THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

17 posts categorized "Research collaboration"

01 April 2021

Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing

Add comment

Between April-June 2021 the British Library and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, will co-host Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing: an online series of talks exploring publishing practices in Arabic as a site for unfolding intellectual networks, artistic practices and political imaginaries from the 1960s until the present.

Two-ring binder open with black and white page of illustrations, atop a green open-topped box with obscured items
From the collected archive for the project Borrowed Faces by Fehras Publishing Practices, Berlin, 2018-2021.

© Ferras Publishing Practices

The series has been co-curated and convened by Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections at the British Library.

The series has been organised in partnership with the Delfina Foundation, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and the Middle East History Group, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Video still showing a white board with writing in black ink and lines in blue ink, with a hand at the bottom holding a writing instrument
Video still from Past Disquiet.
© Past Disquiet

Engaging with a variety of artistic, design, archival, curatorial and academic research projects, this series will reflect on the multiple and overlapping worlds of publishing and on the contemporary efforts to reconstruct and reimagine them.

Learning from the leading practitioners in the field, the series examines past and present practices of publishing in Arabic. It explores questions of scale of operations and reach; mediums and formats; audience and language; and the social and political context that gave rise to the practices in question. The series also explores contemporary collecting practices of publishing archives. It highlights collections’ capacity to foreground publishing archives not merely as a signifier of other historical processes but as a historical process in its own right.

 

Split image, with colour and black and white covers of books and pamphlets on the left, some in Latin script and some in Arabic script, some with titles blacked out, laid out in an overlapping fashion, and on the right a headshot of a woman with chin-length curly hair standing against a white textured wall, with shadow obscuring part of her face
Left: Image courtesy of Kayfa ta.
© Kayfa ta

Right: Hala Auji. 
© Hala Auji

 

How to maneuver: shapeshifting texts and other publishing tactics

The first session in the series on Tuesday 27 April at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) brings together artists and curators Ala Younis and Maha Mamoun, in conversation with art historian Hala Auji, to talk about Kayfa ta: On Shapeshifting Texts and Other Publishing Tactics. In 2012, they founded Kayfa ta as an independent publishing initiative that emerged from a need to break out of the limited readership and distribution of alternative books: books that cross genres, engage a mixed range of writers and readers, and are not driven by restrictive market values that control who and what is publishable. Their project is also interested in identifying the mechanisms of “gate-keeping”, be they in art or publishing, that shape and limit the voices and practices that have access to a wider public. In 2019, Kayfa ta expanded its interest into understanding the wider field of self and independent publishing and distribution, as well as the new challenges facing access of the private to shared public platforms, and the space left to maneuver the mounting obstacles therein. Their talk explores the expanded fields of contemporary publishing and distribution – modes of making-public and of public–making, as developed through quotidian as well as artistic strategies – as a revealing entry point to understanding contemporary efforts to limit and expand the space of the commons.

 

Split image with colour photograph of seven books standing up in a line on the left, and a black and white photograph of a man wearing spectacles on the right
Left: Arabic Design Library by Khatt Books.
© Khatt Books

Right: Moe Elhossieny.
© Ahmed Othman

 

Archives of design and designing the archive

On Tuesday 11 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, Founding Director of the Khatt Foundation and Khatt Books publishers, will speak on The Arabic Design Library: Alternative Narratives from the Arab World. She will address the importance of documenting and presenting an alternative design history from parts of the world that are rarely covered in main-stream design publications. She will present the series of design monographs, The Arabic Design Library, published by Khatt Books since 2016. The series covers the work of some of the Arab world's design pioneers (including the likes of Hilmi al-Tuni, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Dia Azzawi, Nasri Khattar and Abdulkader Arnaout) who were practicing in the period stretching from the 1960s to the 1980s and who in their own way, engaged with design as a tool for political emancipation and socio-cultural progress.

