The Romance Genre in Late Mughal India


A review of The Broken Spell: The Romance Genre in Late Mughal India, by Pasha Mohamad Khan.

One gloomy and overcast day in the fictional nineteenth century, Jane Eyre sets out on a secluded, fog-shrouded road in eerie rural northern England, where every shadow and indistinct substance is transfigured by Brontë’s gothic imagination into suggestions of goblins, spirits, and terrible beasts lurking around each bend. Jane sees a shape moving towards her through the thick fog, and imagines that it must one of those fantastical creatures. Once the gothic fog dissolves into reality, Jane sees that it is no marvelous creature of the imagination that is fast approaching; rather, it is simply a rider, Mr. Rochester, drawing near on his horse. “The horse followed – a tall steed, and on its back a rider. The man, the human being, broke the spell at once.” Some hours later, Mr. Rochester interrogates Jane about this quasi-fantastical encounter; he tells her that something about their meeting put him in mind of fairy tales, and wonders (sarcastically) if she had been waiting for leprechauns on that road. Jane Eyre’s response is as arch as it is accurate from a literary-historical perspective: “The men in green all forsook England a hundred years ago,” she says. “I don’t think either summer or harvest, or winter moon, will ever shine on their revels more.” Thus a character in a novel cannily characterizes the tension between the novel – a genre in ascendence – and the romance, which, like the men in green, had come to forsake fiction.

Pasha Mohamad Khan’s exciting dissertation, The Broken Spell: The Romance Genre in Late Mughal India, tracks this tension between the genres of novel and romance that originated in Britain and crept into South Asia, where the gravity of the novel with its reality-bound strictures pulled the romance (qiṣṣa in Urdu) down from its lofty flights of fancy. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Urdu critics such as Muḥammad Ḥusain Āzād, Alṭāf Ḥusain Ḥālī, ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Sharar, Gyān Chand Jain, and others absorbed these influences and cast an unfriendly critical eye upon the romance, which was deemed by them to be at best a museum piece, a moldering relic of an outdated era, and, at worst, evidence of cultural stagnation and backwardness – all because what happened in romances was unnatural and not “true.” The wild horse of the imagination, such critics maintained, had to be reined in by the strong hand of Discrimination (quwwat-i mumayyiza).

Khan’s dissertation has as its aim nothing less than the recovery of older ways of conceiving of the romance in South Asia. Deploying a historicist methodology, Khan seeks to capture “the images of the texts down the years” (p. 6). By applying modern genre theory to a vast corpus of Arabic, Persian, Indo-Persian, Urdu, and Punjabi texts, Khan analyses the romance genre in South Asia in its dynamic dialogue with other genres. One of the core arguments of the dissertation is that the romance as a literary mode cannot be understood in isolation: it is a fabric threaded through with other genres. Combining this theoretical insight with close readings of romances and other texts, Khan shows how the concept of genre itself is formed through the complex interlacing of many genres. In this study, the South Asian romance emerges as one of the most elaborate, particolored genres of them all.

The dissertation has six core chapters: an introduction, which traces the history of the fallen fortunes of the romance genre in South Asia and presents the main corpora of romances analyzed; a chapter on genre theory; a chapter on the romance genre and its terminological compatibility – or incompatibility – with similar designations in Persian and Urdu; and three final chapters, each devoted to the analysis of genres that interact intertextually with the romance: history (tārīkh), panegyric (madḥ), and ethics (akhlāq).

Before turning to a more detailed overview of the individual chapters, and at the risk of conferring the dubious plaudits of a pedant’s praise, it must be noted that Khan has devised a system of transliteration that is a triumph of comprehensiveness and lucidity, an Ariadne’s thread that actually succeeds in guiding the reader through the labyrinth of languages encountered in the dissertation – Hindi/Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Punjabi, and Braj Bhasha – with grace and ease. Such attentiveness to finer philological particulars on Khan’s part is especially welcome, and is indicative of the care he takes with his materials.

