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Sugata Ray’s book ‘Climate Change and the Art of Devotion’ explores the impacts of climate change

Sugata Ray 2023

What can 16th-century India teach us about 21st-century California? Sugata Ray’s book Climate Change and the Art of Devotion explores the impacts of climate change on art, architecture, and religion in northern India during the repeated monsoon failures of the 16th through 19th centuries.

Ray arrived at Berkeley in 2012, when California’s drought was reaching crisis proportions. He began to wonder how our perceptions of water and land change during times of environmental upheaval.

Reframing his dissertation research, he explored how water — as monsoons grew unpredictable — became more central in representations of Krishna, and how lush gardens and botanical motifs surrounded temples and palaces as deforestation became more acute. The resulting award-winning book was the first in the field of art history to study art and climate change in South Asia.

“It is only because of the Hellman funding that I could afford to produce a book that does justice to the artwork,” says Ray, noting that image rights and full-color printing can be prohibitively expensive for early-career faculty.

Ray’s scholarship elevates Indigenous and local practices that tie conserving the land to religious understandings of the environment. He offers the Lakota concept of mni wiconi (“water is life”) as an example that inspired his thinking. In his courses, he explores how John Muir’s notion of a pristine wilderness, for example, disregards Indigenous stewardship of places like Yosemite.

His teachings stick. Online reviews describe Ray as “a gem” who “opened new perspectives on ecology and art.”

Contact campaign@berkeley.edu to discuss empowering brilliant faculty by establishing a match to create a Hellman fellowship.

TAGS: Hellman funding

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