THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

9 posts categorized "Events"

19 September 2018

‘South Asia Series’, Autumn/Winter 2018

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Asia and African Collections at the British Library (BL) are pleased to announce an exciting line-up of talks in their new 'South Asia Series', October-December 2018, featuring a diverse array of subjects from 'Theosophy and Bengali spirituality' to 'Miyan Himmat Khan and the last Mughal emperors'! This is a series of talks based around the British Library’s project ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ and its South Asian collections. The speakers include scholars and academics from the UK and elsewhere who will share their original research followed by an open discussion. The presentations will take place on Mondays at the Foyle Learning Centre at the British Library, between 5.30-7.00pm.

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The Bhagavad Gita translated by Mohini Mohun Chatterji (1887) (BL 14065.e.25)
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On 1st October 2018, Mriganka Mukhpadhyay from the University of Amsterdam will talk on theosophy and Bengali spirituality, focusing on the works of Mohini Mohun Chatterji (1858-1936), a member of the Bengal Theosophical Society (from 1882) and a significant member of the Theosophical Movement. His talk 'Theosophy and Bengali Spirituality: Mohini Mohun Chatterji’s Works' will discuss how Chatterji’s translations of Sanskrit philosophical texts, original essays and his public lectures shaped the Western world’s understanding of oriental spirituality. More importantly, as a Bengali theosophist and philosopher, he became a major figure in the history of transcultural spirituality in the modern world. This talk will discuss how Chatterji’s publications created a distinctive identity for modern Hindu spirituality in the Western intellectual world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

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Indian Music and Rabindranath Tagore by Arnold Bake (1932?) (BL P/V 2339)
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Moushumi Bhowmik, a singer, writer and music researcher based in Kolkata who works in India, Bangladesh and the UK, will talk about the Bake-in-Bengal archives. In her talk 'The Bake-in-Bengal Archives, and Beyond' on 8th October 2018 she will focus on the works of Arnold Bake both in the British Library Sound archives as well as from her fieldwork experiences in Bengal in collaboration with audiographer Sukanta Majumdar. In this presentation Moushumi will talk about the fascinating sonic maps of Bengal, their process of map-making, tracing contour lines from listening and recording, to listening to recordings, and to recording the act of listening. The talk addresses several questions including what was at the source of the motion: the Bake-in Bengal archives scattered in many places, or what lies beyond?

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A European, probably Sir David Ochterlony, British Resident to the Mughal court 1803–06 and 1818–25, watching a nautch in his house in Delhi (c. 1820) (BL Add. Or. 2)
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On 22nd October 2018, Katherine Butler Schofield, a historian of music and listening in Mughal India and the colonial Indian Ocean based in King’s College London will take us through the financial accounts of the East India Company that are alive with details of music and dance in Jaipur state in nineteenth century India.  Her talk 'Mayalee Dancing Girl versus the East India Company' will focus on a particular musician who stands out in these accounts as an exceptional, Mayalee “dancing girl”, an important courtesan. Little exculpatory notes in the margins of successive accounts reveal that Mayalee successfully resisted the Company’s attempt to force her to give up her salt stipend in exchange for cash. This talk looks at what official British records yield about Indian musicians and especially courtesans.

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I Spy with My Little Eye by Humphry House, Calcutta 1937 (BL P/T 2530)

On 5th November 2018 we have Supriya Chaudhuri, Professor Emerita, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, who will talk about a modernist community in 1930s Calcutta formed around the literary journal Parichay. The Parichay group included not only writers and artists, but also scientists, historians, politicians, philosophers, and spies. Its contacts extended to a number of disaffected colonialists in Calcutta: the geologist John Bicknell Auden, brother of the poet Wystan, the Dickens and Hopkins scholar Humphry House, the colonial official Michael Carritt, ICS, and Michael Scott, Chaplain to the Bishop of Calcutta, the last two being spies for the Communist Party of Great Britain. In this talk entitled 'Modernist Communities in 1930s Calcutta: Print, Politics and Surveillance', she will trace the network of connections through the Parichay archives, through other digitized records held at Jadavpur University, and through British Library holdings (for example Michael Carritt’s papers).

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(Secret) Government of Bengal: Home Department Political: District Officer’s Chronicle of Events of Disturbances, August 1942-March 1943 (BL IOR/R/3/1/358: 1943)
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Anwesha Roy, Marie Curie Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of History, King’s College London will focus on the years 1940-1942 before the Quit India Movement in Bengal in her talk 'Prelude to Quit India in Bengal: War Rumours and Revolutionary Parties, 1940-42' on 12th November 2018. She will discuss how war-time colonial state policies created annoying disruptions and intrusions in various ways in the day-to-day lives of the people of Bengal, building up mass discontent up to the edge, which, coupled with war rumours, reconfigured the image of the colonial state in Bengal. This talk taps into the psyche of the colonised mind, which was increasingly and collectively coming to see the hoax of British invincibility in the face of serious reverses in the Eastern Front and Japanese victories.

