Looking at Mughal(s)

Lately I have been thinking about narrativizing visual language of Mughal art. Which is a weird way of saying I want to talk about Mughal art telling stories. Which is even more of a weird way of saying I am beginning to see a future article in which I, a historian of text, looks.

Looking seems to be the motif of the summer, in retrospect.

In any event, gentle readers, I (@sepoy) tweeted a number of images which are helpfully storified here by CM Intern (to be disclosed soon) and CM Head Archivist (@salmaan_H). The article will most certainly look something like this.

XQs II: A Conversation with Kavita Datla

A regular series on CM, XQs (Ten Questions), is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies. The aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship – sepoy.

Kavita S. DatlaKavita S. Datla received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. She is currently Associate Professor at Mount Holyoke College’s History Department. Her book, The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India was published by University of Hawaii Press in 2013.

[Interview conducted by Sepoy, via email, July 12-15th, 2013]

1. Yours is a really invigorating work, which opens up new archives to discuss a host of important issues – translation, governmentality, secularism, colonialism. I want to start at a tangent, important as it is to your book, and ask you to discuss what particular relationship exists between language and community pre 1700 in India. Is there one? Or should we put this in the basket of “ruptures” caused by colonialism.

The Language of Secular Islam Hardcover. 248pp. Cloth  Price: $49.00 ISBN: 978-0-8248-3609-2  Published: January 2013
The Language of Secular Islam
Hardcover. 248pp.
Price: $49.00
ISBN: 978-0-8248-3609-2
Published: January 2013

No, I do think there is a relationship between language and region even prior to the colonial period. Clearly, poets would employ certain languages, and explicitly reference that usage, in order to make claims to specific places – something that had a very long history. But, I would add that what is striking to a twenty-first century reader of these earlier texts is the mobility of language – scripts, vocabulary, genres, and languages themselves – in comparison to the situation today. I’ve spoken with non-academic translators who, working in their native language, as they move back in time to earlier texts, are struck by the number of ‘foreign’ words they encounter. I think this has something to do with the fact that languages, before 1700, were associated with regions, amongst many other things. So, as I understand it, every region (though it might be associated with a particular language) would be home to several. This is because languages were also associated with courtly culture, with temple performance, with particular religious narratives or practices that were trans-regional, etc. I am thinking here of Indira Peterson’s work on the multilingual literary and performative traditions of Tanjavur, or Velcheru Narayana Rao’s work on the various shifting geographical sites at which Telugu literary production took place. And of course, in periods of shifting patronage, poets themselves would move, along with their literary and linguistic resources.
Continue reading XQs II: A Conversation with Kavita Datla

XQs I: A Conversation with Teena Purohit

The inaugural issue of a regular series on CM, XQs (Ten Questions), is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies. The aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. I am actively looking for authors & interlocutors so, do get in touch with me. I hope to develop this series into a mainstay at CM. Many thanks – Sepoy

T_PurohitTeena Purohit submitted her Ph.D in Religion at Columbia University in 2007. She is currently Assistant Professor in Boston University’s Religion Department. Her first book is The Aga Khan Case: Religion and Identity in Colonial India published with Harvard University Press. You can access her full C.V. at her faculty page.

[Interview conducted by Sepoy, via email, June 10-15th, 2013]

HARDCOVER 198 pages $45.00 • £33.95 • €40.50 ISBN 9780674066397 Publication: October 2012
198 pages
$45.00 • £33.95 • €40.50
ISBN 9780674066397
Publication: October 2012
1. Both the jacket blurb, and your introduction makes a case against an “Arab-centered” perspective of studying Islam and Islamicate cultures. Could you start by telling me what do you mean here? What is the corrective you are offering?

The book centers on a discussion of a famous court case known as The Aga Khan Case of 1866. The primary argument I make is that the British colonial court redefined a local caste group in Bombay, the Khojas, as “Ismaili Muslim.” In the final judgment, the definitive claim was that they were “converts” to a Middle Eastern Islam. I analyze how this legal process unfolded, specifically, the ways in which the judge deployed what I call an Arab-centric framework in the adjudication process and in the final judgment.