In the first chapter, “Introduction: The Romance in the Age of the Novel,” Khan sets the scene for the tension between the romance and the novel. The corpus of stories that forms the dissertation’s object of study is a set of romances that developed around the figure of Ḥātim Ṭā’ī, (probably) an historical figure from the Arabian Ṭayy tribe who anticipated the arrival of Islam by one generation. The fame of his lavish, sometimes extreme, acts of generosity spread far and wide, crossing many borders of geography, time, and language. One of the earliest Persian versions of the Ḥātim tales is the eighteenth-century Haft sayr-e Ḥātem, or The Seven Journeys of Ḥātim, and its most important translation into Urdu, Ārā’ish-i maḥfil, was completed by Ḥaidar Bakhsh Ḥaidarī at Fort William College in 1801. Manuscripts of various Ḥātim-nāma-s abound in South Asia, and Khan has compiled an extensive list of these (included in the Appendix). Despite the ebbing fortune of the romance in South Asia, which was closely linked to the decline of the Mughal empire (the practice of storytelling, dāstān-goī, after all, was not just a popular pastime, but was bound up with court patronage), popular interest in the fantastic perdured in print culture. Perhaps one of the most well known examples of this is a different story cycle, the Dāstān-i Amīr Ḥamza, whose nineteenth-century Naval Kishore press version fills a voluminous forty-six tomes. As Khan shows, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Urdu critics, however, distanced themselves from the romance genre at the same time as they embraced certain trends in prevailing British literary criticism – namely, the equation of literary modernity with usefulness and edification, “only lightly garnished by the imagination,” its feet firmly planted in reality (p. 16).

Khan traces the trajectory of this kind of thinking, from its origins in the writings of Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson (both of whom had a none-too-generous view of the implausible) to its migration to South Asia. Khan also carefully untangles the knotty terminological problem of using the English “romance” for such Urdu terms as “qiṣṣa,” “dāstān,” “ḥikāyat,” “afsāna,” and others, laying out the intriguing history of how in British literary history from the eighteenth century there was a surge of interest in the “eastern romance,” fueled by the appearance of Galland’s One Thousand and One Nights and the innumerable imitations that followed in its wake. This led to critics considering the genre of the “romance” to be not specific to Britain or Europe, but a worldwide genre. Even Ḥātim Ṭā’ī found his way into English in a translation by Duncan Forbes, under the title of The Adventures of Ḥātim Tai: A Romance. Over time, Orientalists studying the literatures of South Asia came to associate “the notion that the romance belonged to a defective past” with “the idea that India suffers from a case of arrested development” (p. 24). In other words, while the British novel soundly expounded truth, reason, and moral probity, the romance was replete with all the foolish and irrational traits of South Asian culture, unfortunate features that Europe had outgrown following the Enlightenment. This notion was picked up by Urdu-language critics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one of whom refers to the romance genre as being the work of “savages,” suitable only for “children” (p. 27). Ḥātim Ṭā’ī too did not escape this kind of censure. As Sharar and other Urdu critics argued, not only does this figure and the stories which accrued around him fail in terms of faithfulness of representation, but they also fail in exemplarity – a failure attributed by these critics to hyperbole and other representative traits of the untruthful romance. After all, how can an audience or readership be expected to emulate the actions of a man who cuts off his own flesh to satisfy the hunger of wild animals? Anyone who tried would “end up like South Asian Don Quixotes, growing ever madder in their attempts to emulate the absurd and impossible” (p. 34). Nevertheless, Khan argues, these critics did inadvertently do the romance one good turn: by tacitly demonstrating how, once upon a time, there existed a set of historical and cultural circumstances that were more hospitable to the romance, they affirmed the historicism of the romance genre.

It is this historicism that Khan’s dissertation brings into view. By aiming “to repurpose the term ‘romance’” (p. 35), Khan shows in the subsequent chapters that it was not always the case that the romance’s purported failure to stay faithful to reality, or to provide characters worthy of emulation, would have been taken by early modern audiences as indicative of overall aesthetic failure.

Khan begins to do this by first clearing the terminological and theoretical air in Chapter 2 (“Genre”), where he carefully reconstructs the definitions of the most basic (and pernicious) categories at hand: literature and genre. With “literature” (whose closest approximations in Urdu are adab, sokhan, kalām), Khan is careful to take into account the performative aspect specific to the South Asian romance, where it was never strictly a written genre: orality played a central role. Khan therefore refers to literature as “speech,” or “spoken or verbal art” (p. 36). As for defining “genre,” Khan uses the modern genre theories of Jacques Derrida, Tzvetan Todorov, and Ralph Cohen, among others, taking genre to be constituted by particular genre traits that deciphered by the audience in accordance with a particular genre code. This code in turn is not a stable thing: its historicity allows for the possibility of generic flux, whereby one genre can give way to others (p. 45) – just as, for instance, the British view of the romance came to color the way the romance was seen in South Asia by critics there. Both synchronic and diachronic elements are at play: each genre exists within a genre system – that is, genres do not exist in isolation, but interact with different genres. Sometimes genres acquire meaning by mutual interaction through opposition (as with madḥ and hajv, panegyric and satire); in other instances, genres can mingle in more complex ways (e.g., the fraught relationship between romance and history, which the dissertation examines in great detail in subsequent chapters). Khan also stresses that genre is never untainted by ideology; for instance, Empiricism and Rationalism were two powerful ideological forces which turned the novel and the romance into an antithetically charged pair, opposed on the very fundamental grounds of the truthfulness of representation.