She will be joined by Cairo-based multidisciplinary designer, researcher and writer Moe Elhosseiny who will speak on Arabic Cover Design Archive: Digital Archives as Design Activism. Through engaging with Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, he takes a critical approach to history, archival practices and access in relation to collective memory in South Western Asia and North Africa. With archives being suppressed, neglected, avoided, or locked away, there is an urgency to support collective memory building. Consequently, forms of digital archiving may take on the role of design activism. Elhosseiny founded the Arabic Cover Design Archive which seeks to surface and record book design practices throughout the history of Arabic publishing, providing an accessible digital extension to an often inaccessible physical archive. By making the archive visible through digital means, this project multiplies the instances where engagement with this material can occur. It thus aims to increase the potentiality for creating meaning and greasing the wheels of knowledge production while simultaneously alerting the public to the existence of their history.

 

Split image with a photograph of three men, one bare-headed and two on left with hoods, standing in a close group, and right side showing a woman with medium length hair facing the camera with her shoulders and head centred
Left: Fehras Publishing Practices: Sami Rustom, Kenan Darwich, Omar Nicolas.
© Fehras Publishing Practices

Right: Zeina Maasri
© Zeina Maasri

 

Visualising the archive: Arabic publishing during the Cold War

On Tuesday 25 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Zeina Maasri, senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Brighton, will speak alongside Berlin-based artist collective Fehras Publishing Practices (Sami Rustom, Omar Nicolas and Kenan Darwich) about their respective projects on Arabic publishing during the Cold War.

In her talk The Visual Politics and Poetics of Arabic Publishing, Maasri will explore Beirut’s development from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s as a nexus of transnational Arab artistic encounter, intellectual debate and political contestation, which was marked by anticolonial struggle and complicated by a cold war order. Central to this nodal configuration was the city’s infrastructure of printing, Arabic publishing and distribution that sparked creative collaborations between various Arab artists, intellectuals and militants who crossed paths in Beirut. These transnational circuits have materialised in some of the pioneering modernist Arabic cultural periodicals of the period, as well as in politically radical publishing projects that summoned revolutionary change and solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Her talk centres the visuality and materiality of Arabic publications as important sites of aesthetic experimentation and as reproducible and mobile artefacts of print culture. She argues that the translocal visuality of such Arabic printscapes helped articulate political imaginaries, mobilize cross-border identifications and shape aesthetic sensibilities in and through the disjunctive flows of the global sixties.

Likewise, through their project Borrowed Faces, Fehras Publishing Practices focuses on the Cold War era as one of the most fertile and critical periods in the history of Arab culture and publishing because of the entanglement between politics and culture. Their ongoing project researches cultural policies, and intellectual hegemony pursued by the bipolar power, the United States and the Soviet Union, and their establishment of institutions to fund international networks, conferences and projects. It observes the transformation of culture and publishing in the region from within, where new literary styles and ideas started to emerge. At the core of these movements were publishers, writers, poets, and translators, some of whom established collectives and seminars or who launched initiatives, publications, and publishing houses. Borrowed Faces looks into this period by observing the common denominators between cultural practices then and today. Pursuing these lines of inquiry, the project digs into print archives from the 1950s and 60s, such as books, magazines, memoirs, personal letters, newspaper articles, and photographs.

 

Split image showing on the left a colour photograph of an exhibition space with free-standing black stands, movable orange walls, and cream and green structural wall, all with artwork on them; on right hand side, headshot of a woman with hair to her jaw, smiling
Left: Exhibition view, Past Disquiet, Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon, July 27-October 1, 2018.
Photograph: Christopher Baaklini, Courtesy: Sursock Museum.

Right: Refqa Abu-Remaileh
© Refqa Abu-Remaileh

 

Fragmented archives and histories of solidarity

The final session in the series on Tuesday 8 June at 17:00 (register via Zoom) brings together Refqa Abu-Remaileh and Kristine Khouri to speak about their respective archival and curatorial projects.

In her talk  A Database for Palestinian Literature, Abu-Remaileh will share the work-in-progress of the ERC project PalREAD-Country of Words. Focusing on PalREAD’s use of digital tools, the talk will discuss the challenges and joys of tracing and mapping a highly fragmented and scattered history of Palestinian literary production in Arabic from the early 20th century to the present spanning a multiplicity of geographical locations around the globe.

