06 December 2021
Two Centuries of Indian Print: South Asia Seminar Series at the British Library 2016-2021
The ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ Project has successfully digitised rare and unique books from the British Library’s South Asian collections dating from 1713-1914. Launched in late 2015, the project was funded by the AHRC Newton-Bhabha Fund and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. During Phase 1 of the project, over 1000 unique and rare Bengali books were digitised, and a further 600 books printed in Assamese, Sylheti and Urdu languages were made available online in Phase 2.
A range of highlights that have been digitised through this project can be seen here: https://www.bl.uk/early-indian-printed-books
The project has promoted Digital Humanities research in addition to generating new perspectives on the British Library’s extensive South Asia collections through a network of international collaborations, including our project partners Jadavpur University and the Shristi Institute.
Learn more about the project here.
To complement the Two Centuries of Indian Print Project, a series of South Asian seminars were hosted by the Library, whereby academics and researchers from the UK and abroad shared their research and knowledge, including discussions chaired by curators and specialists in the field. The talks were inspired by the Two Centuries of Indian Print project and often referenced the British Library collections, covering topics relating to South Asian history.
The first series took place in November 2016 and continued every month throughout 2017 and 2018. In 2019 the series took place in the Knowledge Centre, running from June to October. As a result of the pandemic the series was paused in 2020 and the seminars resumed online in 2021.
The South Asia Series talks from 2016-2019 are available to listen to through SoundCloud.
Recordings from seminars that took place in 2021 are available on YouTube.
Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2016
The first talk of the series was presented by Dr Richard David Williams, formerly a cultural historian of South Asia and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. Dr Williams is now a Senior Lecturer in Music and South Asian Studies at SOAS. The title of this talk was ‘Forgotten Music and Muted Women: gender, performance and print in the British Library’ . Dr Williams examined Mughal and colonial era sources in a variety of languages to draw particular focus to female musicians, dancers, poets, and patrons, and demonstrated how women were deeply involved in pre-modern musical culture.
You can listen to this talk here.
In November 2017, Dr Priyanka Basu, former Project Curator of Two Centuries of Indian Print Project and currently Lecturer in Performing Arts at Kings College London, presented a talk titled ‘The ‘High' and ‘Low’ of the Farce in Colonial Bengal: Bat-tala, Proscenium and Beyond’. The second half of the nineteenth century in Bengal saw a number of new and recurring themes in dramatic/literary productions. Social themes were best represented through the genre of farce. Bat-tala or the veritable Grub Street of Calcutta, was prolific in the production of ‘low-life print’. Dr Basu looked at the texts from the two divisions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ tastes in order to understand the marginal and subversive nature of the Bat-tala farces in comparison to the colonial Bengali dramatic canon, and more broadly the cultural and literary politics surrounding the farce in colonial Bengal.
This talk can be heard here.
Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2017:
In May 2017, Dr Christopher Bahl, a former PhD student at SOAS, and currently Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Durham University, examined Arabic manuscripts from the Royal Library of Bijapur in his talk. ‘ Cultural Entrepôts and Histories of Circulation: The Arabic Manuscripts of the Royal Library of Bijapur’ examined 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, Dr Bahl looked 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 provided crucial insights into the courtly circulation, social use and cultural significance of these texts in a local Indo-Persian environment.
Listen to this talk here.
Arabic Manuscript from Bijapur Library. (1617, British Library, Bijapur 7)
In August 2017, Lubaaba Al-Azami, an AHRC funded doctoral candidate from the University of Liverpool presented her talk: ‘Writing Empire: The Memoirs of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, Founder of Mughal India’. The founder of the Mughal Empire, Zahirunddin Muhammad Babur was an accomplished poet and writer as well as fulfilling his role as a prince and military commander. Among his writings are his renowned memoirs, the Baburnama, rare manuscripts which can be found in the British Library collection. This talk focused on Babur’s use of Chagatai Turkic in writing the memoirs, arguing that this choice of language is a marker of the Mughal Empire’s celebration of matrilineal imperial heritage.
Listen to this talk here.
Babur greets courtiers at the Id Festival (1595, British Library, Johnson 2, 12)
Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2018:
The 2018 South Asia Series included a fascinating talk given by Dr Katherine Butler Schofield, Senior Lecturer in South Asian Music and History at Kings College London. ‘The Maestro: Remembering Khushhal Khan “Gunasamudra” in Eighteenth-Century Delhi’, examined the life of the court musician Khushal Khan (great grandson of the most famous Mughal musician Tansen). He was chief musician to the Emperor Shah Jahan (r.1627-58) and was written about extensively in his lifetime as a virtuoso classical singer of exceptional merit and serious character. In this talk Katherine retells the story of Khushal Khan from the vantage point of the 1750’s, looking back over the canonical Mughal writings on music of Shah Jahan’s and Aurangzeb’s reigns. In doing so, she considers what they tell us about the role and power of music at the Mughal court at the empire’s height, before everything began to unravel. This talk was also part of a series conducted by Katherine called Histories of the Ephemeral: Writing about Music in Late Mughal India 1757-1858.