This rich interaction between genres is the central concern of the remaining chapters. It was common practice for storytellers to draw from materials of a great many different genres during their performances – histories, mystical treatises, poetry, religious texts, etc. – and these fragments would have been generically identified as non-romance by the audience. Every work of verbal art, Khan argues, can be analyzed in terms of such intertextual fragments; since genre may be applied to fragments of texts as much as to entire works, the romance emerges as an especially motley patchwork of genres. The following chapters of the dissertation are organized around this fundamental idea that genres can only be understood in relation to other genres. Each chapter analyzes the unique and fertile interaction of three non-romance genres with and within the South Asian romance: history (tārīkh), panegyric (madḥ), and ethical literature (akhlāq/adab).

Chapter 3 (“Romance”) sets the stage for this analysis. Beginning with an account of the last famous Urdu storyteller, Mīr Bāqir ‘Alī Dāstān-go (d. 1928), extant descriptions of whose performances provide some of the only clues we have today as to the oral, visual, and performative ingredients that went into professional storytelling in South Asia. The romance genre, as Khan shows, cannot be understood without taking into account such elements as improvisation, interaction with the audience, gestures, and other physical/visual elements that are fundamental to the genre. Khan shows how this complex interaction between written-textual and oral-performative elements is indeed fundamentally constitutive of the romance genre. Khan does not privilege one element over the other: “While we push for greater recognition of the effects of orality upon the romance genre, we must not throw writing out of the window absolutely” (p. 69). Unlike other, perhaps more famous romances, such as the Amīr Ḥamza cycle and the Shāhnāmeh, the Ḥātim tales in South Asia are a remarkably stable corpus: even translations from Persian into various vernaculars (Urdu, Punjabi, Braj Bhasha) do not stray too far from the original. Although this might seem to run counter to one of the basic elements of the romance genre – its textual instability – Khan uses this case study to demonstrate that the Indo-Persian and Urdu romance genre was often influenced by oral-performative elements even if a particular text was never performed. Effects of orality upon the romance may be seen in the fact that these romances are episodic (manẓarātī) and have a paratactic (silsila-jātī) structure. Drawing on Bakhtin and Jameson’s analyses of Western romances and the not-quite-causal links that connect narrative events, Khan shows that the South Asian romance too was governed by a similar paratactic logic. It was this structure that was derided, and even parodied, by later Urdu critics: in the twentieth century, Shafīq al-Raḥmān diagnosed Ḥātim with what Khan calls “hyper-ethical attention deficit disorder”: he can barely make it get through one episode showcasing his exemplary generosity when another presents itself. Khan shows how such criticism revealed that even the very structure of the romance genre in South Asia was no longer palatable to realism-minded audiences.

One unique testament to the romance’s rich intertextuality analyzed in this chapter is Fakhr al-Zamānī’s Ṭirāz al-Akhbār, or Embroidery of Tales, a sixteenth-century manual for storytellers. Its introduction is a rare example of direct engagement with the romance as a genre, which is constructed, according to the author, out of four elements: razm, bazm, ḥusn o ‘ishq, and ‘ayyārī – battles, banquets, beauty and love, and trickery, the four major styles, or what Khan calls repertoires, of the romance. The main body of the text contains prose and verse quotations, each of which is slotted into one of these four categories outlined in the introduction. The Ṭirāz al-Akhbār shows how the romance genre was pieced together out of intertextual fragments, which would have been recognized as such by what Khan calls “communities of textual remembrance” – that is, groups of people bound together by religion, gender, social class, etc., “who are likely to have memories of a similar group of texts, and who are therefore likely to be uniform in their identification of genres” (p. 98). The romance genre is thus shown to be composed of fragments, each of which has its own genre identification. As Khan puts it, “there is no pure and flawless romance” (p. 99).