Researcher and writer Kristine Khouri’s talk Reflections on the (Digital) Future(s) of Past Disquiet focuses on her decade long research project conducted with Rasha Salti which took the form of an archival and documentary exhibition, publication, and seminars and other discursive events. The project investigated the histories of art collections and museums built in solidarity with political causes for Palestine, Chile, Nicaragua and South Africa as well as unearthed histories of transnational artistic solidarity networks of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial liberation struggles from the 1960s to the 1990s. While the exhibition presented the research in the form of text, digital surrogates of archival and other materials, video montages of interviews with participants and other testimonies and film and other footage, the exhibition did not exhibit any artwork. Today, over a decade later, the question remains on how to treat the digital archive which has been built throughout the project, gathering surrogates of documents held primarily in private homes or difficult to find ephemera of histories that have yet to be properly written. The talk will explore some of the reflections and challenges in thinking about the digital (and other) afterlives of Past Disquiet and ways to imagine encouraging further research.

Full abstracts and speaker biographies for the series can be found here. For any further enquiries please email Hana Sleiman and Daniel Lowe.

Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge
Daniel Lowe, Curator, Arabic Collections
CCBY Image

07 December 2020

Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage: Conference at the British Library 7-8 February 2020

Add comment

In February 2020, to coincide with its major exhibition ‘Buddhism’, the British Library hosted a public conference entitled Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage organised in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies and supported by the Robert H N Ho Family Foundation. Over two days, speakers explored the idea of ‘collections’ – be they of manuscripts, texts, art works, or practices – and how they have shaped our understanding of, and indeed the very practice of, Buddhism across the world. In this blogpost, summaries of the event’s papers are given together with links to recordings and slideshows of the papers themselves. The conference provided a wide and rich array of reflections upon Buddhism and what we mean by the very nature of ‘collections’ – and the papers are articulate and entertaining scholarship well worth exploring for all audiences.

Conference participants
Conference participants (left to right from the back): Charles Manson; Stefano Zacchetti; Andrew Skilton; Matt Kimberley; Tim Barrett; Sam van Schaik; Melodié Doumy; Luisa Elena Mengoni; Marie Kaladgew; Camillo Formigatti; Lucia Dolce; Birgit Kellner; Mahinda Deegalle; Christian Luczanits; Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim; Jana Igunma; Jann Ronis. Photo: Serena Biondo

Following an introduction by Head of Asian and African Collections Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni, a keynote lecture was delivered by Prof. Dr Birgit Kellner of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She began by outlining how Indian manuscripts first came into circulation in Tibet during the 8th to 14th centuries in large numbers. The nature of the texts contained in these manuscripts was highly heterogenous: doctrine, philosophy, ritual, narrative and devotional poetry, non-Buddhist Indian epic, grammar. However, unlike in other regions to which Buddhism spread, Sanskrit did not take on the status of a liturgical language, with effort instead poured into using these manuscripts for teaching and translation by a network of translators moving around between and within India and Tibet. Several thousand Indian Buddhist works came to be translated and form the Tibetan canon in this way, and after the 14th century a knowledge of Sanskrit became restricted to those who specialised in the grammatical tradition.


Birgit Kellner Indian manuscripts in the history of Tibetan Buddhism

Kellner went on to look at two case studies in order to better understand how Indian manuscripts were perceived, collected and categorized. She did this by examining accounts of their use in a number of contexts, including the trading of manuscripts as a kind of currency in exchange for teaching; the acquisition and preservation of manuscripts as part of the material legacy of significant personages of a particular lineage within Tibetan Buddhist culture; and, by the 19th and 20th centuries, no longer circulating but treated as sacred objects within monastic collections to be treated as sacred objects and specially stored in libraries and stupas. Through this, Kellner addressed some of the core themes that ran throughout the rest of the conference.

