In Memoriam: Catherine Blanchard Asher (1946-2023)

Cynthia Talbot Discussion

In Memoriam: Catherine Blanchard Asher (1946 – 2023)

Catherine B. Asher, Professor Emerita of Art History at the University of Minneapolis, passed away on April 14, 2023. She was best known for her work with Mughal architectural traditions, as exemplified in her volume in the New Cambridge History of India series entitled Architecture of Mughal India (1992). Yet her earliest research focused on the understudied artistic patronage of Sher Shah Sur, the mid sixteenth-century warlord who ousted Mughal emperor Humayun from power. This pioneering dissertation was completed in 1984, a time when scrutiny of Indo-Islamic material beyond the Mughals was negligible. It was characteristic of Cathy’s curious and wide-ranging intellect. Later in her career, Cathy again turned her attention to pre-Mughal architecture in her recent book, Delhi’s Qutb Complex: The Minar, Mosque and Mehrauli (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2017). Whether writing about the Mughals or others, her research was long engaged in pushing the study of architectural forms in India beyond purported chronological, regional, and religious divides. In particular, Cathy’s meticulous inquiry into the nature of cultural exchanges and developments repeatedly undermined binaries that have been frequently invoked by nationalist claims of purity. She repeatedly extended her scholarly gaze beyond typical boundaries by, for example, examining built environments created by patrons other than the Indo-Islamic elite, especially those sponsored by Mughal-era Jains and Rajputs. Pursuing a complex understanding of South Asian visual traditions, even purportedly well-studied ones such as the Mughals, defined the whole of her scholarly career in multiple ways.

A hallmark of Cathy Asher’s scholarship was an emphasis on the importance of time-consuming field work, a factor that is not always fully recognized as constituting scholarship. One testament to her commitment is the archives that she helped develop at Centre for Art and Archaeology of the American Institute of Indian Studies in Gurgaon, India. It now houses many plans and photographs reflecting her careful analyses at numerous sites that had been given scant previous attention as well as the nuanced details that she added to better studied sites. Her wide-ranging studies, which appeared in a remarkable array of publications, were based on rigorous research not only within the subcontinent but elsewhere as well. Her many research trips outside of India took her to other places of Islamic activity, which were not limited to the Middle East but extended from Africa to China. Indeed, Cathy Asher pursued a global understanding of relevant cultural forces well before it was widely recognized as an important concern.

Cathy’s interests in art and architecture went far beyond formalist issues and probed the society and culture within which objects and monuments were produced.  She often addressed questions about matters like political patronage and the changing meanings of monuments, as can be seen in the essays resulting from a conference that she co-organized with the historian Thomas R. Metcalf (Perceptions of South Asia’s Visual Past, New Delhi: American Institute of India and Oxford & IBH Pub. Co., 1994). Especially notable are Cathy’s essay-length studies of Raja Man Singh, the Kachwaha lord who was the Mughal emperor Akbar’s most trusted Rajput ally. Other works testify to her serious interest in the nuance of meaning (e.g., “A Ray from the Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the Divine,” in The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience, ed. Matthew Kapstein, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, 161-194). Her interdisciplinary inclinations are demonstrated in India before Europe, a survey of South Asian history from 1200 to 1750 co-authored with historian Cynthia Talbot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 and 2022) that additionally attests to the geographic and temporal breadth of Cathy’s knowledge.

An active member of professional organizations and generous mentor of graduate students and young scholars, Cathy’s scholarly career is a wonderful example of the myriad benefits that result from not only gathering material but also from sharing knowledge and experience. Efforts are underway to make her many publications, often in edited volumes, more widely available, and also to create opportunities for Cathy’s colleagues to reflect on issues relating to defining the “Islamic,” which she saw as so dangerous as a potential category of exclusion. “New Policies, Changed Attitudes: Temple Construction under the Mughals,” an article that Cathy was working on up to the day before her death, will be published later this year in the journal Muqarnas. A memorial service is planned for late September at the University of Minnesota; Cathy’s children have asked that donations in her honor be made to the American Institute of Indian Studies.

By Janice Leoshko & Cynthia Talbot, University of Texas at Austin

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Cathy was a meticulous scholar, as well as a kind and generous mentor I will always be grateful to her.
Sylvia Shorto