Mohit Manohar PhD ‘22

Mohit Manohar PhD ’22 is Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. An art historian, he wrote his thesis, “The City of Gods and Fortune: An Architectural and Urban History at Daulatabad, ca. 13th-15th centuries,” on the Indian city of Daulatabad. He will assume the position of assistant professor of art history at the University of Chicago in fall 2024.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to your research interests?

I’m from India and came to the United States for college, thinking, like many Indian students, that I would study the sciences. That quickly changed. In college I changed my major multiple times until I ended up with Art History, which excited me intellectually and emotionally in many different ways. I wrote my BA thesis on the Babri Masjid because I was fascinated by how a work of architecture could be at the center of so many political and religious debates, and I thought art history would have something to contribute to that debate.

After college I had an internship in Mumbai, and I took the opportunity to travel in the surrounding area. One of the places I visited was Ellora, the famed site of rock-cut temples. On the way to Ellora from the city of Aurangabad, my auto driver said, “Do you want to stop at this city called Daulatabad?” And I said, “Why not?” So we stopped at Daulatabad, and I just found the site so utterly fascinating. The city is built around a solitary hill that has been scraped vertically for some 50 to 60 meters—the landscaping is simply spectacular. You’re driving, this huge hill appears in your view, and it’s surrounded by multiple levels of medieval fortifications, and there are all these amazing buildings. But the wild thing is that while it was central to the history of medieval India—most famously, Muhammad bin Tughluq shifted his capital Delhi to Daulatabad in the 14th century—somehow not a lot is known about the city itself. For example, not a single structure in the city had been dated to the time of Tughluq. So there was clearly a lot more research to be done.

On one level, Daulatabad spoke to an interest that was sparked by researching the Babri controversy, which was examining Hindu-Muslim conflict vis-à-vis architecture. But the site offered much more: it was physically spectacular and little scholarly work had been done on it, so I had the opportunity to say something new. As I worked on my project, I realized that Daulatabad’s architecture could be analyzed to say something meaningful about medieval political discourse, the environment, and, somewhat unexpectedly, race in pre-modern South Asia. Daulatabad brought many of my burgeoning research interests together. So the short answer is that I stumbled upon my research.

What was your experience at Yale like?

Well, my then-advisor was denied tenure in my first year of graduate school. This was challenging for obvious reasons. At the same time, the loss of an advisor compelled me to become independent quite early, and I found help from people within and outside the university. That’s the nice thing about doing South Asian studies. Colleagues in the field are really helpful, and I got enough support that I felt I could write a dissertation and avoid serious errors. I got an advisor in year five, Subhashini Kaligotla, who helped me get the dissertation done and gave me really good advice for the job market.

I think it was a real tragedy that my would-be adviser was denied tenure. At the same time, the circumstances compelled me to be assertive in defending and talking about my project.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re currently working on?

At the moment I’m working on turning my dissertation into a book. To tell you a little bit about the dissertation itself, it was a very focused study of Daulatabad itself between the 13th and 15th centuries. It has five chapters that went chronologically through a series of buildings and talked about different issues around those monuments. For instance, the first chapter focused on environmental history, the second chapter on religious conflicts, the third chapter on political conflicts, and so on. The final chapter focused on one minar that was built by an enslaved African at a moment of what I argued was an intense racialized conflict in the Deccan between Africans and Indians on the one hand and Arab and Iranian immigrants on the other.

As I was writing my dissertation, it became very clear that I was also writing a lot about Delhi. Historical actors were frequently moving back and forth between Delhi and Daulatabad, and they were trying to construct Daulatabad in the image of Delhi. But Daulatabad’s physical structure is quite different from Delhi. So my book project, tentatively titled Refracted Cities: Delhi and Daulatabad in Late Medieval India, looks at these two cities together. My basic argument is that there’s all of this work done on Delhi, but people have not really looked at Daulatabad, and we therefore have an incomplete story of Delhi because Daulatabad was just so central to the authority of Delhi at the time. At the same time, you can’t really talk about Daulatabad without looking at Delhi. You have to tell this connected history together. And the best archive we have to do this is architecture, not text. If we look closely at architecture, we get a better answer about how people lived at the time.

I’m excited to work on the book because I think that when you’re writing your dissertation, you’re groping in the dark. You have the vaguest of clues of where you’re headed, and it’s not until you have the full thing that you actually realize what you were trying to get at. For me, it required writing those 350-or-so pages to have a clearer sense of where I was heading. I’m excited to get a second shot at being cogent.

And are you also working on any other projects?

Yes, I am gathering research for my second book project. There are a lot of hullabaloos about medieval temples that were destroyed and turned into mosques. But I keep encountering a parallel phenomenon where there are medieval mosques that were turned into temples at some point, not just in post-colonial India, but even earlier. During my fieldwork, when I’m planning to visit a mosque or some Islamic structure, I am sometimes surprised to get to the site and learn that the structure is today treated as a temple. Some of these changes evidently occurred before the current “saffron wave” sweeping through India. For example, the so-called Ukha Mandir in Bayana, which was one of the earliest mosques built in India, was converted to a temple sometime in the 19th century. We have these British reports talking about sites, describing a site as an Islamic structure, and then at the end they’ll have one sentence saying, “Today this structure functions as a temple.” In this second project, I’m trying to tell the longer history of these buildings. So much of architectural history focuses solely on the moment of the making of a building. What happens later really doesn’t get charted. I think it’s going to be interesting to get a sense of how you negotiate with an architectural space to practice your religion. My preliminary research indicates that in the colonial and pre-colonial periods, there was this much more mobile attitude towards how a structure could be used by different religious communities. That changes dramatically with this current muscular, fascist Hindu state, which wants to erect these megamall sorts of temples. If you look at the plans for the Ayodhya temple and mosque, you’ll see that the temple harkens back to a very particular moment in the northern style of temple architecture, while the mosque that’s coming up doesn’t even look like a mosque. As a student of mine here at UChicago put it, it’s almost as though the architects have given up hope that Muslims have any historical claim upon India.

What advice do you have for younger scholars who might be thinking of pursuing a PhD?

Two general principles. One: you must choose a project you actually care about. This is a labor of love. You’re basically with that project for the entirety of your PhD career, and then, should you get a tenure track job, for the next six or seven years after that. Choose a project you love. That love can often be incomprehensible. But if you feel like you have this gut feeling that you’re interested in it, just do it. Second: try to think about the project on your own terms as soon as you’re able. It’s very challenging as a junior scholar to avoid repeating what other scholars have said. And sometimes it may feel like you don’t have anything new to say.  But I think that once you develop the conviction that you do, and you’re able to say it, it really makes a big difference. So develop your voice as soon as you can. Having a publication helps you develop your voice because many good editors really do help junior scholars emerge from the shadow of the work they already know.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti

Mohit Manohar