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Bodhan by Kazi Nazrul Islam in the periodical Moslem Bharat (1920) (BL 14133.k.2)
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On 20th November 2018, Ahona Panda, doctoral candidate, University of Chicago, will focus on the National Poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam in her talk 'Kazi Nazrul Islam and the Partition of Bengal: A Language of Unity, a Language of Loss'. This talk will explore how Nazrul tried to create a new Bengali language single-handedly. Using a large number of periodicals from the British Library’s collection, and drawing from extensive research in Bangladesh, this talk reconstructs Nazrul’s early years in journalism in which as writer and editor, he forged a new literary register for the Bengali Muslim community and crafted a political language that was anti-separatist, socialist whilw referring to a philological landscape including centuries of Islamic and Hindu literary traditions. The talk will conclude with how Nazrul found new life in the language movement in East Pakistan in the 1950s, in the years leading up to the Liberation War of 1971.

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Miyan Himmat Khan kalāwant, chief hereditary musician to the last of the Mughal emperors Akbar Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar. From James Skinner’s Tashrīh al-Aqwām, Hansi (near Delhi) (1825) (BL Add. 27,255, f. 134v)
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We end our autumn/winter talks for 2018 with Katherine Butler Schofield from King’s College London talking about musicians in the Mughal court in her talk 'Miyan Himmat Khan and the Last Mughal Emperors' on 3rd December 2018. This talk focusses on contemporary Indian writings on and a portrait of Miyan Himmat Khan kalāwant (d.c.1845), chief hereditary musician to the last Mughal emperors Akbar Shah (r. 1806–37) and Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1837–58). In this talk she will also make sense of the divergence of these competing lineages of musical knowledge in Persian, Urdu and English c. 1780–1850, by considering them side by side. It will show how viewing proto-ethnographic paintings and writings against a remarkable new wave of music treatises c. 1793–1853 reveal an incipient indigenous modernity running in parallel with colonial knowledge in the most authoritative centres of Hindustani music production, Delhi and Lucknow.

No advance booking is required, and the sessions are free to attend. Please do come along, listen and participate!

Priyanka Basu, Project Cataloguer of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’
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31 May 2018

'South Asia Series' talks, Summer 2018

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Asia and African Studies at the British Library is pleased to announce an exciting line-up of talks from June to September 2018. The 'South Asia Series'  is based around the British Library’s Two Centuries of Indian Print  and our South Asian collections. These presentations will take place on Mondays unless otherwise stated in the Foyle Learning Centre at the British Library, between 5.30-7.00pm.

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Uday and Amala: a scene from Kalpana (1948) (BL YD.2010.a.14968)  noc

On 4th June, Prof. Urmimala Sarkar from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) begins the series with a talk entitled Amala Shankar: Documenting a Dance Legacy which discusses the place of Amala Shankar within dance history as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, particularly in the context of her illustrious husband the dance maestro Uday Shankar and the Sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar. Focussing on the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre this talk will bring out Amala Shankar’s contribution to dance pedagogy as part of Uday Shankar’s dance making process.

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Glimpse of a Sermon Gathering in Bangladesh, 2014 (Photo: Max Stille)

On 18th June 2018, Max Stille, a researcher at the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, will present some aspects of his research on contemporary sermon gatherings in Bangladesh. In his talk Poetics of Popular Preaching: Islamic Sermons in Contemporary Bangladesh, he will focus on the issues of language employed in the sermons and how listeners identify themselves with inner-narrative heroes. This talk will also explore the musical competencies of the preachers in dramatic narrations to find out how they serve to change emotional and political meanings subtly yet effectively.

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Harischandra A. Talcherkar, Lord Curzon in Indian Caricature (Bombay 1903) (BL 10815.dd.19)  noc

On 9th July, Aniket De, a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard University, will discuss how political economic shifts, nationalist ideologies and itineraries such as pilgrimages shaped popular notions of boundaries in South Asia in an age of empire and nationalism (c. 1880-1950). Boundaries of Belonging: Territorial Demands in Colonial India will analyse the vast corpus of petitions sent by people from all corners of India to the colonial state during Lord Curzon's Partition of Bengal (1905), voicing opinions on how provincial borders in India should be delineated.

On Tuesday 17th July,  Anish Vanaik, Associate Professor of History at the Jindal Global Law School will speak on the history of Delhi’s housing question in his talk Lineages of the Housing Question in Colonial Delhi, 1920-1940s. The shift of the Imperial capital to Delhi in 1911 led to a rapid rise in the value of house property and rent. These escalations led in turn to calls for the provision of housing through mechanisms that curbed the excesses of the market. This talk tracks the more variegated 'lineages’ of the housing question in caste struggles, Gandhian ideals, rent control, state employment and sanitation discourse.

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Korāa Śaripha (1907) by Bhāi Girīśacandra Sena (BL 14123.h.39)  noc

On July 30th July, Epsita Halder, Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University will speak on  translations of the Qur’an from Arabic to Bangla in her talk Allah/Ishwar: Translating the Qur’an in Bangla. She begins by looking at the first Bengali prose translation of the Qur’an by Bhai Girishchandra Sen between 1881 and 1886 which had repercussions within the Muslim community with various versions being produced by the Muslim ulama. It shows how anxiety over semantic transfer of the Islamic sacred text into Sankritized Bangla, structured by the Hindu intelligentsia, played out in the diverse and conflicting arena of Christian, Brahmo and Islamic ideologies.