Listen to this talk here.
In May 2018, Dr Saqib Baburi, a former member of the African and Asian Studies project 'Digital access to Persian Manuscripts' delivered a talk titled ‘Sufism and Persian Manuscripts from the Delhi Collection, British Library’ . The British East India Company’s victories in 1858 ending the Indian Mutiny also signified the end of the Great Mughals. With their demise, the new Government of India acquired the famed Mughal Imperial Library along with other manuscript collections from Delhi, the former imperial capital. Transferred to the India Office Library, the ‘Delhi Collection' was inherited by the British Library. In this talk Saqib Baburi focusses on his recent study of works specifically dealing with Sufism, mysticism and metaphysics in the Delhi Persian collection. This illustrated paper presented new findings, and examined ways in which extant manuscripts helped to illustrate Delhi’s diverse spiritual traditions.
Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2019:
In August 2019, Farha Noor, research fellow and PhD student at the University of Heidelberg, presented on the Progressive Movement of female writers in North India. In her talk ‘Witnessing History, Writing Nostalgia: the Progressive Women’ , Farha explored literary revolutionaries such as Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai and how they broke new ground, inspiring many women to write within the Progressive milieu. Within this talk, Farha investigated the entanglements of genre and gender while rethinking ‘Nostalgia’ and its relationship with forms of life writing. Works by writers such as Shaukat Kaifi and Hamida Salim were also considered.
Listen to this talk here.
A potrait of Shaukat Kaifi (1928- ). (Kaifī, Shaukat, Yād kī rahguzar, Naʾi Dihlī : Sṭar Pablīkeshanz, 2006. YP.2006.a.7145) (Not for reuse)
In August 2019, Christin Hoene, formerly a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of English Literature at the University of Kent and currently Assistant Professor in Literary Studies at Maastricht University, gave a talk titled ‘Jagadish Chandra Bose and the Politics of Science in India’. Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937) was an Indian scientist and polymath who first gained an international reputation for his work as a physicist in the 1890s. Throughout his scientific career, which spanned four decades, Bose had to fight prejudices amongst his colleagues in the west concerning his skills and credibility as a scientist. Moreover, western scientists were suspicious in regard to Bose’s interdisciplinary approach to science. Christin Hoene examined how Bose attacked these prejudices repeatedly in his writings, and particularly in his numerous public speeches.
Listen to this talk here.
Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2021:
In February 2021, Kanupriya Dhingra, research scholar at the Centre for Cultural, Literary, and Postcolonial Studies, at SOAS, University of London, presented a talk with the title ‘Locating Daryaganj Sunday Book Market’. This talk engaged with the spatiality of Daryaganj Sunday Patri Kitab Bazar (or, Daryaganj Sunday Footpath Book Market). This local weekly market for used, rare, and pirated books has been operating in Old Delhi, every Sunday, for the past fifty years. Kanupriya discussed its stop-go history and traced the bazar’s location on the streets over the years, whilst examining its recent relocation to a rented, gated complex run by the civic authorities, in September 2019.
You can watch a recording of this online talk here.
'Street behind the Jama Musjid, Delhi, 1880s'. (S C Sen, 'Earl of Jersey Collection'. Photo 807/2(20))
In February 2021, Vebhuti Duggal Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, delivered the talk ‘Becoming a Listener in Mid-Twentieth Century North India’. Here Professor Duggal unpacked the idea of becoming a listener as it emerged in narratives of ‘Main shrota kaise bana/ bani (How did I become a listener)’ that peppered Hindi-language magazines. These magazines, referred to as shrota sangh patrikayen (listeners’ club magazines) were produced, circulated and consumed largely in the ‘Hindi heartland’ of North India during the mid-twentieth century.
Watch a recording of this talk here.
The South Asia Seminar Series has been an important forum for presenting research, facilitating discussions and engaging audiences with the British Library’s South Asian collections whilst promoting the Two Centuries of Indian Print Project. By making these seminars accessible online it is hoped that global audiences can gain new insights on South Asian history and develop their understanding of the British Library collections. The Two Centuries of Indian Print: South Asia Seminars have paved a valuable path for similar events in the future.