In Chapter 4 (“Historiography”), Khan undertakes to untangle the complex intertwining of the history and the romance, two genres that, by all accounts, ought to be diametrically opposed, since the former often makes tall claims to tell only the truth, while the latter often claims only to tell tall tales. Discussing a broad range of historians from Bīrūnī, Baihaqī, Tha‘ālibī, and Ṭabarī, to Firdousī, Khan demonstrates that the seemingly stark generic division between the history and the romance is actually much murkier than it may appear at first. Drawing a distinction between what he calls “‘aqlī” and “naqlī” historiography (based on the traditional division of the sciences into those that are rational [the ma‘qūlāt] and those that are transmitted [the manqūlāt]), Khan argues that, over the course of the centuries, it was this latter, transmission-privileging type of historiography which came to prevail in the Islamicate world. Based ultimately on the ḥadīth model of trust in the strength of chains of transmission, this kind of historiography does not allow the intellect to intervene and cast its own judgement on the credibility of what is reported. Naqlī historiography, according to Khan, was connected to a kind of fideistic epistemology – a trust in God’s boundless creative power which allowed greater scope for even the most imagination-stretching events to be counted as possible. Khan says, “factuality was not necessarily the goal of naqlī historiography at all – what was important was the sincerity of the narrator, and narrations could be sincere without being factual” (p. 128).

Khan concludes the chapter with a nuanced discussion of precisely this kind of sincerity (ṣidq), and what he calls the “sincerity effect” (a tip of the hat to Barthes’ “reality effect”): the appearance of sincerity produced by certain narrative elements in romances that bear a strong resemblance to historiographical devices. Such devices include the isnād-like formulaic transmission claim (X heard from Y, who heard from Z…), as well as allusions and references, however vague and lacking in actual citations, to a canon of historiographical works deemed “trustworthy” (mu‘tabar). Such devices contribute to the romance’s overall sincerity effect. At the end of the chapter, Khan makes the provocative claim that the modern reader’s sensibility and sense of what is possible is rather more limited than what it may have been for the early modern South Asian reader, “for whom much more may have seemed to be possible than it is for ‘us’, if we are the kind of people who do not believe in fairies” (p. 140). By deploying the various historiographical elements and formal features outlined above, the romance bolstered its appearance of sincerity by capitalizing on the features of naqlī – not ‘aqlī – historiography, thereby blurring generic lines.

Chapter 5 (“Panegyric”) tracks the interaction between the romance and the panegyric (madḥ), which Khan takes to be not just the qaṣīda, but any statement of praise whose primary function is the commemoration (zikr) through which a person’s name and fame (nām) could endure. Using the case of Ḥātim Ṭā’ī, Khan tracks the history of the commemoration of Ḥātim’s name going all the way back to fifteenth-century Herāt, analyzing Wā’iz Kāshifī’s Risālah-yi Ḥātimiyya, a series of quasi-historical anecdotes (akhbār) that drew heavily on Sa‘dī’s Gulistān and Būstān and Abū al-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī’s Kitāb al-aghānī. The chapter explores the panegyric as an intertextual element within the Ḥātim tales specifically and in the romance genre more generally, focussing on the power of the panegyric to confer the quality of “effective exemplarity.” In the context of the romance, the effect of such exemplarity was to spur “a spirit of emulation, rivalry, and one-upmanship in the one who hears of Ḥātim’s fame and his deeds” (p. 153). Over time, poets and writers used Ḥātim’s name to great effect next to the name of their patron – either as a hyberbolic comparison, or, in an act of wishful thinking, as an exhortation to behave better. Ḥātim, then, came to be an exemplar of generosity through panegyric techniques, even in its most extreme forms of hyperbole – though later Urdu critics would mock this quality, emphasizing Hātim’s hyperbolic generosity to strip him precisely of this ability to be an exemplar.

Based on extensive manuscript research that he conducted in Pakistan, Khan presents a fascinating case study of a Punjabi Ḥātim-nāma, penned by Maulwī Aḥmad Yār (d.1845) for Ranjīt Siṅgh. What is striking about this version is that it was presented by a poet to a patron – a Sikh patron at that – in the early nineteenth century, well past what should have been the romance’s expiration date. As Khan shows, by the time Aḥmad Yār was composing his Ḥātim-nāma, layer upon panegyric layer had already accumulated around Ḥātim’s persona, making the mere mention of his name a powerful source of exemplarity full of cultural cachet. This, according to Khan, is why a Ḥātim-nāma may have been deemed suitable by the poet to present to his patron, since, by underscoring the advantages of giving, the poet could subtly hint at his hopes for receiving remuneration, while at the same time reminding his patron that rewarding a poet would redound to his patron’s fame. By analyzing the panegyric intertextual elements within these Punjabi Ḥātim-nāma-s, Khan shows how the panegyric could govern the romance’s reception in surprising politically and culturally relevant ways, even in the nineteenth century – contradicting what critics like Sharar would say about the genre’s irrelevance.

