A Market for Speech: Poetry in Late Mughal India


Review of A Market for Speech: Poetry Recitation in Late Mughal India, 1690-1810, by Nathan Tabor.

Something strange happened to poetry around the time William Wordsworth felt some feelings near Tintern Abbey and versified them in 1798. In the West, a poet’s original voice became prized over his or her engagement with a tradition, while the public functions of verse (praise, vituperation, competition) withered. By contrast, poetry in pre-colonial Islamicate South Asia was public, particularly in the context of the mushā‘irah, a gathering of poets that was equal parts literary salon and verbal gladiatorial combat. The emphasis was not on expressing one’s feelings or seeking originality for originality’s sake. Instead the test of a poet was creating something remarkable without straying too far from a set of traditional images and conventions. This adherence to tradition has led to the common but untenable belief that Persian and Urdu poetry was little more than a series of hackneyed themes, famously gul-o bubul wa razm-o bazm [the rose and the nightingale, war and partying]. Until now the mechanics of poetic competition were poorly understood—after all, the people who participated felt no need to leave behind detailed ethnographic accounts since they lived the events. The dissertation under review advances our knowledge of the societal role of the mushā‘irah, and thus provides a key for understanding poetry as a social activity rather than a product of Wordsworthian solitude, which of course it need not be.

The focus on poetic performance is what makes this dissertation unique. Tabor rightly calls the mushā‘irah an institution that “appears to approximate something like a node of civil society”, but neither historians of courtly Mughal India nor literary scholars of Urdu have explored the phenomenon in any depth (p. 66). This reviewer was previously skeptical that the sources to do so even existed, but in his exhaustive survey Tabor has found convincing patterns in published sources generally already well-known to scholars but never before synthesized in the right way. These texts are mostly collections of Urdu and Persian poetry and tazkirahs (compendia of biographical tidbits from poets’ lives with selections of their poetry). As Tabor has shown, tazkirahs embed within themselves a record not merely of poetic text but also, if read correctly, of quite a bit of the performative contexts of that poetry. We can, to some degree, reverse engineer the mushā‘irah from them and understand why performance mattered in the lives of the participants. What we learn is that contrary to our general impression of the poetic gatherings of yore as stuffy and oppressively formal (which is how they have been portrayed in Bollywood and South Asian television serials), the participants greatly enjoyed themselves.

The project has a particular interest in the 1740s, which by any measure was a transformative period in Delhi’s poetic life. It was a time of intense feuds, famously between Sirajuddin Ali Khan Arzu and the Iranian émigré Shaikh Hazin, each of whom was backed by a coterie of supporters. These heated debates expressed personal grudges, of course, but they also explored fundamental questions about Persian poetics. Not only was the grand edifice of Persian literature being refashioned, but poetry in a different language, namely what would later be called Urdu, was becoming accepted in the same circles as Persian. In order to research eighteenth-century Urdu, Persian poetry has to be taken seriously (all of the relevant prose sources are in Persian anyway), and to research eighteenth-century Persian, one has to understand what was happening in Urdu at the time. In that sense this dissertation succeeds in being not about Urdu or about Persian, but about the literary culture of Delhi in the eighteenth century. Such a translatio studii from one language to another seems on its face to be a very serious business, but of course it always does to later people who have come to revere the tradition that was displaced (be it Persian, Latin or something else). Tabor provides delightful, natural-sounding translations of poetry throughout, which allows us to imagine eighteenth-century poets as actual people, rather than as saintly figures who knew they were creating a new literary culture for posterity. The whole dissertation eschews stuffy language and presents vivid anecdotes.

There is such an assortment of material—which this reviewer sees as a strength at this stage of the project—that it is best to take the dissertation’s contents chapter by chapter:

After an introduction that argues the need for understanding the mushā‘irah as a historical phenomenon, the first chapter demonstrates its centrality in Indo-Islamicate elite culture, and its flexibility as a setting both for real gatherings and for imagined ones. The tarhī mushā‘irah, in which a single model couplet sets the meter and rhyme for all the poetry presented, has generally been taken as paradigmatic. Apparently it was not the most common way of organizing a gathering, but rather merely the most rigid structure available. In any case the name tarhī mushā‘irah, as Tabor argues, did not come into use until the nineteenth-century. Once that misconception is dispelled the institution becomes more open than we might have thought. Indeed, imaginary mushā‘irahs served as an important literary device, as for example for the seventeenth-century critic Munir Lahori, who in a work of criticism stages a contest between poets supporting “classical” style poetry and those supporting “fresh-speaking” [tāzah-go’ī] aesthetics. In other instances, poets imagined themselves as communicating with dead or absent colleagues across temporal and geographical divides through the device of tazmīn [citation]. What we might call an epistolary mushā‘irah allowed a few women (via their letters) into what was a space physically reserved for men.