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Menu for and list of events at a dinner in honour of Hermon Ould, 6 Mar 1946 (designed by Mervyn Peake) (BL Add MS 88962/2/8)  noc

We begin our talks in August on Wednesday 1st with A History of the P.E.N. in Pre-Independence India by Tariq Sheikh, Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. P.E.N. International, the international organisation of writers established in London in 1921, established its branch in India in 1932. Unlike organisations such as the Progressive Writers’ Association, P.E.N. in India was aligned to the mainstream nationalist movement, with top office bearers of the Indian National Congress like Nehru and Sarojini Naidu playing important roles. This talk will present a short history of the early days of this important yet forgotten organisation.

On 20th August, Debanjali Biswas, doctoral candidate at King’s College London will talk on Dance History and Dancing Through History: Manipuri in Colonial India. In the 1920s dances of Manipur—a form that was deemed worthy of being part of state pageantry—had steadily garnered social and cultural currency in Bengal. By 1947, Manipuri had the rare distinction of being the subject of India’s first trilingual film produced from Bombay. Drawing on photographs available within personal collections of Gourlay, Haig and Knapik in conjunction with films of Woods-Taylor and ethnographic research in Manipur, this talk explores possibilities of constructing a history of Manipuri dance through material archives.

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Ram Gopal on tour, commissioned by NAAFI and ENSA India’ (BL YK.2017.a.3804)

We have another interesting talk on dance on 3rd September by Prof. Ann R. David, Roehampton University: Ram Gopal, Indian Dancer: Histories of Cultural Interweaving. The Indian dancer, Ram Gopal (1912-2003) played a crucial role in bringing Indian dance to international audiences from the 1930s to the late 1960s. Using interviews with Gopal’s remaining family, his costume-makers, close friends, and dance partners, coupled with archival evidence from the British Library collections, this talk discusses the lineage from which he came and the legacy he left, and addresses how the dancing body may be laden with colonialist, nationalist and orientalist discourses. 

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Shah Jahan and his four sons, Deccan, c.1680-1700 (after a Mughal original) (BL Johnson 25, 2)  noc

On 17th September, Anaïs Da Fonseca, Adjunct Researcher at the Tate Research Centre: Asia will speak on Deccani scroll paintings in her talk Beyond Temple Paintings: Towards an Alternative History of the Deccani Scroll Paintings. In the southern Indian state of Telangana, itinerant storytellers narrate genealogies of local castes using scroll paintings on cloth as a visual aid to their performance. This talk proposes an alternative methodology to understand the history of these paintings by looking at much less documented folk art forms that developed at the same time in the region. It also introduces folk art forms that might have equally informed the development of the Deccani scroll painting tradition such as Kalamkari hangings from Andhra Pradesh, leather puppets from Maharashtra, and so on.

We end our summer talks on 24 September 2018 with Debojyoti Das from the University of Bristol speaking on Visual Representation and Reportage of 19th Century: South Asian Earthquakes from Colonial Archive. In nineteenth century India, British colonial officials and geologists created a legacy of private and official archives of major earthquake disasters, including newspaper clippings, geometrical measurements and photographs. This talk examines the metaphors, symbolisms and representations that photographs carried in the aftermath of a disaster by examining colonial photo collections kept in British and Indian archives, while considering the ways that photographs were produced, organised and catalogued. It shows that photographs were crucial to substantiate colonial state and Indian nationalist (Indian National Congress) political appeal for relief and reconstruction in the colony.

No advance booking is required, and the sessions are free to attend. For further information , please contact Dr. Priyanka Basu, Project Cataloguer of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ at Priyanka.Basu@bl.uk. Please do come along, listen and participate!

 

02 May 2018

‘Soo Dhawoow’: Somali community welcomed to the British Library

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On Wednesday 7 March, the British Library welcomed members of the local Somali community to the Learning Centre for the first ever ‘show and tell’ of the Library’s Somali collections. Further to the success of the opening event of the Somali Week Festival, which the Library hosted last October, ‘Soo Dhawoow’ , meaning ‘welcome’ , invited artists, students, poets and historians from the Somali Community to participate in a proactive archiving engagement.

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Photo credit: Venetia Menzies
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The Somali collections at the British Library, which range from archives and sound recordings to photographs and printed books, contain vital cultural and historical information on Somalia and Somalis, both at home and as part of the diaspora. The collections in the Somali language include books, periodicals, sound recordings, microfilms, maps and newspapers. There are also bibliographies of writings in Somali. In addition to this, the British Library holds a wide variety of relevant published materials in other languages such as English, Arabic, Italian, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Swedish.

Attendees were shown the highlights of the Library’s Somali collections, including two 20th century wooden Qur’an boards, ritually used for rote learning of the Holy Scripture, as well as printed books in languages such as Somali, English and German.

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Qurʼan board BL Or.16442. Photo credit: Venetia Menzies
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The British Library also holds historic manuscripts and archives relating to Somalia and Somalis including correspondence about Somalia and Somaliland in the India Office Records and the India Office Private Papers. During the colonial period, the British Raj, the UK’s authority in India, managed the Empire’s holdings in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. To find archives and manuscripts, go to our catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts. These collections are currently being digitised and are available in the Qatar Digital Library. Photographic collections include studio portraits of members of the Somali diaspora in Aden which were published in an 1877 publication An Account of the British Settlement at Aden in Arabia compiled by Captain Frederick Mercer Hunter.

