THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

24 April 2017

Raising Kurdish Armenia: Kurdish Children’s Books from Soviet Armenia

Among the stateless peoples of the world, the Kurds are perhaps the most numerous. Although they are believed to have originated in central and western Iran, their current areas of concentration are largely located in one of four countries: Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Smaller communities exist elsewhere, including the small Caucasian state of Armenia. Here, Kurds make up the largest ethnic minority – 1.3% of the total population. They are largely speakers of a northern dialect of Kurmanji, the Kurdish language that dominates communities in Turkey, north-western Iraq and Syria. In contrast to the assimilationist policies of many of the other states under which Kurds find themselves, Soviet nationalities policy recognized the existence of a separate Kurdish nation and, at least in theory, supported its cultural and social development. While Kurds in Turkey or Iraq were barred from giving their children Kurdish names, celebrating Nowruz or, at the most extreme, using the letters X or W (which do not figure into Turkish phonology, but do appear in Kurdish), Soviet Armenia’s Kurds had access to state-funded mother-tongue education.

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The cover of Şêrê Çevqul, or Greedy Lion, a collection of children’s poems in Kurmanji (YP.2017.a.773) © Hamoê Rizgo

Nevertheless, Kurds faced the same ups and downs of nationality policies that affected many of the other national minorities in the USSR. Among these were the codification, and re-codification, of the Kurdish language throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s. In the early 1920s, Armenian letters were first used for Kurdish, although this was abandoned in favour of the Latin alphabet in 1927. Among the Kurdish titles from Armenia held by the British Library, Қteba Zmane Kyrmançi, a reader for native Kurdish-speaking 4th year students from 1933 (14997.b.20), shows us the second stage of this journey. The work is written in a modified Latin script similar to those employed for Turkic languages within the Soviet Union during the same period. The idea was to create a uniform representative of the phonemics – the underlying sounds – of each of the languages to which it was applied. There is therefore no attempt at harmonizing this Latin-script Kurmanji with similar dialects further south in Turkey or Syria. This is understandable, given that the goal of Soviet linguists and central planners was not linguistic unification, but rather socio-economic unification leading to the creation of one, unitary Soviet nation.
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Title page of Evdal’s 1933 edition of the Kurdish reader Қҭeba Zmane Kyrmançi in Latin script and Oktjabr, a Socialist-themed poem  (14997.b.20) © Emînê Evdal
 
This is even more evident when we look at the content of the readers, rather than their form. Although the reader dates from the first five years of Stalin’s reign, it already shows the hallmarks of the “National in form, Socialist in content” ethos of Stalinist nationalities management. Poems about October (an allusion to the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power) mingle with illustrated folk tales and traditional stories. Children are entertained with pictures of warriors, bandits and princes in traditional Kurdish garb while also reminded that “Oktjabr – şabuna proletara” (October is the rebirth of the proletariat), and that “Bǝjraqed sor bьlьnd dьkьn zor” (Many will raise red flags). The 1933 reader is clear proof that the codification and standardization of a language – albeit within the confines of the Soviet state – could be used to serve a cause other than nationalism.

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Chariot Image – An excerpt from the 1933, Latin edition of Şerê Davit in Evdal's reader (14997.b.20) and the Cyrillic version of the same poem from the 1957 edition (14997.b.27) © Emînê Evdal

The author of this particular reader, Eminê Evdal, evidently survived the ravages of the Great Purge and the Second World War, and continued writing in Kurdish – this time in the Cyrillic alphabet – in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The Library holds a number of his poetry collections, including Memê û Zinê (14997.f.63), the name of one of the stories in the 1933 reader, and P’êrişan (14997.f.51), as well as other readers for the fourth year of classes at Kurdish schools in Soviet Armenia. In the 1957 edition (14997.b.27) the poem Oktjabr is no longer present. In its stead is Lenin, written by C. Genco. It is a panegyric to the father of the Soviet Union, complete with sketched portrait. Evdal’s poem Şerê Davit did survive the decades, and thanks to the copy held by the British Library, we can compare the 1933 and 1957 versions, picking out the orthographic, syntactic and semantic deletions and additions, while also marveling at the sheer visual differences between the Latin and Cyrillic renderings of Kurmanji.

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Kurdish and Armenian titlepages of  Jndi’s H’k’yatêd Jimaeta Kurdiê/H’k’yatêd Jimaeta Kurdiê (YP.2017.a.666) © Hajie Jndi

During the 1960s, the task of compiling readers for a new generation of Kurdish-language students fell to Hajie Jndi, one of Soviet Armenia’s most prolific Kurdish authors. His H’k’yated Jimaeta K’urdî (YP.2016.a.666) contains a wealth of Kurdish folktales, short stories, poems and the like, all rendered in proper Cyrillic Kurdish. They are sanitized of any suspect ideological components, and occasionally illustrated to bring home a particular point. These collections, by a man who is believed to have authored some 110 books, articles, studies and other written works, demonstrate the central role played by Kurdish folk culture in identity-formation processes for Kurdish communities, even in the nominally post-national Soviet Union.

