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Poetics and Politics

Persian-Language Littérateurs of Late Mughal Delhi

Nikhil Govind ( is the head of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University, Manipal.

Persian Authorship and Canonicity in Late Mughal Delhi: Building an Ark by Prashant Keshavmurthy,Oxon: Routledge, 2016; pp 178,7,308 (hardcover).

Prashant Keshavmurthy’s Persian Authorship and Canonicity in Late Mughal Delhi: Building an Ark is a welcome addition to the growing understanding of the intellectual and literary history of the 18th century. The chief protagonist of the book, to whom three out of five chapters are devoted, is Abd al-Qadir Khan, pen-named “Bidil” (1644–1720). Bidil was a deeply inventive, enquiring, and versatile Persian-language poet who lived in Delhi, and thus wrote for both that immediate readership of politically beleaguered late Mughal India (with an eye and ear on other readers of the wider contemporary and historical Persian world), and also, like all writers, for us—the readers of the unknown future. The other two figures of the fourth and fifth chapters are in the lineage of Bidil, and very much in awe of his genius. The first is Siraj al-Din Ali Khan or “Arzu” (1687–1756), a direct student and philological defender of what was “new” in Bidil’s work, even if this defence was often in terms different from those of Bidil. The second figure is Brindaban Das “Khvushgu” (1667/78–1757), a poet and historian who was a student of both Bidil and Arzu, and who wove the divergent lessons of both these teachers, in order to compose a biographical dictionary of Persian poets. His distinctive accomplishment was to combine Bidil’s rhetoric of timelessness with Arzu’s historicism.

In this sense, Keshavmurthy works within a teleology. As the poets come closer to us in time, they seem to view the world in ways that are more familiar to us, that is, in terms of historicity. Bidil writes as if he is out of time, as if he is a contemporary of any golden age, past or future. This is not necessarily ahistorical (or the vanity of poetic genius, or that of the Sufi mystic), for what we may want to focus on is the careful rhetoric of timelessness that is deployed in such claims to ahistoricity. Timelessness is not something that can simply be claimed. Rather, it must be attained through certain effects, presuppositions, codes of the immediacy of visuality, and styles of self-fashioning.

Poet and Ascetic

The first chapter of Keshavmurthy’s book is an innovative and detailed reading of Bidil’s responses to a portrait that is being painted of him. The portrait fixes Bidil, the individuated texture of skin in the portrait denoting an astonishing likeness and concreteness to the historical Bidil. After keeping the painting for many years, Bidil one day dramatically tears up the portrait on discovering that its colours faded with his ill health and flared with his recovery. Here, Bidil’s aesthetic of timelessness had met its match. One could not deny how the painting was individuated to Bidil, and the extent to which its representation of skin matched his “historical skin.” Keshavmurthy derives a long genealogy of the idea of perception, and its representation in Sufi thought, tracing its origins in the writings of figures like Muhi al-Din “Arabi” (d 1240); Rumi’s accounts of painting contests between the Greek and Chinese painters; and a Persian medical encyclopaedia contemporaneous with Bidil. However, what is important is less the genealogy than the idea of Sufi mastery through ascetic practice. The pen which can fight scholasticism and djinns should also be able to fight ageing. The pen thus has to fight that last illusion—that there can be visual capture, or the conceit that an accurate portrait can indeed capture the essence of a person/poet/ascetic. By tearing up the portrait whose precision he deeply admired, Bidil’s gesture repeats the ancient Abrahamic trope of iconoclasm, restoring the essence of the human by breaking (as an act of asceticism and piety) what is considered concrete/finite/visual, in the name of a disincarnate divine.

The second chapter explores questions of voice and authority. Bidil was not only thought to be a great poet, but also a Sufi master. This complex question of poetic voice and authority relates diverse themes such as metre, ascetic practice, Islamic Neo-platonism, and the idea of “beauty [as] the human’s blinding inner perception of the emanation of the Many from the One” (p 63). The readings here tend to get a bit involved and obscure, but this is perhaps only fair, as both Bidil’s contemporaries as well as current scholars such as Nur al-Hasan Ansari have accused him of being extremely “convoluted, allegorical, argumentative … [and of] long-windedness and prolixity” (p 6). This idea is still the prevalent view of Bidil today. To rehabilitate Bidil then is inevitably difficult, and calls for a new aesthetic ecology. Undoubtedly, Bidil was experimenting with numerous new ideas, some of which were perhaps only possible and intelligible in northern India.

The third chapter explores Bidil’s use of a delicately-plotted tale cycle (which had old Gujarati and Avadhi iterations) in order to make a point about the Neoplatonic character of the Islamic kingship, which engaged Bidil and dominated Mughal India at the time. In that tradition, justice, like most of the esteemed kinds of thinking and doing, was aimed at imitating the perfect philosopher king, and thus rising with him to a state of beatitude. So the good King (Vikramaditya or Akbar) does not merely harmonise polities of different historical epochs, but is also able to reunite unjustly separated lovers. Justice needs the beloved, both as a worldly avatar, and in fulfilling an ecstatic metaphysical union of soul and body, man and god. Thus for Bidil, justice is inseparable from both creaturely love, as well as from metaphysical theology (and specifically in his case, theistic monism).