Representation of the Somali community was a key theme explored in the discussion at the engagement event, specifically the legacies of colonial photography.

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Male Somali’ from An Account of the British Settlement of Aden in Arabia, London, 1877, compiled by Captain F.M. Hunter (Printed collections T.11308)
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Given the need to expand existing heritage collections and open discussion, the Library’s Somali Collections Project Officer Mahamed Ali worked with visual artist Venetia Menzies to develop a unique programme for this community event. ‘Soo Dhawoow’ not only provided an insight into the Library’s Somali collections but asked the participants to produce heritage archives of their own.

In response to the artefacts, written books and poetry in the Somali collections, participants later contributed artistic responses that expressed their own snapshot of Somali culture as members of the diaspora. The results were wide-ranging, including an array of mediums such as photography, poetry, paintings and graphic designs. These were exhibited at London Gallery West from March 27th to April 3rd.

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One of the participants, Huda Hassan, a graphic designer, depicted Somali idioms such as ‘cagta wax ka dey’, which literally means ‘search feet’ and is a metaphor for ‘run’. Huda said that the engagement event was ‘informative’, and ‘very promising’, but noted that the scope of the collections could be developed. The British Library welcomes suggestions for this collection, specifically from those publishing books in Somali from around the world.

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Artist Credit: Huda Hassan
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Anab Aided, a painter, produced colourful paintings of Somali staple goods, as well as common onomatopoeia in the Somali language. Anab, an art teacher working with Somali children with the Galbur Foundation, also encouraged her students to contribute. They produced a colourful selection of pictures and drawings depicting aspects of Somali culture.

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Photo Credit: Anab Aided and Venetia Menzies
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The youngest attendee, Khadar Mahi, contributed a poem depicting the Somali landscape that was eloquent in both English and Somali. Khadar’s main interests are physics and poetry, which he claims are one and the same.

All the livestock
within your sight
whichever way you look,
grazing near the homestead.

The herding youth
in their white sheets
resting in the shade,
passing time with games,
chatting without a care.
(Poetry: Khadar Mahi)

Photographer Abdul Aziz Ismail contributed photographs depicting his journey by sea from Yemen to Somalia, as well as from Bosaso in Puntland.

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Photo Credit: Abdul Aziz Ismail
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Mohamed Mohamud, founder of the project Somali Sideways, contributed portraits from his ongoing body of work. Somali Sideways collates portraits of Somalis from around the world standing sideways, aiming to highlight that there are always two sides to an individual. It provides a platform for representations of the success, determination and entrepreneurship that characterise the Somali diaspora. These works were exhibited alongside portraits of the participants.

The British Library’s Somali collections exist for the public to view. A reader pass for the Library is free, and offers everyone the opportunity to experience these collections for themselves. The British Library is always seeking to expand its outreach with regard to its collections, so individuals within the Somali community in the UK are encouraged to engage with the collection. The British Library also has a growing number of printed books in the Somali language, which offer an indispensable source of information for older members as well as young people in the Somali community to use for their own comprehension.

To find out more about our collections, you can search our main catalogue Explore. For more information on the British Library’s holdings see our subject guide to African collections.


Mahamed Ali, Somali Collections Project Officer
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28 March 2017

'South Asia Series' talks from April to June 2017

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The British Library is pleased to announce the next set of talks in the ‘South Asia Series’, from April till the end of June 2017. This is a series of talks based around the British Library's South Asia collection and the ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ digitisation project. Speakers from the UK and the US will share the results of their research, followed by discussions facilitated by BL curators and other specialists in the field. The presentations will take place at the Foyle Learning Centre at the British Library, between 5.30-7.00pm.

The first talk, on Monday 24th April, will be by Francis Robinson, Professor of the History of South Asia at Royal Holloway, University of London. The talk entitled ‘Hasrat Mohani’s Diary’ examines the life of the poet, newspaper editor and politician Hasrat Mohani (1878-1951) in the tumultuous period of January 1947 to December 1949. Professor Robinson will use Hasrat Mohani’s diary to look at how the world changes for Muslims in the United Provinces after Independence and Partition, the discrimination they experienced and the attacks on their culture and position by a Hindu-dominated Congress.

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Image of Hasrat Mohani published by the Anjuman Aʿānat Naz̤ar Bandān-i Islām. British Library, SAC. 1986.a. 1967 Noc

The second talk will be on Monday 8th May, and will be given by Christopher Bahl, a PhD student at SOAS, University of London. His talk entitled ‘Cultural Entrepôts and Histories of Circulation: The Arabic Manuscripts of the Royal Library of Bijapur’ examines the historical circulation of Arabic manuscripts, which linked South Asia with other regions of the Western Indian Ocean world, including Egypt, the Hijaz, Yemen and Iran, during the early modern period. In particular, he will look at the historical development of the Royal Library of Bijapur in the Deccan, today among the India Office Library collections in the British Library, and how its collection of Arabic manuscripts provides crucial insights into the courtly circulation, social use and cultural significance of these texts in a local Indo-Persian environment.

