Role of India in the Dynamics of Ancient Globalizations is Crucial: Dr Serena Autiero

Dr Serena Autiero, an Italian researcher, has a deep interest in ancient globalisation, a subject that may at first thought seem to be a paradox. She has researched the archaeology of globalisation, transcultural theories, ancient trade, Indian Ocean Trade, Silk Roads, Indo-Roman Trade, Hellenism in the East.

Dr Autiero says the study of the Ocean routes, “will enhance our knowledge of international interactions in antiquity. From a methodological point of view this research provides an interpretative model for early globalizations based on multidisciplinarity." She says that we have to handle "historical, literary, epigraphical, numismatic, archaeological and art-historical data" as an ocean "is a continent in its own right, with fluid borders and open frontiers.”

In this interview with CSP, Dr Autiero talks about her interest in Indian art, culture and archeology, not to mention Puppetry. Her latest forthcoming paper on tholu bommalata will be soon published in Italian for the Museo Pasqualino of Palermo (Sicily)

Above: Less than a century ago archaeologists found a beautiful Indian ivory statuette depicting a voluptuous lady at Pompeii, half a hour from where Dr Serena Autiero was born.

What does your research on global archeological findings tell about how Indian culture spread centuries ago? Do archaeological findings in Cambodia and Afghanistan and other countries reveal a buried history of exchange? 

We commonly think at globalization as a very recent phenomenon limited to the last 50 years or so, while archaeology reveals a very long history of transregional exchanges with characteristics that can be labelled as globalization. Globalization is not only the movement of goods from one place to another, but it implies a cultural transformation that is visible in the archaeological record. The role of India in the dynamics of ancient globalizations is crucial, the reason is apparent if we look at a map! We know that one of the major areas of exchange in antiquity was the Indian Ocean and India lies exactly in the middle of it, therefore it was a necessary divide at a time when it was impossible for example to travel one long journey from Egypt to China. As for Indian archaeological findings abroad, allow me to cite an object that is very dear to me since it has been found very close to home: in the city of Pompeii (less than half hour from where I was born), the famous Roman city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 AD, almost one century ago the archaeologists found a beautiful Indian ivory statuette depicting a voluptuous lady. This unique find tells a long story of globalization from two millennia ago.

Please tell us more about Vidyā - Arti e Culture dell'Asia. What was the idea behind researching Asian art in Italy?

In 2011 together with a group of like-minded friends – all women and all specialized in diverse aspects of Asian cultures – I founded Vidyā - Arti e Culture dell'Asia, a cultural association aimed at the study and dissemination of Asian culture in Italy. We organized several public outreach events, courses of arts, archaeology, languages and cultures, and we established fruitful cooperation with Italian museums specialized in Asian arts developing projects and taking care of educational activities for a wide audience. Vidyā - Arti e Culture dell'Asia has been for us a precious instrument to give back to the society what we learned in our studies, our aim was to create bridges between Italy and Asia, in order to encourage mutual understanding and favor the development of a cosmopolitan citizenship. We also carried many initiatives aimed at the promotion of intercultural dialogue in areas with strong migrant communities. After I moved abroad and also my colleagues took different career paths, Vidyā - Arti e Culture dell'Asia is not a working cultural association anymore, but it still exists as a Facebook community preserving its role in the promotion and dissemination of Asian arts and cultures.


I am sure that a better knowledge of Indian art and heritage around the world – at an academic as well as at a popular level – would heavily contribute to improve the mutual cultural understanding and weaken xenophobia and racist attitudes - Dr Serena Autiero

Have you researched Indian puppetry for long?  Do you think that at a time when puppetry is declining  knowing more about this art form can help kn its revival?

It’s actually difficult to trace the origins and connections of the several puppetry traditions of the world; however, there are some obvious connections especially if we look at the rich literary tradition you mention. The utmost example of puppetry connected to Indian tradition is the wayang tradition of Indonesia, whose stories are indeed based on Indian sacred texts, in particular to the Ramayana and in part on the Mahabharata. The deep connections between South Asia and Southeast Asia are very well-known, and a rich pattern of exchange developed since ancient times, one of the most visible products of this long-lasting interconnections is the Southeast Asian puppetry tradition in which genuinely local elements coexist with a purely Indian narrative tradition. It very peculiar to notice how the Indonesian tradition is much better known and preserved than Indian puppetry, despite the common origin.

India has several puppetry traditions. Which appeals to you most?

I have a soft spot for tholu bommalata since it was my first love and it’s the tradition I devoted my studies to. Besides that, in general I like shadow puppetry especially because I find amazing the talent of puppeteers bringing to life such bi-dimensional puppets.

There is very little research in the history of Indian art. Do you think its an important subject to study in universities of Art, given the huge corpus of work and contributions of India in the field of art?

In general, I believe that the history of art has been taught so far in a very wrong way; indeed this subject is extremely Eurocentric and offers an approach that nowadays appears as blatantly colonial. In the last years, attempts have been made at introducing non-European art histories in the picture, with courses called World Art History popping out around the world, especially in the English-speaking academic world, offering a more inclusive approach. I am sure that a better knowledge of Indian art and heritage around the world – at an academic as well as at a popular level – would heavily contribute to improve the mutual cultural understanding and weaken xenophobia and racist attitudes.

 Have you been to India?  What do you like most about it?

Yes, I travelled to India several times, and I can’t wait to go visit again. Obviously I like to visit historical sites and temples, but I also love natural areas and of course Indian food!