Lisa Owen, professor of art history, has received a Fulbright-Nehru Research Award to conduct fieldwork on medieval rock-cut temples in India.
The Fulbright-Nehru award is a highly competitive grant open to all disciplines in the study of India, and for the 2013-14 academic year, approximately 25 grants were awarded strictly for research. Owen, a faculty member with the College of Visual Arts and Design, received one of five serial grants.
"I am thrilled that this project has received funding from Fulbright," Owen says. "India's rock-cut monuments are important sources for reconstructing ancient and medieval worship practices for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. My work examines monuments across these three religious traditions in order to better understand how these communities shaped their devotional worlds."
Owen will use her award to conduct research for her second book, Rocks, Caves and Divinity: Creating Places of Worship in Medieval Southern India. The book examines medieval temples carved into natural rock, which are typically excluded from larger studies of India's temple architecture. Owen's project will focus on both cave temples as well as less traditional forms of rock-cut architecture. She plans to examine and photo document India's understudied "rock-reliefs," which are natural rock formations carved with images of deities across their expansive surfaces.
There are several questions raised by these structures, Owen says, including how they differ or complement other worship spaces and how they function. Owen plans to address these questions in her fieldwork as well as consider ways to understand rock-reliefs in light of more traditional forms of rock-cut architecture.
"As these monuments are preserved intact within the mountain or rock formation, we can ask questions that relate to their actual use and historical context," Owen says. "This focus differs from the types of questions that might be generated from a study of religious and/or philosophical texts. In many ways, India's rock-cut monuments provide a glimpse into the past and allow us to celebrate the richness of artistic and devotional practices during the ancient and medieval periods. And, through the study of the past, we can make connections with similar types of activities that occur on the subcontinent today."
Owen says she has always been interested in the rock-cut medium and how artists transformed mountains into places of worship.
"For some cave temples, it is easy to see how certain architectural features are carved to replicate those found in structural buildings. For example, you can see the inclusion of pillars, eaves and porches in some of India's cave temples," she says. "Significantly, the artists who created these caves did not need to be concerned with the monument's structural integrity, so vast interior spaces could also be carved with large sculptural programs. In the end, the process of rock-cut architecture is more sculptural than architectural, and so I enjoy seeing the many ways that sacred space and notions of the divine can be articulated in this medium."
Owen is the most recent College of Visual Arts and Design faculty member to receive a Fulbright award. UNT art history professors who have previously received Fulbright awards for research and/or teaching include Nada Shabout and Jennifer Way.
About Lisa Owen
Owen's first book, Carving Devotion in the Jain Caves at Ellora (Leiden: Brill, 2012), is a detailed study of medieval Jain art and devotional practice at the rock-cut site of Ellora in Maharashtra, India. Ellora has more than 36 caves that were created for Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist worship from the mid-sixth through 13th centuries.
She has also published work in peer-reviewed journals such as:
- Artibus Asiae
- International Journal of Jaina Studies
- Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies
Owen has contributed essays in distinguished Indian publications, including Marg and Kalā: The Journal of Indian Art History Congress.
She has participated in a number of conferences and lectures around the world, including at:
- The India International Centre in Delhi
- The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Oxford University
- The University of London
- The University of Pennsylvania
- The University of Toronto
She is on the Board of Directors for the American Council for Southern Asian Art, a nonprofit dedicated to the encouragement and advancement of the art of South and Southeast Asia. She is co-chair of the Jain Studies Consultation Group housed within the American Academy of Religion, the largest academic society for religious studies in North America.
Margarita Venegas with UNT News Service can be reached at Margarita.Venegas@unt.edu.