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Arabic manuscript from Bijapur Library, 1617. British Library, Mss Bijapur 7 Noc

On Monday 22nd May 2017, Kamran Asdar Ali, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, will talk about the 1951 Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, in which the Pakistan Government brought charges of sedition and of plotting a military coup against certain leaders of its own military and against members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). The talk titled ‘Of Communists and Conspiracy: The Rawalpindi Case in Pakistan’ will discuss the conspiracy in detail to show the relationship between the Pakistani state and how it perceived the communist threat in the early years of Pakistan’s existence. In particular, Prof. Kamran Asdar Ali will demonstrate how external influences on the  leadership of the Communist Party of Pakistan may have left it in an ideological conundrum, and thus perhaps susceptible to engagement in a dialogue with the military on a potential coup-d’état.

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Front page of a pamphlet on the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, 1951. British Library, ORW.1986.a.3327 Noc

The fourth talk, which will be on Monday 5th June 2017, will be by Radha Kapuria, PhD student at King’s College London. Her talk ‘Musicians and Dancers in 19th Century Punjab: A Brief Social History’ excavates the material conditions of the lives of musicians and dancers, and analyses social perceptions around them, in the region of Punjab, during the long nineteenth century. She begins with the Lahore darbar of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and then moves on to the discourses by colonial scholar-administrators like Richard Carnac Temple, Anne Wilson, and others, in the mid-19th century. Furthermore, Radha Kapuria will offer a unique perspective by discussing relatively obscure authors writing about musicians and courtesans in the qissa genre, especially popular during this century.

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An illustrated miniature of a courtly mehfil of musicians, from the ‘Guru Nānak Parkāsh’, 1891. British Library, Or. 13079 Noc

On Monday 12th June 2017, Simon Leese, PhD student at SOAS, London will discuss the Arabic poems of Shah Waliullah (d. 1176/1762), the Delhi intellectual best known for his formative contribution to Muslim revivalist thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. Simon in his talk titled ‘Visions of the Arabic Hejaz: Memory and the Poetics of Devotion in 18th and 19th century North India’ will demonstrate how Arabic was not only the language of scripture, but a site of memory and nostalgia. Alongside major works of exegesis, theology, and Sufism, Waliullah had composed a small body of sometimes highly innovative Arabic poems in which he drew on the language of Arabic poetic love to articulate his own devotion to the Prophet. The talk will examine some of Waliullah’s poems, their fascinating afterlife in manuscript and print, and what they reveal about the culture of the Arabic spoken and written word in South Asia.

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Shah Abdul 'Aziz, Takhmīs amplifications on the Bāʾīyah and Hamzīyah by Shah Waliullah. British Library, Delhi Arabic 895 Noc

Please do come along, listen and participate. No advance booking is required, and the sessions are free for all to attend. For further information, please contact:

Dr. Layli Uddin, Project Curator of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’
layli.uddin@bl.uk

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15 October 2015

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

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The British Library’s major autumn exhibition, ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’, opens to the public on Friday 16 October. The exhibition showcases writing, literature and music from this hugely creative and dynamic region, grounding the story in a millennium of history and bringing it right up to the present.

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Illuminated loose leaf Qur’an, carried in its leather bag. The Qur’an is typical of those of an area including northern Nigeria and southern Niger
British Library Or.16751
Late 18th/early 19th century
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Africa is often thought of as the continent of the voice, with a literature, or rather orature, dominated by oral history and traditions. One of our concerns in curating this exhibition is to show a different picture, bringing to light histories of writing and scholarship that go back at least 1,500 years in West Africa. The manuscript cultures rooted in Islam, for example, date back at least to the 11th century, and flourished right across the region, from Mauritania in the north-west to Nigeria and Cameroon in the south-east. West Africa also has a very rich tradition of graphic and other symbolic systems such as adinkra (Ghana) and nsibidi (Nigeria).

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Postcard showing a griot (musician and story-teller) with his kora (calabash harp). It was taken by Edmond Fortier, a French photographer active in Senegal in the early part of the 20th century
c. 1904
Courtesy of Daniela Moreau/Acervo África/São Paulo-Brazil. Digitisation by Jorge Bastos

At the same time, it’s important that orature is not seen as somehow secondary to written literature, to be replaced in the inevitable march of progress. The exhibition, in which visitors can hear and see numerous sound and film recordings, demonstrates some of the complexity and sophistication of an oral literature composed across many genres, which has ancient roots and still flourishes today.

The exhibition is packed with over two hundred beautiful, remarkable and sometimes surprising objects. They include books, manuscripts and sound and film recordings as well as artworks, masks and colourful textiles. We start with a glimpse of the history of the last millennium, and go on to show something of the different religious traditions of the region and the literatures they have produced. Sections on more recent history – the transatlantic slave trade and the colonial and post-colonial periods – look at how West Africans have used literature, and culture more broadly, to both resist and reflect upon historical circumstance. The exhibition finishes with post-independence literature and story-telling, concluding with a poem released on Twitter by Ben Okri.

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Printed cloth with portrait of Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001), president of Senegal, poet and intellectual
Collet collection, 1975
We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for the original print designer of the Senghor cloth. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item

‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ has been in the making for four years, and has been curated by Dr Marion Wallace (Lead Curator, African Collections) and Dr Janet Topp Fargion (Lead Curator, World and Traditional Music), advised by Dr Gus Casely-Hayford (SOAS and King’s College London). We have consulted very widely with people with expertise in and links to West Africa and the Caribbean, and for the last year we have been working with an Advisory Panel.

