Sugata Ray is assistant professor of South Asian art and architecture in the History of Art Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Trained in both history (Presidency College; Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta) and art history (Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda; University of Minnesota), Ray’s current research project focuses on an ecological art history in early modern and colonial South Asia.
Taking the aesthetics of seeing the natural environment as a locus of inquiry, his current book project, Geoaesthetics in the Little Ice Age: Sensorium, Sacrament, and Artistic Cultures in Braj, India, ca. 1550–1850, examines the interrelationship between matter and (nonhuman and human) life in shaping creative practices and aesthetic philosophies during the Little Ice Age (1550–1850), a geological epoch marked by droughts and famines of unprecedented intensity across the world. The Hindu pilgrimage center of Braj, the primary site of Krishna worship in India where a place-oriented theology based on venerating nature found articulation in the sixteenth century, serves as the project’s conceptual home. Examining architecture, paintings, temple jewelry, and sacramental textiles, alongside theological texts, hymns, and poetry, the book argues that post sixteenth-century liturgical practices in Braj constellated transregional Islamic visualities, European botany, eleventh-century Indic theories of performativity, and a new aesthetic consciousness of the natural environment in a time of massive ecological transformations. Each chapter of the book – Water, Earth, Forest, Ether – situates new artistic practices and theological formations within a multi-sensorial world of talismans, mineralogy, horticulture, ritualized vegetarianism, and the agentive nature of the environment. Publications from this research project have appeared in journals such as South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies and volumes on critical eco art histories.
As an extension of his interest in the aesthetics of environmental thinking, Ray has coedited Water Histories of South Asia: The Materiality of Liquescence (forthcoming, 2018), a trans-disciplinary volume on the relationship between global water systems and the phenomenology of spatial cultures (with Venugopal Maddipati, Ambedkar University, Delhi). The book emerges from an international conference organized at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi in 2014. Ray has co-organzied a second conference on the intersections between ecological art and a global art history, envisaged in a historical and transcultural perspective from the earliest known human interaction with the environment to the present day, at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz - Max-Planck-Institut. The conference is part of a larger collaborative research project and co-edited book project, Ecologies, Aesthetics, and Histories of Art, with Hannah Baader and Gerhard Wolf, Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence.
Sugata Ray’s second research thematic centers on a postcolonial reading of aesthetic taxonomies and knowledge systems that have shaped the formation of art history and collecting practices in the early modern and colonial period, and leads to a new book project provisionally titled Arranging Hindostan: The Contingency of Knowledge at the Margins of the Early Modern. He has recently organized an international conference on the theme at UC Berkeley. His publications from this project have appeared in journals such as Art History and The Art Bulletin, among other venues. Researched during Ray's tenure as the 2013 Scholar-in-Residence at Shangri La, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, a recent essay from this project on the relationship between exhibition cultures and the making of an Islamic art history was awarded the Historians of Islamic Art Association’s 2014 Margaret B. Ševčenko Prize for the best essay written on any aspect of Islamic visual culture worldwide. Other publications have focused on the politics of "inauthenticity” in global art history (James Elkins, ed., Is Art History Global? 2006) and postcolonial theory as aesthetic praxis (The Encyclopedia of Empire, 2016), among other themes.
Ray’s research has been supported by grants and fellowships from the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Social Science Research Council, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, the Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Berlin, the Forum Transregionale Studien, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and, more recently, the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the Hellman Fellows Fund, University of California, Berkeley. In the past, Sugata Ray has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Michigan.
affiliate faculty: Designated Emphasis in Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, Institute for South Asia Studies