The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti
The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti Remnants of a textual shipwreck: manuscript fragments of Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature. Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

In the first panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Texts and Translation” –  our speakers considered how particular textual collections and their translations shaped the understanding of Buddhism by its practitioners in the past, and how what survives of such collections colours our interpretation of Buddhist history today. In his paper on Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature, the late Prof. Stefano Zacchetti, University of Oxford, explored how the early Chinese Buddhist canon was conceived of and transmitted as a collection of translated texts, creating complexities in the production of commentaries so vital to interpreting these Indian doctrines upon their reception in China. Dr Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim of Goldsmiths College London gave a paper on the fascinating subject of Tibetan medicine and in particular the translation of the term rlung or ‘breath’. She looked at the history of translations of the term, and how intersection of different cultural influences from Greek to Indian have shaped interpretations of the concept and Tibetan medicine. Dr Camillo Formigatti, Clay Sanskrit Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries Oxford, examined the translations of Sanskrit texts by the Tibetan lo tsā ba Shong ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan and Nepalese pandit Laksmīkara, and how their processes played a pivotal role in the formation of a new Tibetan literary language. The panel concluded with a Q&A session chaired by the conference organiser, Matt Kimberley Research Curator at the British Library.


Andrew Skilton Endangered texts in Thai Buddhism

The second panel – “Collections in Monastic Contexts” – explored how manuscript collections in Buddhist monasteries, temples and courts have influenced the development and interpretation of Buddhist practice. Ven. Prof. Mahinda Deegalle of Bath Spa University,  spoke about his research on Sri Lanka’s largest temple library palm-leaf manuscript collection at Hanguranketa Potgul Rajamahā Vihāra. This collection has never been the subject of published work nor its role in shaping the Theravāda tradition considered, so Deegalle presented some initial results of his survey. Following this, Dr Andrew Skilton, University of Oxford, gave a paper on recent efforts to catalogue and digitise Thai temple manuscript collections, and how conditions of preservation, textual canonical status and changes in Buddhist practice itself have pushed once significant texts to the margins where they now risk being lost forever. The final paper of the panel came from Prof. Kate Crosby, and Dr Amal Gunasena, both of of King's College London, which examined a particular group of related meditation practice texts originally composed for Sri Lankan royalty by high ranking members of the monastic community in nineteenth century, now kept in the Hugh Nevill collection at the British Library. She showed how this particular set of practices ceased to be recognised in the modern period, and how as a result this important tradition has been left absent in both Asian and Western scholarship on the subject. The panel ended with a Q&A session chaired by curator Jana Igunma.


Jana Igunma The Buddha and his natural environment in SE Asian manuscript art

The third panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Art and Performance” – considered the way that visual arts and ritual performances in collections provide insight into Buddhist practice. Dr Christian Luczanits, SOAS, gave a talk on monastic collections of manuscripts and artworks in the Mustang region of Nepal. He highlighted the challenges that come with inventorising and documenting these collections and what doing so can do for understanding Buddhism’s development in Nepal. The British Library’s curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, Jana Igunma, presented a paper on her work investigating the relationship between the historical Buddha and the natural environment. She looked at a range of eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrated manuscripts from South East Asia and how their realistic imagery of the natural world has its roots in much older Pali texts from Sri Lanka. Dr Lucia Dulce, SOAS, presented Tantric ritual practice in medieval Japanese Buddhism through an examination of writings from Japanese temple libraries. In particular, she focused on yugi kanjō, a type of ritual consecration that developed in the medieval period, drawing on unpublished material incorporating liturgy, certificates and visual representations of practitioners and performance spaces. The panel concluded with a Q&A chaired by Sam van Schaik.


