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Trailblazing a New Discipline

May 16, 2017

Catherine Asher sitting in front of bookcases

Catherine Asher sitting in front of bookcases
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency

Professor Catherine Asher is one of the first scholars to study the Islamic influence on South Asian art and architecture.

As a college student studying art history, Asher was confident that she wanted to pursue a PhD in the history of Indian art. She decided to focus her studies on Islamic sources—as opposed to the Sanskrit-based languages on which her husband (Professor Emeritus Rick Asher) focused his research. Although the choice may have been an arbitrary one, it has given her the opportunity to help create a new discipline that influences the the way the world views the region.

When she entered graduate school in the 1970s, few art historians were paying attention to Islamic influences on Indian art and architecture. The topic “wasn’t really on the map,” Asher says, “so basically I’ve really helped to create a discipline—which has been very, very challenging and exciting.” Given that there is so much potential for research in Islamic material, Asher has been one of the ground-breaking pioneers paving the path for others.

Deconstructing False Notions

Asher’s work confronts inaccurate portrayals of northern Indian history. She is most interested in the “political implications of how things happen.” Many different religious traditions have swept the region in different eras—Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, and colonial—each leaving traces on the culture. It is essential to “look at the evidence instead of just making assumptions.” One also has to recognize which version of history one is encountering. For instance, a British take on a situation during the colonial era should not be taken at face-value, as it is likely motivated to justify colonial rule.

Asher became interested in this line of thinking in 1992, when Hindu fundamentalists ripped down a 16th-century mosque, claiming it was the birthplace of a specific Hindu god. She tries to “deconstruct a notion that Hindus and Muslims have always been in conflict with each other,” noting that the conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are not an accurate reflection of the way things were since the introduction of Islam in India in the late 12th century. While there were minor periods of conflict, it was nothing like the way that Hindu nationalist historians present the material. She is, “really interested in trying to understand how people of different religious traditions come together in a common culture.”

Out in the Field

Asher has traveled extensively throughout northern India, and her work has also taken her to other parts of the world, from China and Malaysia to Turkey and the UK. “You can’t do what I do without going to the site,” she says, “you can’t do it from a book.” She warns that conducting research abroad requires you to “be prepared for a lot of either adventures or a lot of rigor. You’re not going to sit back in an air conditioned room and do your work—that’s not going to happen.”

She spends as much time as she can out in the field, whether she is visiting temples in Jaipur or locating historical mosques in Istanbul, Asher utilizes all the time she has in each location to conduct as much research as she can.

Persistence and Patience

Persistence and patience are key factors in Asher’s success. She has to balance her perpetual quest for new information with the need to step back periodically and analyze her findings.

She gives herself time fully to grasp an idea or connection she is investigating, noting that “it doesn’t just snap into view.” Conducting research does not mean that you will naturally understand the relationships between your findings; you have to gather the pieces and figure out ways that they relate to one another. “Whatever you’re doing is not going to happen instantly—you have to wait.”

As a woman frequently working in male-dominated Muslim societies, she is not always taken seriously as a researcher. Asher has proven that persistence is essential to thrive in this field, saying that “you have to work hard at it.”

To overcome the challenge of conducting research in a foreign country, she uses language to connect with others in the field. “It’s important to be able to speak to people in their own language,” she says. It has helped her find common ground with people she encounters while conducting her research. It also demonstrates her commitment to and genuine interest in the culture.

Asher speaks multiple South Asian, Indian-based languages, most significantly Persian, Hindi, and Urdu. Although Persian isn’t currently spoken in India, it was used during many of the time periods she researches and is therefore essential to her work. She also speaks French, German, and English, which are essential languages for conducting basic art historical research.

What’s Next

Asher retired this May. You might think that she eased into the transition, but you would be wrong. “No, I am not relaxing. I am trying to do the best job I possibly can teaching my last two classes,” she said. Just as on her research trips, she kept herself busy until the end, serving on multiple committees, working to meet publishing deadlines, and overseeing an independent study and a senior thesis, among other things. Asher ended her teaching career at Minnesota feeling good about the things she has accomplished.

Though officially retiring, Asher has numerous projects in the works that she did not put down in May. She currently has several articles and a book manuscript titled Delhi’s Qutb Complex: The Minaret, Mosque and Mehrauli in the publishing pipeline and has another book idea in the works. Besides these projects, Asher will continue to travel the world, both for her research and for pleasure. She will miss her students and colleagues, but she still plans to be around campus, doing a fair amount of writing and utilizing the libraries for her research.

Nor is this the end of her teaching career. Asher and her husband have been invited to be distinguished professors—a title granted to a small percentage of the top tenured faculty who are regarded as particularly important in their respective fields of study—at Carleton College next spring to teach a course called “Age of Empire: Mughals, Ottomans and Safavids.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.