As the exhibition launches, it’s accompanied by a programme of fascinating and fun events including musical performances, films, talks and debates. On Friday 16 October, a Felabration marks the birthday of the late Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti. The Felabration is fully booked but is being streamed live.

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Gold-weight from Ghana in the form of a Sankofa bird – a bird looking backwards. This is a popular symbol in Ghana, indicating the importance of history and of learning from the past. Gold-weights, made of brass, were used for weighing gold dust
18th-20th century
Copyright and item held by British Museum

The exhibition is ideal for families as well as adults – children under 18 go free and you can pick up a family trail leaflet on arrival – and there is an extensive Learning programme for schools. Concessions include a generous group rate – £5 per person for groups of six or more. For more details please go to our booking page.

‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ offers a visual and aural feast at the same time as revealing many little-known stories of the people of West Africa. It runs from 16 October 2015 to 16 February 2016.

For more on ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ go to our exhibition web pages.  An accompanying book West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song by Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace is available in our bookshop.

Marion Wallace, African Collections, Asian and African Studies
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23 July 2015

Out of the margins: Arabic literature in English

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The Shubbak Literature Festival at the British Library this weekend (25-26 July) will showcase some of the most exciting voices in contemporary literature from the Arab world. Reflecting the range and diversity of contemporary Arab literature, the festival features authors and poets who write in English, French and Dutch as well as those who write in Arabic. 

Arabic literature in English has a long history; one of the first novels written by an Arab was Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (1911), and Khalil Gibran achieved a following as writer of poetry and prose, including The Prophet (1923). But Arab literary works in English remained relatively few and far between until the 1980s. In Britain, Egyptian author Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the snooker club (1964) quietly took on a cult status and is still appearing in reprints, whilst Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s Hunters in a narrow street (1960) was widely translated and was reprinted in 1990. A breakthrough in popularity came with Ahdaf Soueif’s novels In the eye of the sun (1992) and The map of love (1999) which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, as was Hisham Matar’s In the country of men in 2006.

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Ghali, Waguih. Beer in the Snooker Club: London: A. Deutsch, 1964. Soraya Antonius The Lord. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986. Hisham Matar In the country of men. London: Viking, 2006. Rabih Alameddine: The Storyteller. London: Picador, 2009
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From the late 1960s Arabic literature became better known to English readers through translations into English, with Heinemann publishing translations of the most prominent authors, including Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris and Tayyeb Salih. Denys Johnson-Davies led the way in translating novels, plays, short stories and poetry over a period of more than 40 years; this work has been of key importance in establishing a readership for literature translated from Arabic. The American University in Cairo Press also played a vital role in supporting the translation of Arabic literature, later joined by a range of publishers in the UK, including Saqi Press, Quartet, the Women’s Press, Garnet, Riad El-Rayyes, and Bloomsbury, as well as Banipal magazine. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 raised the profile of Arabic literature in English translation, and a wider range of titles became available, alongside works written by Arab authors in French as well as in Arabic. The establishment of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2007 has also done much to raise the profile of Arabic writing from across the Arab world.

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Yusuf Idris: The cheapest nights. London; Heinemann, 1978. Nawal El Saadawi: Memoirs from the Women’s Prison. London: The Women’s Press, 1991. Andree Chedid: The return to Beirut. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1989. Bahaa Taher: Love in exile. London: Arabia, 2008
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Salwa Bakr: The Golden Chariot. London: Garnet, 1994. Hoda Barakat: The stone of laughter. London: Garnet, 1995. Hamida Na’na: The Homeland. London: Garnet, 1995
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Although relatively few Arab novelists wrote in English before the 1990s, Arab writers used English to reach out to an international readership through works of history, literary criticism and biography, as well as journals and essays. Among them, Raja Shehadeh first published The Third Way in 1982. He has continued, steadfastly, to describe life in the occupied West Bank to the present day, gaining prominence and international recognition.

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Raja Shehadeh: The Third Way. London: Quartet, 1982. Strangers in the house. London: Profile, 2002. When the Bulbul stopped singing. London: Profile, 2003. A rift in time. London: Profile, 2010
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Edward Said’s most important work, Orientalism, appeared in 1978. Said continued to write widely on literature, music, and the Palestinian experience until his death in 2003. Palestine occupied a central place in Arab writing in English, until 2003 when public opposition to the war on Iraq also brought greater attention to writing from Iraq. Notable was The Baghdad blog of Salam Pax (published in book form in 2003) which captured the imagination of a global audience as Baghdad’s people awaited the onslaught of bombs to bring an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein and the beginning of a new era of instability and violence. Ahdaf Soueif added works of political analysis to her literary output.

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Salam Pax: The Baghdad blog. Toronto: McArthur, 2003. Edward Said: Out of place. London: Granta, 1999. Ahdaf Soueif: Mezzaterra. London; Bloomsbury, 2004
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The growing readership for Arabic poetry in translation was also linked not only to its intrinsic appeal and artistic expression, but also to its political context, including the Lebanese civil war and the 1982 Israeli war in Lebanon, and the continuing Palestinian experience of exile and occupation.