The second and third chapters discuss literary sociability as mediated through the mushā‘irah. Chapter 2 primarily addresses the question of originality and plagiarism. Since the Persian literary tradition was centuries long and the poet’s craft was often judged by his extemporaneous utterances, it was easy enough to commit an act of accidental plagiarism [tavārud]. Such a slip—an occupational hazard for poets—had to be separated from intentionally stealing someone else’s work [sariqah], which was a serious transgression. Chapter 3 considers “how the mushaʿirah was a staging ground to assess, scrutinize, and sometimes to violate norms of balance and decorum” (p. 225). The moral dimension of poetry is clear from the parallel between the notion of “balanced” [mauzūn] verse, which is to say metrically sound verse, and the pursuit of balance as a personal virtue. Poetry was also animated by ādāb [manners] and insāf [justice]. Humor was an important part of poets’ companionship but also frequently led to breeches of decorum that might have social consequences. Lastly, the chapter considers those other great lubricants of companionship, coffee and alcohol.

The final chapters anchor the mushā‘irah in music and in the commemoration of a poet’s death anniversary. Framed through the Sufi poet Shah Gulshan (d. 1728), the fourth chapter explores the connection of poetry with music and eroticism. It also engages with the account of the Deccani connoisseur Dargah Quli Khan, who was in Delhi in the aftermath of Nadir Shah’s invasion. Literary society and associated art forms seem to have been little affected by the tumultuous events of that time. In discussing the relationship of poetic and musical performance, Tabor draws upon the insights of Katherine Butler Schofield, who was a member of the dissertation committee. The final chapter considers the ‘urs [death anniversary celebration] of Mirza ‘Abdul Qadir Bedil (d. 1720) and its importance. Nuggets of historical interest are scattered throughout the dissertation, but the richest vein of sustained historical reconstruction is the account of this ‘urs. For the roughly forty years it was celebrated, it was the focal point of literary society in Delhi. It was presided over by Arzu and was literally a networking event since it was “a useful and reliable gathering point to make connections and present new compositions at time when Delhi was still the center of Persian literary production” (p. 459).

It is hard to overstate how much effort obviously went into extracting the raw materials for a study of the mushā‘irah. One measure of the dissertation’s success is the fact that all the dramatis personae are so well known to any scholar of Persianate literary community in late Mughal India, but it changes the lens through which we view them and certain aspects of their lives come into better focus. Tabor’s project particularly complements research by Mana Kia, Rajeev Kinra, Sunil Sharma, Stefano Pellò, Muzaffar Alam, and the present reviewer. When it addresses specifically Urdu material, the scholarship of C.M. Naim, Frances Pritchett and Kathryn Hansen looms large (Hansen was a member of the dissertation committee). As scholars study other aspects of literary community in the period or research individual poets, the insights and analysis that Tabor offers will be a helpful baseline. The present reviewer looks forward to the publication of this sprawling, remarkable work. Beyond that, since the project began as ethnography of present-day mushā‘irahs, it has the potential to reconstruct a genealogy of poetic performance from pre-colonial India into our own time. Maybe today’s mushā‘irahs have more in common with historical mushā‘irahs than we thought. The candle hasn’t gone out; it’s been replaced with a fluorescent bulb.

Arthur Dudney
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge

Primary Sources

Various poets’ published dīwāns and kulliyāts [selected and complete works]

Various published tazkirahs

Dissertation Information

University of Texas at Austin. 2014. 599 pp. Primary advisor: Syed Akbar Hyder.

Image: Edwin Lord Weeks, “An Open-Air Restaurant, Lahore.” Oil on canvas. India, Lahore, 1895. Private Collection. (Wikimedia Commons). The Wazir Khan mosque in the background of Weeks’ painting was a site for poetry gatherings in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

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