Mass-producing the cosmos: visuality and divination from manuscript to lithograph in 19th-century South Asia

AVACGIS Guest Lecture Series with Nur Sobers-Khan

Wednesday, May 19, 2021 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM EDT
Zoom Virtual Event

Mass-producing the cosmos: visuality and divination from manuscript to lithograph in 19th-century South Asia

Scholarship on illustrated lithographs produced in 19th-century South Asia and their connection to the manuscript tradition is still in its infancy. While art historical research into illustrated lithographs in Qajar Iran has been firmly established by the work of Ulrich Marzolph, the images produced in lithographs in related genres in British India have yet to be studied in detail. Nur Sobers-Khan's paper explores the genealogy of Tilsimat-i Aja’ib (Talismans of Wonder) texts, a genre that features elements of cosmology and divination, in Urdu lithographs of the 19th and early 20th century in the British Library’s collections, examining the illustrative programs in these texts and positing a continuity with the Persian Aja’ib al-Makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) manuscript tradition. In addition to working toward establishing a basis for the empirical study of this genre of Urdu lithographs, her paper examines the social use of these texts beyond reading, such as practices of bibliomancy and divination, to create new audiences and spheres of meaning as mass-produced cosmological images were able to circulate more widely. Although cosmological imagery enjoyed a certain continuity from manuscript to lithography production, it was accompanied by a semiotic shift that imbued new meaning to images in the mass-produced and widely circulated lithographs. This shift complicates the question of the role that printing technologies played in the ‘disenchantment’ brought about by colonial modernity and the supposed epistemic rupture that cultures of Islamic knowledge production underwent as a result; if anything, lithograph production gave new life and circulation to forms of premodern knowledge that evaded reformist intellectual trends and the supposed disenchantment these trends are said to have brought about.

Nur Sobers-Khan is currently the director of the Aga Khan Documentation Center, a research centre and archive for the study of Islamic art, visual culture, architecture and urbanism that serves the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at MIT.  Previously, she was the Lead Curator for South Asian Collections at the British Library, London, where she was responsible for curating the South Asian printed books and manuscript collections, with a specific focus on the history of Islam in South Asia.  While working there she attempted to dismantle the structures of colonial violence embedded in the curation and exhibition of these collections, and failed at this.  She was also Principle Investigator of the AHRC-funded research and digitisation project Two Centuries of Indian Print (2016-2021), and her research emerging from this project pivots around two questions: the role of the dispersal and removal of cultural heritage artifacts from South Asia under British colonialism as a contributing factor in shaping the emergence of Islamic reformism in the second half of the 19th century, and the transition from manuscript to print in the same period and the creation of new genres and forms of reading through the circulation of lithographed texts on cosmology, dream interpretation and other divinatory literature. She curated the exhibition Qajar Women: Images of Women in 19th-century Iran, together with Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya, at the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar, which explored historical depictions of gender in the context of canonical constructions of Islamic art. Publications include a monograph based on her PhD research, entitled Slaves Without Shackles: Forced Labour and Manumission in the Galata Court Registers, 1560–1572, published by
Klaus Schwarz Verlagin 2014 (now by De Gruyter), and Qajar Women: Images of Women in 19th-century Iran (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2016), co-authored with Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya. Her reviews and articles have appeared in Oriens, Journal of Early Modern History, Critical Muslim, and Global Intellectual History. She has lectured at the University of Cambridge and St Mary's University College on the history of the Middle East, South Asia, the early modern Mediterranean and Indian Ocean world. She has also had the opportunity to teach as an associate professor at Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan, where she served as co-director of the new department of Comparative Liberal Studies in her first semester there and also had the opportunity to design and teach the undergraduate courses, “Dream Interpretation: A Decolonial History” and “Islamic Art and Visual Culture: From the Middle East to South Asia.”
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