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Mahmoud Darwish: The butterfly’s burden. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2007. Mahmoud Darwish: A river dies of thirst. London: Saqi, 2009. Mourid Barghouti: I saw Ramallah. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. Mourid Barghouti: I was born there. I was born here. London: Bloomsbury, 2011
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Whilst relatively few Arabs used English as a means of expression until recently, many more Arab writers have written in French, partly because of the length and intensity of French colonial rule in North Africa. Algerian writers published novels in French from the 1920s onwards, but from the outbreak of the Algerian war of independence in 1954, the novel in French became important as a means to express Algerian rejection of French colonialism. This period marked the birth of a vibrant and enduring French-language literature in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria – and many of these works have become available in English translation. As well as Kateb Yacine and Mohamed Dib, Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Algerian feminist Assia Djebar, are among the authors best known to English readers. Since 11 September 2001, there has been a sharp increase in the number and range of North African novels translated into English, both from Arabic and from French. 

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Kateb Yacine: Nedjma. Charlottesville & London: University Press of Virginia, 1991 (c. 1961) Mohamed Dib: The savage night. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. Tahir Wattar: The earthquake. London: Saqi, 2000. Anouar Benmalek: The lovers of Algeria. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf, 2001. Yasmina Khadra: What the day owes the night. London: Vintage, 2011.  Ahlem Mosteghanemi: Memory in the flesh. London: Arabia, 2008
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In the last decade numerous works by Arab authors have stood out on a world stage, and translations from Arabic or French have moved away from the margins. The Shubbak Festival will provide an opportunity to reflect on the changing reception of this literature in English. A key feature is the growing confidence and diversity of expression among younger writers of Arab origin in Britain, Europe and America, alongside those in the Arab world who are forging their own voice, and exploiting technological change, in ways that mark their difference from previous generations of writers.

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Ibrahim al-Koni: Gold Dust. London: Arabia Books, 2008. Alaa Al-Aswany: The Yacoubian Building. London: Harper, 2007. Elias Khoury: Gate of the sun. London: Vintage, 2006
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Tickets for the Shubbak Festival of Literature (in association with the Shubbak Festival and Saqi Books) are still available from the British Library Box Office.


Further reading

Gana, Nouri (Ed.): The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013
Ghazoul, Ferial J. The Hybrid Literary Text: Arab Creative Authors Writing in Foreign Languages. Cairo: American University in Cairo, 2000
Nash, Geoffrey: The Anglo-Arab Encounter: Fiction and Autobiography by Arab Writers in English. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012
Arabic Literature (in English), a blog by M. Lynx Qualey


Debbie Cox
Lead Curator, Contemporary British Publications
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16 July 2015

Shubbak Literature Festival at the British Library

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On Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 July 2015, the British Library will host the Shubbak Literature Festival as part of Shubbak, London’s largest biennial festival showcasing the best in contemporary Arab culture.

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As one of the leading collections of historical and contemporary Arabic texts in the United Kingdom, the British Library is delighted to partner with translator Alice Guthrie, Saqi Books and Shubbak to bring together some of the finest writers from across the Arab world, while also reflecting the diversity of current Arab writing in the UK and Europe.

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An illustration from a 13th century manuscript of al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt showing the people in a garden making music with Abū Zayd approaching. From the 24th maqāmah (British Library Or.1200, folio 68r)  noc

Knowledge of Arabic literature – both classical and modern – has been largely confined to academia. However, over the past decade or so there has been a noticeable increase in awareness and accessibility of contemporary Arabic literature in English, largely due to the efforts of established publishers such as Saqi and Banipal. This is also the result of a new generation of translators, publishers, bloggers, journalists and critics responding to a greater desire to read a wider and more diverse array of voices coming from the Arabic-speaking world. ‘The Rise of Arabic Literature in English’ will be the subject of the opening panel of the festival chaired by Robin Yassin-Kassab, and featuring Marcia Lynx Qualey of the Arabic Literature (in English) blog, Iraqi author-translator Sinan Antoon, British-Palestinian novelist and playwright Selma Dabbagh, and scholar and translator Daniel Newman.

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Mourid Barghouti, Raʾaytu Rām Allāh ʻI saw Ramallahʼ (Cairo: Dār al-Hilāl, 1997) and Qaṣāʼid al-raṣīf  ʻPoems of the Pavementʼ (Beirut: al-Muʼassasah al-ʿArabīyah lil-Dirāsāt wa-al-Nashr, 1980)

Poetry, although it is the oldest form of Arabic literature, continues to be a popular mode of expression for the beauty and complexity of the Arabic language, as well as for airing contemporary social and political concerns. Saturday evening’s event, ‘The Astonishing Form’, will celebrate poetry with a variety of radical and powerful voices. Compèred by Malika Booker, the event will feature readings by renowned Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, as well British-Egyptian performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz, Iraqi poet Ghareeb Iskander, whose work engages both ancient and modern Iraqi history, and Palestinian poet-activist Rafeef Ziadah, whose poems ‘We Teach Life, Sir’ and ‘Shades of Anger’ went viral.

