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Interview with Kishwar Rizvi, 2010

Kishwar Rizvi is Assistant Professor of Islamic Art History and Islamic Architecture at Yale University. She has recently completed a book: The Safavid Dynastic Shrine: History, religion and architecture in early modern Iran (London: British Institute for Persian Studies, I. B. Tauris, 2010). Dr Rizvi co-edited with Sandy Isenstadt another book, Modernism and the Middle East: Architecture and politics in the twentieth century (University of Washington Press, 2008). During her visit to Paris in December 2009, Annabelle Collinet (Louvre Museum), interviewed her about her work and projects.

Can you tell us first about your background and how did you come to work on this field?

I am an architect and art historian, with an interest in issues of religion, gender and nationalism in the art and architecture. My primary research areas are Iran and Pakistan, with current projects in the United Arab Emirates. My research moves between the early modern period of the ‘great’ empires of 16th and 17th Turkey, Iran, and India, to contemporary cultures of the modern Middle East and South Asia.

I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and came to the United States for Bachelors, Masters, and eventually PhD degrees. During these times, I practiced also as an artist and an architect. Although my recent scholarship has focused on Iran, I have been documenting and photographing architectural sites in Sindh, Pakistan, for many years. Of particular interest to me are shrines and funerary architecture, as found in Makli, Sehwan, and Bhit Shah.

What was your first fieldwork experience?

I have conducted fieldwork in Iran since 1994. My focus has been on Sufi and Shi`i shrines for the 16th and 17th centuries, that is, the Safavid period. My first project in Iran was the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, the ideologue of the Iranian revolution. I was interested in the manner in which historical form, such as the tradition shrine type, merged with modern concerns of nationalism and popular culture. I did research for my PhD dissertation on the shrine of the Sufi Shaykh, Safi al-din Ishaq Ardabili, the founder of the Safaviyya order.

What sort of research methodology did you develop at that time?

The primary focus of my research have been the shrines of Shaykh Safi al-din Ishaq in Ardabil (northwest Iran), Imam Ali Reza in Mashhad, and that of his sister, Fatima Masuma in Qum. In my methodology, I depend on close historical analysis of chronicles from the 16th and 17th centuries, illustrated manuscripts, literary texts, as well as European travelogues. I am particularly interested in asking how architecture, as a functional space, also performs as a symbolic site for the enactment of the rituals of piety and imperial ideology. Combining the formal with the phenomenal, one may reach a better understanding of the religious and cultural contexts of a period, in this case, Safavid Iran. I also study, as comparanda, religious and imperial representations in Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India.

As a native of Karachi, you have visited very often the Sufi shrines of Sindh in Southern Pakistan. What did you find particularly appealing about Sehwan Sharif?

I am particularly interested in shrines such as that of Sehwan, because of the access they allow for women. Such is not the case in other spaces, such as mosques, in most Muslim countries. Sehwan also holds a very special place for me on a personal, as well as professional, level. I have visited it since I was a child, and have always been fascinated by the dynamism of the site – as a place of both communal and religious activities. In fact, much of my academic research has been driven by questions first formed in Sehwan; for example, how does one study an architectural monument that is constantly changing and evolving, in form and meaning? What is the role of Sufism in contemporary Pakistani society, and how does the shrine institution augment that role? What are the particularities of Sehwan’s ‘ecstatic’ tradition of Sufism, and how do they affect the way in which the shrine is used and understood? How can we describe the phenomenal qualities of the space? What medium would best capture that dynamism – text, music, photography – and what can the architectural historian contribute to that understanding?

In sum your experience of Sehwan Sharif played an important role in your trajectory. Can you elaborate more about the relationships existing between gender and architecture at the mausoleum of La`l Shahbâz Qalandar? What were the major conclusions of your study at Sehwan?

The shrine of La`l Shahbâz Qalandar maintains what would be considered the ishrâqî tradition of Sufism and, as the rituals and ceremonial evinces, an ‘ecstatic’ mode. By that I mean that the weekly dhammâl in the courtyard (the beating of the ritual drums, qawwâlî, and dancing) creates a space that is phenomenal and also illusionary. In my research I was intrigued by how women’s bodies inhabit the shrine, and how their particular designation (for example, ‘young girl’, ‘prostitute’, ‘transvestite’ and so on) could be codified through architecture and ritual. One of the insights was that the shrine is gendered space, and yet the idea of gender becomes unstable through the complex social and spatial negotiations that take place in it. Indeed, the rituals and dance within ‘powerful’ spaces such as the courtyard and tomb enclosure alter and subvert the male/female dichotomy.

Since your childhood you visited Sehwan. What major changes did you notice in terms of urban architecture?

This is a difficult question, and one that my sociologist and urban historian colleagues can answer better. However, I did see that the shrine is much cleaner and under closer management. My first impression was that the institution has become more commercial and tourism has increased, but I suspect that has always been a factor for popular pilgrimage sites such as this.

How did your experience of Sehwan contributed to your understanding of other sites, ie the mausoleum of Khomeini and others?

There are multiple ways in which the experience at Sehwan continues to inform my research, both in the context of sixteenth-century shrines in Iran and contemporary religious architecture elsewhere in the Middle East and South Asia. It teaches us to think more deeply about spaces for women in Islamic society, the political and ideological power of religion, and, perhaps most interestingly, the phenomenological experience of architecture through rituals of devotion.

More on Kishwar Rizvi

“Image of Man, Vision of the Divine: Illustrated Assembly of Lovers manuscripts in 16th-century Iran,” lecture at the workshop, “Troubling Images: Some Cross-cultural reflections,” sponsored by the Religious Studies department at Yale University, May 2010.

“Sites of Pilgrimage and Objects of Devotion,” chapter on the great shrines at Ardabil, Qum and Mashhad, for Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran, edited by Sheila Canby, (London: British Museum

Press), publication accompanying exhibition at the British Museum, 2009.

“Locating Architecture, Gender and Ritual at the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz in Sehwan Sharif, Pakistan,” on the panel “Boundaries of Sacred Space: How “Public” and “Private” Come into Being,” at the biannual conference of the American Council for Southern Asian Art, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, lecture, March 2007.

“Religious Icon and National Symbol: The Tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran,” Muqarnas: Journal of Islamic Art and Architecture, vol. 20, 2003.