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The cover page of Gezgezk (Thistle), decorated with personalized animals and the poem Heft Rreng (Seven Colours) (YP.2017.a.770) © Şerefê Eşir

Part of the process of countering overly nationalistic content was the heavy reliance on ideological and class-conscious elements within the compositions. Other items held by the Library show the extent to which Marxist-Leninist ideas were woven into children’s stories and poems. In the anthology entitled Gezgezk (Nettle) (YP.2017.a.770), personified animals on the cover clue us into the allegorical nature of these poems and stories. We see a monkey and a bear dragging off a wolf – an animal that Soviet children would soon become acquainted with as an underhanded cheater, thanks to the cartoon Nu, Pogodi!, which first aired in 1969. Gezgezk contains simple poems that introduce children to meter, rhyme, prosody and an expanded vocabulary of the Kurdish language, while also indoctrinating them with State-sponsored ideology. Animals and villagers were indeed favourite means of doing this, as we can see in another anthology of children’s poetry held by the Library, Şêrê Çevqul (The Greedy Lion) (YP.2017.a.773). This collection includes works such as Ker û Ga (Ass and Cow), and Padşa û Gundi (King and Village), both of which harken to the rural imagination generally contained in Kurdish folktales and other oral literature, while also hammering home core components of the Socialist struggle.

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Ker u Ga, an allegorical story about an ass and a cow and Padsha u Gondi, a Socialist-tinged tale about a King and a village (YP.2017.a.773) © Hamoê Ȓizgo

Kurdish children’s literature from Soviet Armenia provides us with a valuable component to understanding a culture fractured along linguistic, political, social and economic lines. Although numerically small, the publishing history of Armenia’s Kurds highlights the importance of education as an agent of reproduction of both national culture and language, and State-sponsored ideologies. While the Kurds of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran faced severe restrictions on the use and propagation of their native language, those living in the Soviet Union were able to transform fully their mother tongue into a literary standard. In spite of this, the Socialist, anti-nationalist content of the materials produced kept the core of the struggle for cultural and political self-determination far to the south of Armenia, paving the way for these publications to become relics of a parochial, historically bounded arena of Kurdish cultural production.

 Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator, Asian and African Collections
 CC-BY-SA

19 April 2017

Calcutta to Bihar: an artist's journey

As part of the Visual Arts collections at the British Library, we hold an extensive collection of drawings, sketches and watercolours by amateur British and European artists who travelled through the Indian subcontinent. In 2015, we acquired a wonderful little sketchbook, measuring a mere 80 x 204 mm, by an unknown artist who documented his/her journey from Calcutta to Bihar in the winter of 1849. Unfortunately, none of the sketches are signed or offer any details regarding the artist’s identity. The sketchbook contains 12 double-sided pages, each filled with sketches in either pen-and-ink or done in watercolours. The subjects include topographical views, portraits studies of locals, as well as documentation of crafts and transportation methods. Each illustration is annotated by the artist providing details of the subjects and documenting the shades of colour – such as ‘very white’ or ‘yellowish’. It is most likely that this incomplete series of sketches were preparatory studies that could be worked up at a later stage.

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View of Government House, Calcutta, anonymous British artist, c. 1849. British Library WD 4593, f. 7  noc

The illustrations in the album include studies of relatively well known buildings such as Government House and Fort William in Calcutta to lesser known spots along the Ganges and Hoogly Rivers. The artist’s impressions demonstrate a quick study and artistic impressions rather than providing an accurate visual record. One of the first views in the series is that of Government House (Raj Bhavan) that was designed by Captain Charles Wyatt and constructed from 1799-1802. The artist prepared the study from a position on Esplanade Row facing north. This neo-classical building, inspired by Robert Adam’s Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, was the official residence of the Governor-Generals and the Viceroys until 1911. Along the parapet of the central building, the artist sketched the East India Company’s coat of arms featuring lions. It is most curious that the artist featured the coat of arms on the south front of the building as they in fact are positioned along the parapet of the north face and main entrance to the building. A drawing by Lady Sarah Amherst, dated to 1824, shows the correct position.

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View of Fort William, Calcutta, anonymous British artist, c. 1849. British Library, WD 4593, f. 9  noc

On another folio, the artist illustrated a distant view of Fort William. Designed by Captain John Brohier and built during the 1750s and 1760s, the octagonal fortification was built close to the banks of the Hoogly River, just south-west of Government House. On the left, the artist wrote ‘white dark pinnacle’ and ‘church’ which is likely to be a reference to St Peter’s Church that was built in 1826.