What I mean by an “Arab-centered” approach is that it gives primacy to origins of Islam–the classical Arab period and Arabic texts. This approach was consolidated in the 19th century when Orientalists wrote definitive accounts of Islam on the basis of their philological work in Arabic. This perspective predominates today in the popular media as well as the western academy: Islam is thought to be understood primarily through Arabic religious texts (Quran and Hadith) and Arab-centric practices, such as pilgrimage to Mecca and praying in the direction of the Kaaba.

The judge determined the character of Khoja religious idenity through a tendentious interpretation of the gināns, the devotional texts of the Khojas. The alternative approach I offer is an examination of the gināns from a literary perspective as a way to think religion outside the language of identity. The gināns are body of South Asian Muslim devotional poetry composed in the Gujarati, Hindi, and Urdu languages between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. These texts have been primarily translated and interpreted by scholars of Ismaili studies, who have adopted an Arab-centric perspective to understand these texts. That is, they have analyzed the gināns as part of a continuous Ismaili tradition that can be traced to the origins of Islam.

I situate the gināns as “Islamicate” texts because I am interested in the how these texts are embedded in local contexts and how their texture and movement help us understand religious practices that are not derivations of an Arab Islam, but instantiations of local Islam, described by the poems as Satpanth. My analyses of the poems foreground how the Satpanth tradition reworks classical Sanskrit and Arabic forms and ideas, giving them new meaning and significance. These “borrowings” and “exchanges” set in motion particular ways of imagining community and belonging that are not based on a restrictive conception of identity.
Continue reading XQs I: A Conversation with Teena Purohit

A Methodological Footnote

I wrote,

The makers of Pakistan were peasants and laborers. In 1940, they passed a resolution in Lahore to demand a separate homeland for Muslims and an end to British colonial occupation. In 1946, their votes brought a political party, the Muslim League, to power. They chose Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a modernist technocrat, as their leader.

The first sentence was a deliberate conceptualization of how I would approach a possible history of Pakistan. It garnered a critique from friend and CM associate Musharraf Ali Faroqui on twitter (storify: by @salmaan_H and by @anniepaul).

So allow me to lay out here, more substantively, my methodological hypothesis and argue against the dominant paradigm within which popular understandings of 1947 enact themselves.

To wit:
Continue reading A Methodological Footnote

Berlin Sketchbook IV: Ghosts

[see earlier in the Berlin series: I, II, III (also, earlier: I, II, III) On the city, see companion series on Lahore: I, II, III, IV, V, VI]

My first ghost sighting in Berlin was on September 8th, 2009, on the fifth floor inner balcony of a building at the corner of Duisburgerstrasse and Brandenburgerstrasse in Charlottenburg. It was early afternoon, and I saw her standing in the sun. Her head turned at an un-natural angle, so that the meagre rays of the sun lit her up her neck. On seeing her, I nearly jumped from the balcony from fright.

When I was living in the hot burning sun and society of Doha Qatar, we used to love the thrill of the firangi ghost stories. In that desert, jinns were everywhere, and fairies too. There was the hotel for new immigrants that was run by a family of mean, mean jinns. There was the puchchal paeri taxi driver you would hail in the late evening ocean mist. There were the black magic witches of Oman with their secret words and chin tattoos. Each of these stories was tied to a specific place: the hotel was on Corniche Drive, the taxi was in al-Thammama, the witches in the old bazaar. These stories were how we (a group of 9-12 year olds from Pakistan, India and Srilanka) made sense of the desert to which our parents had brought us – the place where a houl was jinn. There I heard, for the first time, a ghost story. It took place in London. In mists and graveyards, and overhanging trees, and it starred a woman, in white, and it had the narrator frozen to the spot, contemplating this other worldly intruder inside his home. I remember being scared out of my wits. The narrator was the elder brother of my best friend who had lived in London and this was what had happened to his best friend, in a house near where they lived. He swore, he thought, he too was a witness to the ghost, on another occasion. This was terrifying. You flee the jinn. You lash out at the churail. This ghost, this white woman, she turned you into a statue.

