Sona Datta is an art historian and museum curator, specialising in the visual culture of south Asia. She completed her BA in Art History at Kings College, Cambridge; her MA in South Asian studies at SOAS; and her PhD at Cardiff on temple architecture in medieval Tamil Nadu. Her doctoral thesis is to be published as a monograph by Niyogi Books.
Sona spent eight years at the British Museum where her exhibitions included the flagship Voices of Bengal season (2006), visited by more people of South Asian extraction than any project in the Museum's history. Sona also writes on modernism in Indian art and, as a curator, her acquisition of contemporary art from Pakistan helped redefine the British Museum's engagement with contemporary south Asia.
Sona was recently awarded an Art Fund prize to run a curatorial project at the National College of Arts in Lahore. She is also now developing a series with the BBC on Pakistan's rich cultural heritage. From 2014 she will take up a new role as Lead Curator for Indian & South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
Material Culture in the Early Pantiya Era, Tamil Nadu, 6th-11th Centuries CE
Abstract of PhD Thesis (completed 2011)
The Early Pantiya (Pandya) dynasty ruled the southernmost part of Tamil Nadu in the 6th-11th century CE. They were contemporaries of the extensively researched Cholas and, although known widely by reference, they have suffered comparative scholarly neglect due to an ostensible lack of material. This thesis seeks to redress in part that imbalance by assessing the material culture of this period.
A detailed and comprehensive exposition of temple architecture of the Early Pantiya era 6th-11th C is presented here based on extensive field research into dozens of sites (many of them previously incorrectly classified, neglected or even lost and forgotten) and analysis of temple inscriptions (many directly translated from the original medieval Tamil). This presentation has revealed the atypical nature of sponsorship in the region by merchant classes and local communities and the corresponding role that religious architecture came to play in local life. The conventional hierarchical dynastic classification of temple architecture is found to be convenient but limiting, leading to a reclassification of South Indian temple architecture, positioning the Pantiya in Tamil history and, by extension, giving a more accurate picture of their contemporaries.
The ancient Tamil land of the Pantiya was diverse, economically and culturally rich and had a vibrant tradition of patronizing the region's multiple religious groups. This thesis includes an analysis of the transition from the literary evidence of the earlier Cankam era to the material remains of the medieval period, which is investigated here. Crucially, this study examines the triangular relationship between the Pantiya kings and the physical and historical spaces of their kingdom.
Engaging in a deeper reading of local culture, that is, a site-specific temple analysis, reveals regional forces at work in temple morphology, producing a more meaningful reading of material culture and patronage in the Early Pantiya period. This reveals how the cultural ethos of the Pantiya region produced a distinct architectural idiom, which was used extensively and as far afield as the Chola kingdom to the west and the Muttaraiyar and Irrukuvel regions to the north of the Pantiya country. Thus a dynasty that was hitherto deemed to be parochial and inward looking is shown to be outward looking, expansive and highly influential.