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When Hindus wrote in Persian



By Raziuddin Aquil     

2 January, 2016

Those vibrant strands of literary cultures were discarded from existence after the advent of colonial rule.

There was a time in India’s medieval and early modern history when some of the finest masterpieces in Hindi were written by Muslims and some of the most fascinating Persian compositions were produced by Hindus. Those vibrant strands of literary cultures were somewhat suddenly discarded with the violent transitions in political, social and cultural lives during the colonial period, roughly starting from the 1830s onwards, though fault-lines were beginning to be seen from the latter half of the 18th century when the older world began to crack. Political processes in these past couple of centuries have further ruptured the connections between the old world cosmopolitanism with multiple idioms of political and intellectual discourses and current crises borne out of widespread ignorance about pre-colonial India’s cultural achievements.

I have previously written in these columns about the exquisite literary production in a variety of forms or genre in medieval Hindi by a large number of Muslim authors to the extent that the history of classical Hindi literature would have been so much poorer if such huge corpus as Sufi poetry of love, premakhayan, were to be excluded just because they were composed by people who happened to be Muslims.

Such has been the poisoning of the mind of sections of people that they might wonder that Muslims could not have produced this literature and perhaps would not know how to handle such formidable text as Padmavat of early 16th century Sufi enthusiast Malik Muhammad Jaisi.

Such a communal mindset can also not make sense of the fact of a vast production of a fine Indo-Persian prose and poetry by Brahmins, Kayasthas and a host of other non-Muslim learned writers, intellectuals and officials in Mughal India, emerging as part of a longer process of political formation and dynastic rules of Turko-Afghan empire builders since the 13th-14th centuries.

There were big moments such as Sikandar Lodi’s attempt to use Persian as the language of administration as well as late 16th and early 17th century Mughal attempts, under the patronage of Akbar and later Dara Shukoh, to know Indian culture in its own terms, leading to sponsorship of translations and study of various domains of knowledge embedded in classical texts, either directly from Sanskrit or through Hindvi vernaculars such as Braja or Awadhi. However, as it often happens in these times of political uncertainties and abuses of past violations if any, the ignorant sceptics might be surprised to know that the golden period of the history of Indo-Persian literature, with Hindus contributing immensely to literary excellence, is the period beginning the latter half of the 17th century when Aurangzeb reigned roughly the whole of the subcontinent from his base in Delhi and the Deccan.

The latter half of the 17th and generally the whole of the 18th century saw a large number of Persian texts being produced by Hindu men of the pen—officials, poets, intellectuals, philosophers and religious figures. In his magnum opus written in Urdu, Adabiyat Farsi mein Hinduonka Hissa (reprint, New Delhi: AnjumanTaraqqi Urdu Hind, 1992), Syed Abdullah has discussed the lives and works of a large number of poets, historians, officials composing letters and documents (insha-writing), biographers as well as writers of theological texts and philosophical treatises; several rich dictionaries, books on mathematics, theoretical texts on music and compositions on social and political norms were also produced during this period.

Following the tarikh tradition of Persian historiography, quite a few richly textured historical texts were written by stalwarts such as Munshi Sujan Rai (Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh), Bindraban Das (Lubb-ut-Tawarikh) and Bhim Sen (Dil Kusha). Collections of official correspondence and other documents and farmans, both original and as samples, were penned by such veteran Hindu officials as Chandrabhan Brahman and Pindi Das. The likes of Lakshmi Narayan Shafiq and Anand Ram Mukhlis carved out a niche for themselves as first rate Persian poets in their own right, in a world of cut-throat competition, doubly-redoubled by a continuous tirade by recent Iranian immigrants, who questioned the ability of Indians to write in Persian and dismissed Indo-Persian writings, which they often failed to comprehend, as sabke-Hindi, or the Indian style.

One of the reasons why books in Indian Persian generally and compositions by Hindus in particular were criticised by the purists was the preponderance of Indian words, phrases and themes in these writings.

Just as Muslim Sufi texts sought to appropriate and combine themes from Indian mystical traditions, religious thinkers and philosophers like Beghum Bairagi (Swami Bhupat Rai Bairagi of Khatri antecedent in Punjab) responded to such critical themes as the idea of God and Unity of Being.

For Bairagi, the usual Muslim-debate around kufr (infidelity) and iman (faith) were meaningless theological contestations, for according to him everything emanated from God, the secrets of whom were not known to ordinary mortals: Hichk as az jood-e-haq mehroom nist # Sirr-e in ma’ni be-kas mafhoom nist.

Raziuddin Aquil is Fellow in History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and is the author of Sufism, Culture, and Politics: Afghans and Islam in Medieval North India (2007) and co-editor (with Partha Chatterjee) of History in the Vernacular (2008).


Source: The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi


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