 

As well as long-established literary forms, the Shubbak Literature Festival will also engage with emerging genres. ‘Science Fiction in the Arab world’, chaired by Sinbad Sci-Fi’s producer Yasmin Khan, will feature Egyptian and Iraqi authors, including IPAF-winning author of Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi. Comic books and graphic novels will be the focus of a panel entitled ‘Drawing Your Attention’, chaired by Paul Gravett, co-curator of British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition, that will feature Lena Merhej, co-founder of the Samandal collective in Lebanon, Andeel, co-founder of Egypt’s Arabic comic magazine Tok-Tok, and British-Libyan manga-influenced comic writer, Asia Alfasi.

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Faïza Guène, Kiffe kiffe demain (Paris: Hachette littératures, 2004) and Tok-Tok

Histories of migration, transnational cultural exchange and exile have played a role in the development of modern Arabic literatures. While some Arab authors have made European cities their homes, others have been born here and write in languages other than Arabic. The panel ‘Arabic Europe’ will examine how the contemporary European political and cultural landscapes intersect with the Arabic roots of writers living across Europe today. Shubbak’s artistic director Eckhard Thiemann will discuss these issues with Moroccan-Dutch poet Mustafa Stitou, Algerian-French writer and director Faiza Guene, and British-Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela. Shubbak closes with renowned Lebanese novelist and public intellectual Elias Khoury in conversation with author and academic Marina Warner. Khoury will also read from his novels, which include the acclaimed novels Gate of the Sun and Yalo.

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Elias Khoury, Abwāb al-madīnah ‘City Gates’, with illustrations by Kamal Boullata (Beirut: Dār al-Adāb, 1990)

The festival will also feature readings in Arabic and English by Man Booker International Prize finalist Hoda Barakat, as well as Syrian author Samar Yazbek and Atef Abu Saif from Gaza. In addition, there will be free events for both children and teenagers. A series of short films from PalFest and Highlight Arts will also show throughout the weekend, and there will be bookstall from Al Saqi Bookshop and free smartphone and tablet access to digital Banipal Magazine within the Library building from now until the end of the festival.

Read the full Shubbak Literature Festival programme for booking information. You can also follow Shubbak on Twitter @Shubbak or using the #Shubbak hashtag.


Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections

16 September 2014

One-day Symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research

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One day symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research
British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Friday, 31 October 2014, 9.30-17.30 (Programme details here)

Or_2265_f066v_1000Khusraw and Shirin listen to stories told by Shirin's handmaidens. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting in Safavid Tabriz style c 1540s,  ascribed to Aqa Mirak (British Library Or.2265, f. 66v)
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The British Library is holding a one-day symposium on the theme of digitisation and new research on its collection of Persian manuscripts, one of the most significant in the world in both size and importance. It is currently mid-way through a partnership project with the Iran Heritage Foundation and other supporters to convert catalogue records for Persian manuscripts into digital format as well as to digitise selected items from the Library’s vast collection with a view to making the data freely accessible online to readers worldwide. The main underlying objectives are to aid scholarship on the cultures and history of the Islamicate and Persianate world, and to help preserve this delicate material for posterity. Although only a small number of manuscripts have been digitised to date, the range is expected to grow over the coming years thanks to continued public and private funding.

Progress so far has already facilitated some exciting developments and discoveries. Join project members and scholars to explore the Library's Persian collections and find out more about recent research.


Registration
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Booking will be available from Monday 22 September from British Library Events . Tickets include a light lunch and refreshments and are priced at £15, £12 (over 60s), £10 (concessions).


Speakers:

Dr Sâqib Bâburî, British Library (abstract)
Two new sources for the study of Muḥammad Vājid ʿAlī Shāh in the William Irvine Collection

Dr Bruno De Nicola, University of St Andrews (abstract)
Rashīd al-Dīn’s World History: manuscripts of Jāmi‘ al-tavārīkh in the British Library

Dr Walter N. Hakala, University at Buffalo, SUNY (USA) (abstract)
Minimum taxable knowledge: the niṣāb genre of multilingual vocabularies in verse

Jeremiah Losty, British Library (Emeritus) (abstract)
James Skinner's artists

Dr Stephan Popp, Institut für Iranistik, Vienna (abstract)
Horoscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahān

Dr Katherine Butler Schofield, King’s College, London (abstract)
The confluence of two oceans: Hindustani music in the British Library Persian collections

Dr Emily Shovelton, Independent Scholar (abstract)
Margins of the Divine: the Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan  (British Library Add. 27261)

Dr Eleanor Sims, Editor of Islamic Art and Independent Scholar (abstract)
More from Mashhad? A recently re-discovered illustrated Shahnama manuscript of the 17th century

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, British Library (abstract)
Niẓāmī through digital eyes: observations on masterworks in the British Library

 

Further reading

Recent posts on some of our Persian manuscripts:

Indian Music in the Persian Collections: the Javahir al-Musiqat-i Muhammadi (Or.12857). Part 2
Indian Music in the Persian Collections: the Javahir al-Musiqat-i Muhammadi (Or.12857). Part 1
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
Persian letters from the Nawabs of the Carnatic 1777-1816
James Skinner's Tazkirat al-Umara now digitised
A Khamsah with illustrations ascribed to the painter Bihzad (Add. 25900)
A newly digitised unpublished catalogue of Persian manuscripts and postscript
Some portraits of the Zand rulers of Iran (1751-1794)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece

 

For further information: contact Dr. Sâqib Bâburî (Saqib.Baburi@bl.uk)

 

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