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Chronicles of a Munshi

Characterising the Culture of the Mughal Era

Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandar Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo–Persian State Secretary by Rajeev Kinra, Delhi: Primus Books (by arrangement with University of California Press), 2016; pp xix+369, ₹1,250.

Writing Self, Writing Empire by Rajeev Kinra is a biography of Chandar Bhan Brahman, a 17th-century Mughal munshi. (He died in the 1660s, Brahman was his caste and also his takhallus or pen name.) Simultaneously, Writing Self, Writing Empire is also a history of the political and administrative culture of the Mughal empire during Shah Jahan’s reign (1627–58), and a contribution to the literary history of Persian in India. The book is part of a larger trend of writing Mughal and medieval Indo–Islamic history (also referred to as “early modern”) that has focused largely on cultural history of the Indo–Islamic milieu and shown how this was a “cosmopolitan” venture comparable to other similar “early modern” polities in West Asia and Europe (Breckenbridge et al 2002; Lefèvre et al 2015). Theoretically, “cosmopolitan-ism” has been expounded by academic figures based in the West such as Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah sees cosmopolitan-ism as “a rejection of the conventional view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities,” and as “regard[ing] all the peoples of the earth as so many branches of a single family, and the universe as a state” (Appiah 2006).1 However, cosmopolitan-ism does not convincingly explain why a humanbeing should feel belonging towards all of humanity more than towards any other community. In fact, is it possible to transcend cultural moorings and become “universal,” and would not any such transcendence not inaugurate yet another cultural formation that would with time become “particular”? The history of all ideologies, for example, Christianity,Islam, Marxism, Democracy or AryaSamaj, suggests so.

Methodologically, this research output is based on close philological engagement with a variety of original sources. Kinra applies the model of “cosmopolitan-ism” to the Mughal cultural world and Chandar Bhan Brahman is his test case. The book derives from a close reading of two texts from Chandar Bhan’s literary oeuvre, namely the Chahar Chaman (Four Gardens) and the Munsha’at-i Brahman (Epistles of Brahman). This is supplemented by data from a variety of contemporary and subsequent histories and commentaries that discuss Chandar Bhan’s life and career as a poet andadministrator.

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Updated On : 28th Sep, 2018

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