughals.”

In her article on the city of Jaipur (Jaipur, City of Tolerance and Progress), Asher argued that in many ways, ideologies behind Jaipur’s development continue the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s policy of sulh-i-kul. She also examined Jaipur’s architecture, built between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, and paintings held in the court’s royal collections. 

In his review of Perceptions of South Asia’s Visual Past, co-edited by Asher and Thomas R. Metcalf, Richard Eaton writes, “In successfully blending the insights of art history with those of sociocultural history, Asher has achieved a great deal. Hopefully, other scholars will follow her lead in reconnecting disciplines that have remained mutually isolated for far too long.”

Asher in her last book, ‘Delhi’s Qutb Complex: The Minar, Mosque and Mehrauli’ goes beyond Mehrauli and Delhi to look at the afterlife of the iconic tower that is the Qutb Minar. In this book also, she applied her method of looking at monuments in the context of their historical setting and environment, studying the architecture of the Ghurids in Afghanistan and then understanding the building created by them in Delhi. 

I met Asher virtually on Zoom in 2020, when we invited her to deliver a talk for Karwaan Heritage. The talk was about Delhi’s Qutub Complex. Apart from her being a much-accomplished art historian, she was a very humble and kind human being. She was always very welcoming and willing to help. I had the privilege of hosting her twice on our online platform and were connected via email. 

Her works on art and architecture of Mughal India introduced us to the world of art history when we were undergraduate students at Delhi University. She dedicated her life to studying and preserving the art and architecture of South Asia. Throughout her life, she made some remarkable and valuable contributions to scholarship on South Asian art and architecture. She was persistent and very devoted to her work.

When the Mughals are under attack in India, it is important to read and celebrate the works of Catherine Asher.  

Eshan Sharma considers himself a historian under training. He is the founder of one of India’s leading history collectives, Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration Initiative. He tweets @iameshansharma_.