Melodie Doumy and Marie Kaledgew Preservation and conservation of Buddhist scrolls

In the fourth and final panel – “Collections in the Heritage Context: Conservation, Preservation, Dissemination” – the speakers looked at different aspects of the lives of collections in cultural heritage institutions and how these contemporary settings influence the study and practice of Buddhism today. Dr Jann Ronis of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center presented the work of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center in building the world’s largest online collection of Buddhist literature in Asian languages. Ronis talked about the BDRC’s workflows, data structure and the ambitions for establishing shared standards for Linked Open Data in the field of Buddhist Studies. The British Library’s curator of Chinese collections, Melodié Doumy, and Scroll and Digitisation Conservator for the International Dunhuang Project, Marie Kaladgew, jointly presented on their work for the Lotus Sutra Digitisation Project. By focussing on one particular scroll from this collection, they demonstrated the collaborative decision-making processes that inform conservation practices and the implications these have for the longevity and interpretation of material held in the library. Finally, Dr Sam van Schaik, head of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), shared his research on the oft overlooked area of Buddhist ‘magic’ using material from both the Stein collections and more contemporary materials preserved by the EAP. Through endeavours like EAP, heritage institutions helped preserve and disseminate at-risk collections the world over by combining local knowledge and understanding of collections with the resources that are typically only available through large public bodies. The panel finished with a Q&A session chaired by Matt Kimberley.

Roundtable discussion
Roundtable discussion with (left to right) Lucia Dolce, Sam van Schaik, Mahinda Deegalle, Birgit Kellner and Tim Barrett (chair). Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

The conference drew to a close with a roundtable discussion on the issues explored throughout the two days, chaired by Prof. Tim Barrett of SOAS with the participation of Prof. Dr. Kellner, Prof. Deegalle, Dr Dolce and Dr van Schaik. This wide-ranging conversation looked at everything from what we mean by the very idea of collections through the challenges that come with the responsibilities of holding collections for the use of current and future generations. In all, Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage was an important and very successful event for bringing together Buddhism scholars and professionals, Buddhist practitioners and the public to reflect upon the history of this major religious tradition, and for considering the role that institutions like the British Library play in preserving and providing access to its wealth of cultural knowledge and understanding.

Matt Kimberley, Research Curator, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork copy

 

08 July 2020

Toys and ephemera in a fifteenth-century multilingual illustrated dictionary from India

Add comment

The Miftāḥ al-Fużalā or Key of the Learned of Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī (BL Or 3299), a multilingual illustrated Persian dictionary written in 1468 gives us glimpses into the ephemeral life of the sultanate of Malwa in Central India. This illustrated dictionary (farhang) has quadruple the number of illustrations (179 in total) as Mandu’s famed Ni‘matnāmah or Book of Delights (BL IO Islamic 149), but it has mostly escaped scholarly attention until recently. It has been attributed to 1490 based on its paintings’ close relationship to a contemporaneous Shirazi idiom. Like the Ni‘matnāmah, it is a unicum and no other known illustrated versions survive. Other works by Shadiyabadi include a vernacularised Persian transcreation of al-Jazarī’s twelfth-century Arabic book on automata (Wonders of Crafts, ‘Ajā’ib al-Ṣanā‘ī, BL Or 13718) and a commentary on the Persian poet Khāqānī’s oeuvre (Bodleian MS Fraser 63).

My doctoral thesis, Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600)—a study of the corpus of Islamicate cosmographies and related wonder manuscripts in South Asia—was prompted by the Miftāḥ. My work on the Miftāḥ and the ‘Ajā’ib al-Ṣanā‘ī led me to conduct a global search of early-modern manuscripts devoted to wonder and the cosmos made in South Asia. Through a philological and codicological analysis of the Miftāḥ my thesis argues that the experience of this book generated a playful, didactive soundscape and its form and function owed much to the genre of the Islamicate cosmography (‘ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt). The definitions contained in the Miftāḥ shed light on nearly every aspect of early-modern material culture including metalwork, textiles, arms and armour, food, and architecture.