I did not see a white people cemetery until I moved to the Midwest of the United States. I did not see a ghost, but I did hear many more ghost stories. They seemed to not tell me anything about the city. They were about houses, rather the interior of the houses. They were inside doors, around the corner, by the bathroom. How was I to understand Dayton, Ohio from the inside of a house? I stopped caring. There were no jinns in United States (at least not pre 2001).

The ghost in Berlin turned to me and spoke. She said words I did not understand. She struggled to find another language. I did not know any that she knew. She lived nearby. Just three doors down. Her son had moved her there some three years ago. She had survived the Shoah. She was a Polish woman who had spent the last 20 years in some town in Russia. She had just had her 92nd birthday. She died some months later. Though I kept seeing her.

I learned about Charlottenburg via her. I learned of the Russian migration post War. The scores of sex kinos, gambling dens to cater to the young male industrial worker: sites where German women worked. New immigrants all. The neighborhood was changing rapidly, though the Russians had their own ghosts there. She told me about Vladimir Nabakov’s house on Paulsbornerstrasse just down the street from us. She told me about Walter Benjamin’s street just to the north of us. She told me about Robert Walser’s shopping haunts just east of us. In the months that followed, I rarely left the neighborhood. I traced the ghostly city outlined in Nabakov’s Berlin crime novels, and Benjamin’s childhood memoirs. I tried to find the contemporary names of the streets, the corners, the businesses. Of course, it was rare that I actually saw anything. Ghosts have a tendency to not be visible.

The second ghost I saw was after I left that neighborhood, and I left my own body behind. I had acquired a new one. I lived now near David Bowie’s ghost city and the one of Christopher Isherwood: actually exactly equidistant between the two. But I never saw them, or any of their ghosts. I saw him while biking at night. It was really late. I was whizzing by. He appeared out of nowhere, causing me swerve and stop almost touching him. His name was Johann Trollmann, and he had won a amateur boxing championship in 1933 on Fidicinstrasse. He was a Sinti, an impure German. To punish him, he was stripped of his title. He changed his name, dyed his hair blonde and tried to fight again. They disqualified him, and later sent him to the worker’s camp. There they kept making him fight to live. He kept winning, until he made the mistake of defeating a white prison guard. They beat him to death. He stood there by the side of the road, and told me this Berlin. His gym was right there. He told me of the camp that they had taken him, in Marzahn. I went and saw the graves and the ghost of the enclosure, still with bricks embedded in the grass. It is now a cemetery. This cemetery was full of ghosts of gypsies of Berlin.

The third ghost. This is where it gets tricky. You remember I told you I had left my body, yes? Would it surprise you, then, that I was the third ghost? I know what you are thinking. I have been telling you lies all along. These “ghosts” are not “ghost story” ghosts. When I arrived in Berlin, I understood one word out of well any. So, I stopped listening. When you stop listening, you stop talking. I lived mute and deaf in Berlin. I made no eye-contact. I saw no one. No one saw me. No one said anything to me. I walked un-noticed. A citizen of Berlin invisible to his neighbors, his fellows. Slowly, I began to show myself. I remember a gentleman in car – desperate – yelling an address at me. I answered him. Relieved, he took off. He was the first person who saw me in Berlin. It was August or so, of 2010. Emboldened, I started to show myself elsewhere. I began to find those brown and black spaces where ghosts hung out. I began to move in a crowd. They notice you in a crowd. Four brown people are noted on the UBahn – scared and noted. One day, there were 8 of us and then we really got noted. They denied our corporality in public.

I have written, in this series, I now realize about those ghosts that I met in Berlin – the ones who haunt the landscape and tell stories – the Egyptian quarter, the Pakistani parts, the Punjabi cricketers. Being a ghost in Berlin had its advantages, sometimes.