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'Hindoo Temples of Tin & Coloured Paper, Coolies, and Ganges Pilots', anonymous British artist, c. 1849. British Library, WD4593, f.14  noc

Aside from architectural and topographical views, the artist also documented local inhabitants and customs. On folio 14, he wrote ‘Hindoo Temples of Tin and Coloured Paper’ and provided pen-and-ink sketches of what he assumed to be local and religious crafts. He meticulously documented the colour scheme of these objects. However, in finding comparative material in contemporary drawings and later photographs, it appears that the artist may have documented painted structures called ta'ziya, instead of ‘Hindoo temples’ that were created for the Muslim festival of Muharram. Examples of ta’ziya used in processions were recorded in paintings and photographs by local as well as British artists during the 18th and 19th centuries.

 
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‘Native boats’, anonymous British artist, c. 1849. British Library, WD4593, f. 25.  noc

The album contains several charming river scenes that document forms of river transportation, from small row boats to a steamer. From the sequence of illustrations and the inscriptions provided, it is possible to document the artist’s journey along the Hoogly and then the Ganges rivers from Calcutta to Bihar by way of the Rajmahal Hills, Monghyr, Patna, Dinapur and Ghazipur.

 

Further reading:

Archer, M. British Drawings in the India Office Library, Volume 1: Amateur Artists, London, 1969

Losty, J.P.,  'Charles D'Oyly's voyage to Patna', Asian and African Studies Blog, September 2014

Losty, J.P., ‘A Career in Art: Sir Charles D’Oyly’, in Under the Indian Sun: British Landscape Artists, ed. P. Rohatgi and P. Godrej, Bombay, 1995, pp. 81-106

Rohatgi, P., and P. Godrej, Under the Indian Sun: British Landscape Artists, Bombay, 1995

 

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator  ccownwork

 

12 April 2017

Campaign medals from the India Office collections

As part of our holdings at the British Library, the India Office collection of medals can now be found on the Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue.  The extensive collection includes more than 500 medals, which range from campaign medals, orders of knighthood, as well as  decorations. This blog features a few of the eighteenth century medals issued to Indian officers.

The earliest campaign medal issued and in the collection is the Deccan Medal 1778-84. The Deccan medal, issued in either gold or silver, was issued by the East India Company to Indian officers who fought in Gujarat for the 1st Maratha War of 1778-82 and in the Carnatic during the 2nd Mysore War of 1780-84. The Deccan Medal, here in silver, features on the obverse a figure of Britannia seated on a military trophy, holding a laurel wreath in her right hand out towards a fort where the British flag is flying. A Persian inscription that reads: Presented by the Calcutta Government in memory of good service and intrepid valour, AD 1784, AH 1199 is in the centre on the reverse. Around the circumference of the medal on this side is written: ‘Like this coin may it endure in the world, and the exertions of those lion-hearted Englishmen of great name, victorious from Hindostan to the Deccan, become exalted.’

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The Deccan Medal, silver circular medal, 1.6". British Library, Foster 4000  noc 

During the 3rd Mysore War of 1790-92, the Mysore campaign medal was issued in either gold or silver, by the East India Company to Indian troops who fought against Tipu Sultan. The Mysore Medal, here in silver, features on the obverse a sepoy with his foot resting on a dismounted cannon with a fortified town in the background. Inscribed on the reverse is For Services in Mysore AD 1791-1792 in four lines within a wreath, with a Persian inscription outside the wreath that reads: ‘A memorial of devoted services to the English Government at the war of Mysore. Christian Era, 1791-1792, equivalent to the Mahomedan Era, 1205-1206’.  

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Medal issued during the Campaign in Mysore, 1790-92, silver circular medal, 1.5". British Library, Foster 4001 noc

During the 4th Mysore War of 1799, both British and Indian officers who fought at Seringapatam, were presented with the Seringapatam medal. This was issued in silver-gilt, silver, bronze or pewter. The Library's collection holds 84 Seringapatam campaign medals (Foster 4005-4089). On the obverse is a representation of the storming of the beach at Seringapatam with the meridian sun signifying the time of the storm. Below this image is a Persian inscription that reads: 'The Fort at Seringapatam, the gift of God, the 4th May 1799'. The reverse shows a lion subduing a tiger with a banner overhead that shows the Union badge and an Arabic inscription that reads: 'The Lion of God is the conqueror'.

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Medal (obverse and reverse) issued in Seringapatam, 1799, Silver-gilt circular medal, 1.9". British Library, Foster 4005  noc

India Office medals can be viewed by appointment only in the Print Room, Asian and African Studies Reading Room. For further details and appointment requests, please send an email to apac-prints@bl.uk.

 

Further reading:

E.C. Joslin, The standard of catalogue of British orders, decorations and medals, 2nd edition (London, 1972)

J.H. Mayo, Medals and decorations of the British army and navy, 2 volumes (Westminster, 1897)

 

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator