28 February 2023
A Panegyric from the Deccan’s Golden Age
This week’s post is by guest writer Namrata B. Kanchan, PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation examines the courtly Dakhni literary and manuscript culture between 1500 and 1700 CE.
One of the gems to emerge from the early modern Deccan manuscript corpus is a sumptuously illuminated Dakhni language qasida or panegyric poem (Or. 13533). Composed by Bijapur’s poet laureate Mullah Nusrati who was associated with the court of ‘Ali Adil Shah II’s (r. 1656-1672 CE), this work is dedicated to the Golconda Qutb Shahi, Sultan ‘Abdullah Qutb Shah (r. 1626-1672).
Although the text does not provide the reason for this poem’s creation, scholars surmise that it was a royal gift bestowed to the Golconda Sultan on the occasion of his sister Sultana Khadija’s wedding to Bijapur’s Sultan Muhammad ʻAdil Shah (r. 1626-1656) in 1633 (Ahmad, pp. 133-142). Continuing this Dakhni cultural legacy, the Sultana is one of the first known female patrons to commission the monumental illustrated Dakhni Khavarnamah (IO Islamic 834) completed in 1649.
One of the premier genres of the Persianate literary cosmos (to which Bijapur and Golconda belonged), a qasida is, in essence, an encomium. Originating in Arabic literature, it was first cultivated in Persian by patrons under the Samanids (819-999) who were keen promoters of this new literary language. The genre soon became de rigeur in courts and flourished under the Ghaznavids (977-1186) during the eleventh century. One reason for its popularity in these two courts was that the poem was a paean to its patrons, predominantly newly minted rulers or nobles, who were eager to display their power and status. Additionally, this genre gained acclaim because it was beneficial for both the poet and the patron. A successful qasida sealed the poet’s relationship with a ruler and was important for social and financial success at the royal court. Furthermore, by extolling the virtues of an idealized ruler, the poem possessed a dual function. It sought to bestow immortality upon the patron and served a didactic role by guiding and encouraging the ruler to match the qualities expressed by the poet.
Apart from adulating patrons, poets composed these poems to memorialise marriages, victories, hunts, or annual feasts. The celebratory nature of the qasida meant that it was designed for performance and therefore recited in formal courtly gatherings. Not limited to Persian, this genre soon emerged in new languages across the Persianate sphere, which ultimately resulted in Nusrati’s composition of the Dakhni qasida.
In general, a single metre runs through a qasida and each hemistich terminates with the same rhyme. Yet rules for this genre, as opposed to the masnavi or the highly codified ghazal, were often not followed. In the Dakhni qasida, Nusrati changes the rhyme scheme after a sequence of four to five couplets.
A closer look at the manuscript reveals that no expense was spared in its creation. The gifted wordsmith Nusrati, who was a budding poet in the Bijapur court in the 1630s, was commissioned to compose the qasida. Similarly, the manuscript’s calligrapher ‘Ali ibn Naqi al-Husayni Damghani penned the encomium in elegant naskh. A Bijapuri native, ‘Ali Damghani emerged from a lineage of renowned calligraphers. His father Naqi al-Husayni was chief scribe of the calligraphic programme at Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s tomb, the Ibrahim Rauza, in Bijapur (Haider and Sarkar, p. 143).
This beautifully crafted manuscript commences with two dazzling shamsas or sun-shaped designs radiating from the centre of the folio. A large number of Persianate manuscripts produced for royalty opened with a shamsa, which symbolized divine light. Resembling a circular garden brimming with multi-hued floral patterns against a cream-coloured background, the identically shaped Bijapur shamsas, with slightly different colour compositions, emanate golden rays to mimic brilliant noon-day suns. The second shamsa folio also possesses some discreet writing on the top left corner signaling that this manuscript is composed of 24 folios. A blotted stain above the shamsa on folio 3r is perhaps evidence of a royal seal.
Shamsas at the beginning of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s? (British Library Or. 13533 f. 2v. and 3r)
Each subsequent folio (so delicate that they are currently preserved individually in glass-frames), painted in gold paint, possesses a border of vivid floral prints. Hemmed within is a rectangular box for the poetry. Although floral borders adorned deluxe Persian manuscripts, this is the first known Dakhni work where the borders of each open folio and its partner folio contain individual designs that resemble a series of golden flower strewn gardens punctuated with neat lines of exquisite calligraphy in a midnight black ink.
In many ways, this exquisitely illuminated manuscript signals the apogee of book arts and Dakhni literature in seventeenth-century Bijapur. Any reputed poet could have composed the qasida in Persian but the use of this local vernacular and the commissioning of Nusrati, a poet known for his mastery over Dakhni poetry, demonstrates the popularity of and pride in the indigenous language. Although slim in volume, the manuscript exudes grandeur in every bejeweled folio replete with beautiful poetry and refined penmanship. If indeed this manuscript was a wedding gift from the house of Bijapur to Golconda, it gestures towards the significance of these marital alliances. Weddings were not simply the union of couples or occasions to display a kingdom’s wealth and status. In the Deccan, such partnerships were crucial for political survival, especially in the face of looming Mughal annexation.
Ahmad, Nizamuddin. Hadiqat al-Salatin. Edited by Syed Ali Asgar Bilgrami. Hyderabad: Idarah-e Adabiyat-e Urdu, 1961.
Haidar, Navina Najat and Marika Sardar. Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.
Husain, Ali Akbar. Scent in the Islamic Garden: A Study of Deccani Urdu Literary Sources. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Shackle, Christopher. “Settings of Panegyric: The Secular Qasida in Mughal and British India,” in Christopher Shackle and Stefan Sperl ed., Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa, vol. 1 Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.