Call for Papers on Aesthetics and Partition

Tentative title:
The sentimental and the melodramatic: exploring Partition aesthetics

We seek essays for a volume (Routledge) looking at the sentimental and melodramatic aesthetics
of images, art, gossip, and writings that remind us of the unspeakable acts of 1947 and their
political and cultural aftershocks in Punjab and Bengal. Critics
who have variously written about the scale of sexual violence and disruption of everyday life, the
many kinds of injustices meted out to the homeless refugees, economic meltdowns, and many
other social and political issues, have somehow found it vexing that the stories of the displaced
are inchoate and unrelentingly sentimental, often bordering on fantasy. Instead of exploring these
sentimental kaleidoscopes, they dismiss them as sounds of silence, amnesia, cultural aphasia,
life in a social vacuum, and so on. The present volume breaks new ground by emphasizing the
sentimental and the melodramatic as a tremendous place to think about affects, subjectivities,
ethics, and recognition of life during and after the notorious event.

We welcome close readings of stories, memoirs and other texts, and ethnographies of any kind,
particularly those that explore biases, affects, desires, and subjectivities.

In a similar vein, we welcome essays that share the photographic memories of peoples, places,
and events not merely to represent the graphic nature of pathological violence, displacement and
so on, but to look closely at frozen moments and gestures that seem to have produced defining
features of our mental worlds as critics and interlocutors.

We particularly welcome essays emphasizing the inventions of popular and art house cinematic
genres and mythologies from the 1940s to the present in which memories of underdevelopment,
critiques of communist and post-nationalist dystopias, and a profound sense of the ennui of
political processes are evident.

We welcome essays on narratives written partially or entirely in dialects in cosmopolitan and
semi-urban places in the subcontinent as well as the diaspora.

We are excited to learn about the transit routes that made possible complex decisions such as
moving one’s home in 1948 as well as during the Bangladesh War of 1971.

We welcome essays on any other ideas not covered by these outlines as long as they theoretically
engage culture as an inclusive category and are focused on the geocultural politics of the Partition.

Affective readings will not be turned away and non-traditional approaches to essay writing are particularly encouraged.

Please send 500 word paper abstracts to the editors: Daisy Rockwell and
Abhijeet Paul by March 1, 2013. Final papers are due in October 2013
when the proposal is formally accepted by Routledge. Essays should not be more than 8000-
10,000 words (20-25 pages including footnotes). If your essay is more than the desired length,
please send us an email first. Essays should be original and not previously published.

Kumkum Chatterjee, 1958-2012

In 2008, I organized a panel at the Annual South Asia conference at Madison on vernacular histories. Our chair and discussant was Kumkum Chatterjee. Earlier that year, her article “The Persianization of Itihasa: Performance Narratives and Mughal Political Culture in Eighteenth-Century Bengal” had appeared in Journal of Asian Studies. Chatterjee did a reading of the Bengali Mangalkabya arguing that “the idiom in which the vernacular itihasa tradition represented by the Mangalkabyas sought to make space for the political issues of the time mirrored or reflected the ways in which a morally sanctioned, Islamicate structure of layered rule and over- lordship associated with the Mughals inflected the presentation of political morality among the rajas and landed magnates of Bengal.(p. 531). In her reading across genre and attention to the ways in which historical understanding was tied to the landscape (Bengal), this was an important paper for me. I was still struggling to finish the dissertation and I remember carrying the copy of JAS around Hyde Park for a few days, and marking and yelling at the paper. I thought that the framing of her piece was an un-necessary diversion from the richness of her argument.

In typical graduate student fashion, I sent her a 40 page paper from which I was going to present 12 pages on the panel. I emailed this to her two or so nights before the panel. When Chatterjee began her comments, I realized with a shock that she had read the whole damn thing. Carefully. I had never met her before seeing her at the panel and she was warm, kind and welcoming. After the panel, some of us met for dinner. In all of my memories of Madison, I have always held that dinner as a fondest one.

Over the years, I would see her at Madison or at AAS or at AHA and she would always greet me with smiles and ask about my well-being, the job, the writing. We exchanged some emails because she was thinking about working on the representations of the Mughals as demons in Bengali vernacular literature.

It is with an immense sadness that I note her passing. You can read her former colleague at PSU, Mrinalini Sinha, remembering Chatterjee’s scholarship and her warmth.