Transforming Rhetoric

The fourth chapter is centred on Arzu, a student of Bidil. Though he lacked the regnant poetic genius of Bidil, his achievement is no less singular. Despite his adoration of his master, it appears that his achievements took Persian intellectual interest in a diametrically opposite direction. Where Bidil had stayed true to the dominant, yet careful rhetoric of the “timeless,” Arzu began evaluating the world in ever more concrete, spatial (northern India), and temporal (18th century) terms. This may have had to do with similar trends toward historicity in Europe, although Keshavmurthy refrains from exploring this parallelism. Instead of viewing Persian as competing with Braj, where there can only emerge one winner, Arzu began to accept the fait accompli of multiple loci and points of comparison. There is a new sense of contemporaneity—the primary interlocutors become present-day poets rather than the classical canon, and obscurity is argued for as a new, intrinsic virtue that need not be derived from the classical tradition. This relativisation of aesthetics was a significant break from traditional modes of argumentation. Yet it must be remembered that there is nothing necessary about this historicity, and it may only be an accident of history that Bidil was an elder contemporary of Arzu.

The fifth and final chapter is a discussion of a childhood dream that the littérateur Brindaban Das “Khvushgu” had of Hafiz, a dream he had after much ascetic and literary labour. This type of earned dream is pre-eminently a form of rhetoric, and is also considered in the tradition of being “one forty-sixth of prophecy” (p 153). Keshavmurthy reads the dream (where Hafiz begins to teach Khvushgu, but is interrupted by Khvushgu’s awakening) in terms of genealogy, such as the 13th century text by Muhammad Awfi, The Piths of the Intellects (1221) and Saadi’s Gulistan (The Rose Garden) of the same period. Both Awfi and Saadi wrote in times of great stress, as theirs was the world of the Mongol invasion. Late Mughal Delhi formed an apposite moment for the recall of that earlier ruination—the violent interruption of culture by savagery, similar to the happy dream abruptly interrupted and torn by Khvushgu’s rude awakening.

Wealth of Analyses

The great gain of Keshavmurthy’s monograph is the attempt to go deep into the texts themselves, into their own internal world of motivations and self-imaginings. Much has been contributed by historians towards understanding this 18th century world, in terms of the minutiae of the politics of intellectual production within the various courts. In this regard, one recalls recent works by Rajeev Kinra, Nile Green, Audrey Truschke, and Allison Busch (on the rise of Braj). However, such accounts cannot be complete without an attempt to understand that world from a maximal internal richness of resource and imagination. It is particularly fitting for this book to have Bidil as the exemplar, for his was the poetry wealthiest in its fierce, assimilative intellectualism, as well as its integrative effort of metaphysics and aesthetic perception. Bidil’s was an oeuvre that genuinely expanded the semiotic range of the entirety of the Persian canon, taking the best of it still further. It is thus doubly sad, if not unsurprising, that this greatest of expansions was the last flicker before the long death of Persian in India. Or, will a new hermeneutics unveil precise conjunctions between that oeuvre, and that of the later intellectualist projects of Ghalib (in his Urdu as well as in his still under-studied Persian Divans) and others? Conjunctions that will prove that nothing poetic really dies? New scholarship will surely take up such challenges.

The use of terminology like “theosis,” “ekphrasis,” “apophasis” and so on remind one of David Shulman’s similar attempts at giving depth and robustness to Sanskrit texts. This approach, stressing a rigorous and expansive interpretive effort, is necessary to give sturdiness to the claims and limits of earlier attempts at pluralism (for instance, the encounters of Persian with Sanskrit, Braj, and Jaina intellectual traditions). Keshavmurthy’s approach—along with similarly sensitive literary scholars such as Paul Losensky, Thomas de Bruijn and Gregory Minissale (in the visual arts)—paves a path towards evaluating more critically and deeply the similarities and dissimilarities of the 18th century efforts at pluralism or secularism, with current constitutionally mandated ones. Such a path is not dependent on prefabricated ideas of “modern,” or “pre-modern,” but, rather, stresses the richness of each historical or intellectual moment in its fullest density, and thus only judges a comparison of historical moments by the number of insightful questions asked. It is important to engage with the full depth of other traditions before too easily claiming syncretism or tolerance, either in the past or in the present. If the past seems to have more impasses and insufficient bridges (the “ark” of the title), there is no reason to believe that the interpretive thrust of contemporary scholarship cannot remedy such an insufficiency, and give us new ways of making a deep and interpenetrative dialogue work. Lastly, for all that the book has to offer, it is a pity that the publisher should price it so expensively (although only a year old, the hardcover is priced at ₹7,308). Such a price is daunting and so, unfortunately, only a few readers in South Asia, its most culturally meaningful readership, may be able to afford it.



Updated On : 4th Dec, 2017


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