A History of Indo-Persian Literature (Part III)

mughal court

THE MUGHAL PERIOD (1526-1858)

For over two centuries, the Mughal Empire united and ruled over much of India. It created a classical culture which combined the finest aspects of Persianate and Indic traditions. It united peoples from various cultures and religions across the subcontinent while the Mughal courts in Delhi, Agra and Lahore welcomed artists and traders from across Europe and Asia and Iran in particular.

 

Indo-Persian Literature

badshahi

Under the Mughals, Persian became the official language of education and its use expanded among the various religions, classes and castes of North India. It became the language of court literature not only in Delhi, Agra and Lahore but also among regional sultanates such as the Golconda Sultanate (1519-1687). Its use as a literary language also grew through poetic assemblies (mushaira), storytelling traditions (dastangoi) and Sufi monasteries (khanqahs) as well as the language of culture.

Iranian poets increasingly flocked to the Mughal courts so much so that India had become the leading centre of Persian poetry during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By this time, a classical Persian canon (Sa’di, Nizami and Hafiz) was in the making and the Mughals patronized not only new poets but also oversaw the translation of works in Sanskrit, Greek and Arabic into Persian.

 

Prose

The Indo-Persian tradition of romance (qissa or dastan) was already known during the Delhi Sultanate. Amir Khusrau’s The Tale of the Four Dervishes (Qissa-ye Chahar Dervesh) was a collection of tales and stories told by four dervishes as wise counsel to a king seeking immortality.

Hamzanama2

The Epic of Hamza (Hamzanama), composed under the reign of Akbar, was based originally on an oral tradition of storytelling. It tells of the adventures and exploits of Amir Hamza (an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad) in a world of battles, courtly politics, magic, fairies and trickery.

The writing of history flourished under the Mughals. Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnama combined biography and chronicle in its portrayal of Akbar as the ideal monarch.[1] The memoirs of the Emperor Jahangir (Jahangirnama) tell us about the rivers and lakes of Kashmir while Dargah Quli Khan (b. 1710) provides a glimpse into the lives of the commoners, musicians, dancers, poets and artists of Mughal Delhi.

 

Poetry

old agra painting

Poets like Faizi (1547-1595), ‘Urfi (1556-1590), Talib (d. 1626), Qudsi (d. 1656), Kalim (d. 1650) and Sa’ib (d. 1677) continued writing in the classical Persian style while also expanded Persian’s poetic vocabulary through exchanges with languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Turkish and Arabic.

In his masnavi (long narrative poem), Nal Daman, Faizi adapted a story from the Mahabharata with its themes of love, exile into a Persian saga on the lover and the beloved:[2]

The burning of desire and heartache
Like wine poured at once in two glasses
Like the same note sounded from two different keys
The same intoxication in two different spots.
The suffering that love induced in the Lover,
the Beloved welcomed as her guest.
The bell the Lover told in grief,
echoed in the Beloved’s heart.[3]

The poet Kalim wrote about a famine in the Deccan:

Not only the laughing buds
Are always fleeing from me …
Their relationship to me
Is like that of the shore to the sea:
Always coming towards me,
Then ever fleeing from me.
Life’s tragedy lasts but two days
I’ll tell you what these two are for:
One day to attach the heart to this and that;
One day to detach it again.[4]

‘Urfi crafted a more personal and emotional style:

From my friend’s gate – how can I describe
The manner in which I went,
How full of longing I came,
Yet how embittered I went!
How I beat my head on the wall
In that narrow alleyway …
In ecstatic intoxication I came
In troubled silence I went.[5]

Mughal poets praised the Sufi path of love and union with the divine over the formalism and hypocrisy of organized religion:

Give up the path of the Muslims
Come to the temple
To the master of the wine house
So that you may see the divine secrets.[6]

This was carried to the point of blasphemy by Sarmad (c. 1590-1661):

He who understood the secrets of the Truth
Became vaster than the vast heaven;
The Mullah says “Ahmed [the Prophet Muhammad] went to heaven”;
Sarmad says “Nay! Heaven came down to Ahmed!”[7]

By the eighteenth century, all classes in Mughal society who were educated in Persian began using it as a literary language.

Bedil

Bedil2

Born in 1644 in Patna, ‘Abdul Qadir Bedil was of Turkish descent. He was raised by his uncle after the death of his parents and was educated in Persian, Arabic and Turkish. He studied Sufism and was also known to the Mughal court (most notably Aurangzeb’s son, Muhammad ‘Azam).

Bedil is considered one of the leading poets of the “Indian style” of Persian poetry (sabk-i-Hindi). His philosophical and mystical verses are complex, challenging and captivating:

I read in the wave’s fickle, delicate form
The preface of the sea, the wind’s footprint.[8]

A delicate act is learning the secrets of love
The pen slips in scribing the word of error[9]

 

The trappings of desire adorn every heart’s shop
There’s no mirror but its house of clarity reflects a bazaar[10]

 

 

Regard the spring painted with hues of new secrets
What your imagination never held the spring carries[11]

 

Only wonder I seek from the world’s estate
Like the wall’s mirrored image is my house and what it holds[12]

Bedil was cited as an influence on both Ghalib and Iqbal in their Urdu and Persian verse. His verse remains popular in Afghanistan and Tajikistan where they are studied extensively.

 


NOTES

[1] Sunil Sharma, The History of Akbar.

[2] Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (Columbia University Press, New York: 2012), 204

[3] Masnawi Nal-Daman Faizi, ed. Muhammad Taiyab Siddiqui (Patna: 1987), 191 (12-15) cited in cited in Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (Columbia University Press, New York: 2012) 216.

[4] Annemarie Schimmel, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture (Reaktion Books Ltd., London: 2004), 247.

[5] Schimmel, 248.

[6] Muzaffar Alam, “The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics,” Modern Asian Studies 32, 2 (1998), 333.

[7] Fazl Mahmud Asiri, Rubaiyat-i-Sarmad (Shantiniketan, 1950) cited in Natalia Prigarina, Sarmad: Life and Death of a Sufi (https://iphras.ru/uplfile/smirnov/ishraq/3/24_prig.pdf).  

[8] Annual of Urdu Studies (Vol. 27), 2012, Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi: https://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/66726/20BedilPoems.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Ibid.

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