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In the 18th century, vast tracts of forested lands were reclaimed for human habitation in Braj, the pilgrimage center in north India where the divine Krishna is believed to have spent his youth. How did the theology of Krishna worship—one that visualized Braj as a kunja or the primeval bower where Krishna and Radha dally eternally—contend with such a sweeping alteration of the pilgrimage center’s precarious ecology? By way of addressing this question, this talk focuses on the emergence of enclosed gardens in Braj in a time of drastic deforestation. This new garden form, as Dr. Ray will show, allowed devotees to simulate Radha’s journey through the dense jasmine groves of liturgical poetry while creating an appearance of deep wilderness within an urban milieu. Represented in paintings and simulated in architecture, the gardens or kunjas of Braj then brings to the fore a vegetal aesthetics that performatively entangled philosophical, symbolic, and aesthetic perceptions of an imagined natural environment.
Sugata Ray is Associate Professor of South and Southeast Asian art and architecture in the History of Art Department and the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His research and writing focus on climate change and the visual arts from the 1500s onwards. Ray is the author of Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550–1850 (2019); Water Histories of South Asia: The Materiality of Liquescence (2019, co-edited with Venugopal Maddipati); and Ecologies, Aesthetics, and Histories of Art (forthcoming, co-edited with Gerhard Wolf and Hannah Baader).
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