The study of South Asian art has a long and distinguished history at Penn. W. Norman Brown, Penn’s first professor of Sanskrit, was also a scholar of India’s illustrated manuscripts and an advisor and consulting curator of Indian art for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He founded the first Department of South Asian Studies in the US at Penn in 1947. Among his appointments were Ernest Bender, who specialized in medieval Jainism and its associated literature and art, and Stella Kramrisch, one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished scholars of India’s art, whom he recruited from Calcutta. She also became Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she organized pivotal exhibitions over many years.
When he retired as W. Norman Brown Professor of South Asian Art in 2018, Michael W. Meister had taught at Penn for more than forty years and mentored graduate students who went on to leading positions in universities and museums across the country. Among his many publications on temple architecture, the morphology of meaning, and other aspects of the history of art and architecture of the Indian sub-continent is the landmark book Temples of the Indus (2010). He also served as Consulting Curator, Asian Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Faculty Curator of the South Asia Art Archive within the Penn Library's South Asia Image Collection.
Sonal Khullar teaches the art of South Asia from antiquity to the present with a focus on the period from the eighteenth century onward. Her research has addressed visual art’s entanglements with colonialism, nationalism, and Orientalism; problems of religion and secularity in South Asian art; and the history of museums and collections in the colony.
Penn has also had two distinguished proto-historic archaeologists of South Asia, George Dales and more recently Gregory Possehl. The History of Art Department continues to have close links with the Penn Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art. Students have interned in both museums and participated in gallery changes and organizing exhibitions. There have also been opportunities for students to work with faculty on site in South Asia.
In 1979, the University established the South Asian Studies collection's image archive—an American-based duplication of the American Institute of Indian Studies’ photographic archive at their Center for Art and Archaeology, Gurgaon, India—housed in Van Pelt library. The Gurgaon archive has been partially digitized for use by scholars around the world through Chicago’s Digital South Asia Library. The resources of these archives have augmented development of the American Institute of Indian Studies’ Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture project over a number of years, and assisted doctoral students in completion of PhD’s. The Penn files currently contain over 100,000 photographs. There are in addition substantial and sometimes unique study materials incorporated into the Fine Arts Library’s on-line Image Collection.
In addition to Prof. Khullar, Darielle Mason (Ph.D, Penn), Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is an active member of the Graduate Group. Her catalogue, Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal, received the College Art Association’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award in 2011. The wealth of faculty at Penn who support the study of South Asia’s visual legacy extend in many directions: South Asia Studies, Religious Studies, and even Landscape Architecture. From ancient to contemporary, the curriculum has accommodated a wide variety of doctoral projects. Students have received fellowship support from AIIS, AIPS, Fulbright-Hayes, SSRC, Asian Arts Council and other sources and now teach at institutions from Vancouver to Chapel Hill and New Haven; or are curators in museums in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York.
For a list of faculty and their teaching areas in South Asia Studies, see Penn’s South Asia Center’s faculty page.