Chapter 6 (“Ethics”) investigates the effect of Ḥātim’s ethical exemplarity, tracing how the intertextually present ethical element in the Ḥātim tales resonated with the corpus of akhlāq texts stored in the collective memory of the audience. The chapter analyses two works by Ḥusain Wā’iẓ Kāshifī: the Akhlāq-i Muḥsinī (one of the most frequently imitated ethical works in South Asia) and the Risālah-yi ḥātimiyya. Unlike the Nasirean Ethics, the Akhlāq-i Muḥsinī is what Khan calls more of a “practical handbook of morality” than a theoretical treatise, and Khan shows how the Risālah-yi ḥātimiyya influenced the Akhlāq-i muḥsinī and its later imitations. This treatise is of particular interest among other reasons because it has elements of each of the four genres under discussion: the romance; the history (the author claims that his accounts are based on “trustworthy histories,” tavārīkh-i mu‘tabar); the panegyric (it was written for his patron, Sulṭān Ḥusayn Bāyqarā of Herāt, with panegyric elements hinting at his hoped-for generosity); and ethics. Khan demonstrates that Ḥātim’s acts of generosity (perhaps none so extreme and strange as Ḥātim’s cutting off of his own flesh to satisfy the hunger of animals) would not have been received in early modern times with the dismissive disbelief and derision of Sharar and other later critics. Rather, the romance’s ethics of generosity would have been seen as formulaic and therefore expected, and not at all as failure in ethical exemplarity.

In conclusion, Khan’s dissertation is an attempt to do justice to the rich world of the Persianate romance. As such, he joins the ranks of scholars such as Aditya Behl, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, William Hanaway, Frances Pritchett, and Julia Rubanovich, among others. Khan, however, does not content himself with recovering a maligned genre: he invites us to rethink what it means to speak of genres in South Asia and beyond. Combining genre theory with analyses of a truly impressive range of texts, Khan’s dissertation will be of great interest to students of early modern South Asia specifically, students of literature and genre theory broadly, and to anybody interested in premodern forms of imagination.

The critic Guy Davenport once wrote of J.R.R. Tolkien that his brilliance consisted partly in having dared to revive the romance in a mechanically predictable modern age in which, after Don Quixote, “the demon realism ruled the roost.” Whether or not we shall ever make room for Jane Eyre’s little green men again, Davenport, for one, would have been cheered by Khan’s attempt to demonstrate the viability and cognitive salience of taking the imagination seriously, allowing the jinn to exorcise the demons of realism that too long have haunted our best critics.

Jane Mikkelson
PhD Student
Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago

Primary Sources (selected)
Aḥmad Yār. Ḥātim-nāma. Lahore: Muḥammad Ṣūbah Gyān Cand, 1923.

Diyānat Allāh. Qiṣṣa-yi Ḥātim Ṭāy. Calcutta: Philip Pereira, 1818.

Faiż Muḥammad. Qiṣṣa Ḥātim Ṭāʾī. Islamabad: Ganj Bakhsh, 1789.

Mirzā Amān ‘Alī Khān Ghālib Lakhnawī. Tarjama-yi Dāstān-i Ṣāḥib-qirān. Calcutta: Maṭba‘-i Imdādiyya, 1855.

Sayyid Ḥaidar Bakhsh Ḥaidarī. Qiṣṣa-yi Ḥātim T̤āī. Ed. Athar Parwez. New Delhi: Maktabah-I Jāmi‘ah, 1972.
———. Ārāish-i maḥfil. Ed. Sayyid Sibṭ-i Ḥasan. 2nd ed. Lahore: Majlis-i Taraqqī-yi adab, 2009.

Kamāl al-Dīn Ḥusain Wā’iẓ b. ‘Alī Kāshifī. Akhlāq-i Muḥsinī. Lucknow: Naval Kishor, 1878.
––––––. Risāla-yi Ḥātimiyyah. Ed. Sayyid Muḥammad Riżā Jalālī Nā’īnī. Tehran: Nahżat, 1941.

Mullā ‘Abd Allāh. Haft sair-i Ḥātim. Lahore: University of the Punjab, Sherani, 1799.

Dissertation Information
Columbia University. 2013. 222 pp. Primary advisor: Frances Pritchett.

Image: Folio from Akbar’s Hamzah-nāmah. Rare Book Department, The Free Library of Philadelphia, M2.

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