Audrey Truschke, a former Caius Fund Research Fellow in History, is the latest winner of the prestigious John F. Richards Prize in South Asian History, awarded by the American Historical Association.
Audrey, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Rutgers University-Newark, was granted the honour for her 2016 book Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court. The book, described by prize judges as “original and deeply erudite”, draws on both Persian and Sanskrit sources to examine how the Persian-speaking Islamic elite of the Mughal empire patronised the Sanskrit traditions of their realm and brought its canon into the larger Persianate world. The prize citation states: “Truschke’s analysis delicately unravels the dynamic tensions as Hindu and Jain scholars navigated the Mughal court, and as diverse Mughal elites engaged Sanskrit textual production as a core component of imperial power.”
We caught up with Audrey, who spent the 2012-13 academic year at Caius, as she engages with praise and controversy for her latest work, Aurangzeb – a life of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir.
Culture of Encounters has won praise for its range of sources. What did that breadth lead you to conclude?
The book brings together two major areas of Indological research: Sanskrit literature culture and Mughal history. Each area is robust independently, but few scholars have the command of both Sanskrit and Persian required to bring the two together. In some ways, the core argument of the book is about empire and the role of literature therein. I eschew the assumption that empires can be defined exclusively by land, armies, and taxes. Instead, I pursue the question of what it meant for the Mughals to be Indian kings. I argue that by engaging with Sanskrit learning and texts, the Mughals explored and developed an aesthetic argument about their sovereignty.
Where does your book break new ground?
Culture of Encounters fits into a wider body of recent scholarship that focuses on cultural aspects of Mughal rule and places the Mughals in different interpretive frameworks. My book is largely unique, however, in arguing that Sanskrit was central to Mughal rule. I argue for a new archive of materials - written in Sanskrit - that are important to understanding a Persian-speaking empire. I also argue for a shift in how we think about what it meant to be a Mughal emperor.
How did your time at Caius influence your work?
I was at Caius for one year (Autumn 2012 - Summer 2013). I spent my time at the College largely revising Culture of Encounters for publication. I was able to complete the first draft of the manuscript while at Caius due to the lack of teaching requirements for the research fellowship. I am eternally grateful to Caius for offering me such a priceless opportunity to focus on my scholarship early in my career.
What impressions do you have of the College?
I have very fond memories of my time at Caius, especially of my colleagues and of dinners at High Table. I will never forget showing up to Caius and being told that I was going to wear a gown to dinner every night. I found life at Caius much to my liking, if rather different than how we do things in the United States academy. I suppose I had my own experience of cross-cultural encounters at the same time that I was writing Culture of Encounters.
How did you feel to receive the 2017 John F. Richards prize?
I am honoured. The prize was unexpected but very much welcomed.
How has your research been received more generally?
My work has been controversial, especially in India. My second book, Aurangzeb, is more controversial than Culture of Encounters. For a historian of the early modern period, it is a rare treat to be able to contribute to contemporary debates, if somewhat hazardous in the current political climate.
What is your latest work?
I am currently working on my third book project, an analysis of Sanskrit histories of Indo-Islamic incursions and rule, circa 1190-1720 CE. This project seeks to recover and theorise a tradition of written history in Sanskrit and explore Sanskrit-based ideas of the Islamic Other.