A date with history

Engaging talk

A date with history
With a deep fascination for both history and art, Navina Najat Haidar, curator of Islamic art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has been presenting exhibits that draw appreciation from far and beyond.
     
The packed house at NGMA came as no surprise when Navina was recently in the city to deliver a talk titled ‘Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy Perspectives from the Metropolitan Museum’s 2015 Exhibition’.

It sought to provide an overview of the Metropolitan Museum’s award-winning 2015 exhibition, curated by Navina, and perspectives into the Deccan through its artistic legacy.

She spoke to Anushree Agarwal about her inspiration, some of the interesting exhibitions she has curated and the challenges of being a curator.

Your inspiration to become a curator.
I didn’t particularly aim to be a curator. I just followed a pathway that led to a curatorial job. What I did aim for, however, is to be an art historian, which is a lifelong engagement and doesn’t depend on any professional affiliation. I believe it is important to take ownership of your mind and cultivate your interests to sustain you through all aspects of life. Especially, since curatorial jobs are few and far between.

Tell us about the ‘Sultans of Deccan India’ exhibition and what inspired you to come up with it.
During the late 15th to the 17th century, the Europeans set out to discover the world, their sights set above all, on India. Drawn to its heartland, the Deccan plateau, they encountered a world where other cultures had already met and been absorbed into India’s powerful embrace. This was the age of the Deccan sultans, mysterious kings whose courts flourished for nearly two centuries, before vanishing. The fragile yet superb traces of their art were the subject of this exhibition. I inherited the topic from a former senior colleague who had done some foundational work in the area. Once I started working in the field, I came to know other scholars and professionals who were active and we slowly became a team, both formally and
informally.
 
Some of the interesting exhibitions that you have curated till now.
I have worked on the reinstallation of the Islamic collections in a new wing at the Met which was a 10-year project. I have also worked on special exhibitions such as the Mughal period jewelled arts which is a fascinating area, curating exhibitions of two important royal collectors of this material from the Middle East. Other exhibition topics include ‘Figural Imagery in Islam’; ‘Pearls of the Parrot’; ‘The Khamsa of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi’ and ‘Rajput Painting from the Kronos collection’. I presently have a show up at the Met on three modern print masters – ‘Workshop and Legacy: Stanley William Hayter, Krishna Reddy, Zarina Hashmi’.
 
How do you research about your work?
Research is conducted through the close study of works of art, reading the literature on the subject and other related topics, and studying other museum collections. In addition, one has to work with languages, such as Persian or Braj ‘bhasha’. Interaction with fellow scholars is also valuable.
 
What are some of the challenges that you face as a curator?
Administrative duties always make less time for creative and research work. Most people find it a struggle to balance the two.

Your future projects…
I hope to do an exhibition on the Jahangir period. I am also working on a new concept for a museum – ‘Nature as Artist’. I even plan to do a focussed exhibition – ‘The Indian Diamond in European Fashion, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment’. The Golconda diamonds will keep me close to the Deccan, which I am glad about.
 
Your other interests…
Education, animal rights, cooking and painting.

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