Dolls (bādajan), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490. Or3299_f51v
Fig. 1: Dolls (bādajan), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490 5.9 x 6.8 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 51v)
 noc

As a happy diversion from today’s world, here I present some of the toys from the Miftāḥ. The Miftāḥ’s large, well-spaced nasta‘līq writing suggests that it may have been intended for a young learner, likely a child. The inclusion of several entries devoted to toys also implies a child reader. For example, the first illustrated entry one encounters in the Miftāḥ is for the term dolls. Shadiyabadi defines ‘bādajan’ as “dolls that young girls make clothes for and play with, and in Hindavi they are called ‘guriy[a]’.” (fig. 1). Like a child playing with their early-modern Cabbage Patch Kids, the entry shows a young girl putting her three dolls to bed. It captures a lost moment of childhood play from the past.

Dolls (lahfatān), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490 .Or3299_f259v
Fig. 2: Dolls (lahfatān), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.5 x 8 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 259v)
 noc

To work on the Miftāḥ I developed a finding aid in Excel that allowed me to notice how its craftsmen created several visual synonyms. So, for the word ‘bādajan,’ we have the visual synonym of ‘lahfatān’ (fig. 2). Shadiyabadi states that these are dolls for which young girls (dukhtarān) make clothing and play with. This entry, however, does not include the Hindavi equivalent.

Yo-yo (farmūk, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.6 x 7.6 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 212v)
Fig. 3: Yo-yo (farmūk, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.6 x 7.6 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 212v)
 noc

Yo-yo (bādfarah, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 6.2 x 6.5 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 55v)
Fig. 4: Yo-yo (bādfarah, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 6.2 x 6.5 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 55v)
 noc

Lady with a Yo-yo, India, Rajasthan, Raghugarh, ca. 1770. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, sheet: 9 1/4 x 6 3/16 in. (23.5 x 15.7 cm) (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alan Kirschbaum, 80.268.1)
Fig. 5: Lady with a Yo-yo, India, Rajasthan, Raghugarh, ca. 1770. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, sheet: 9 1/4 x 6 3/16 in. (23.5 x 15.7 cm) (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alan Kirschbaum, 80.268.1)

In addition to dolls, the Miftāḥ contains entries on toys that one would recognise from South Asian art more broadly. For example, it devotes an entry to the whip-top or yo-yo which Shadiyabadi calls a farmūk in Persian and laṭṭū in Hindavi (fig. 3). It too has a visual synonym in the word bādfarah that is also accompanied by its Hindavi equivalent (fig. 4). These yo-yos, like many of the crafts and objects depicted in the Miftāḥ, can be found in numerous other examples. There are several Rajput paintings of ladies playing with yo-yos, for instance (fig. 5). The Miftāḥ gives words to these objects in both Persian and Hindavi thereby allowing art historians to come closer to these objects through philology.

Kazhmazh, Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 5.9 x 7.9 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 228v)
Fig. 6: Kazhmazh, Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 5.9 x 7.9 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 228v)
 noc

By way of one final example, a teaser for forthcoming work on the Miftāḥ’s sonic elements and sultanate soundscapes, I offer the definition of kazhmazh. Shadiyabadi defines kazhmazh as the child whose language is still not fully developed. The word itself is onomatopoetic, suggesting a childlike babble. The painting depicts a larger woman, probably the mother, speaking to her son. The child is comparatively much smaller. As we know so little about childhood and play in early-modern India, this illustrated definition gives us one vision of that ephemeral world. We can both hear and see the child struggle to correctly pronounce words correctly. It, along with the entries devoted to toys, draw us into a world of the pleasures of sultanate children.

I dedicate this piece especially to my nieces Anika and Zarina Tekchandani.

Vivek Gupta, PhD History of Art at SOAS, University of London; Postdoctoral Associate in Islamic Art at the University of Cambridge based at the Centre of Islamic Studies (from September 2020); and former doctoral placement at BL Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

Supplementary Reading

Baevskiĭ, Solomon I, Early Persian Lexicography. Trans. N. Killian. Global Oriental: Kent, 2007.
Gupta, Vivek, Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of  South Asia, ca. 1450—1600. PhD thesis, SOAS University of London, 2020.
Karomat, Dilorom, “Turki and Hindavi in the World of Persian.” In After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India, eds. Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 131-66.
Qaisar, A. Jan, and Verma, Som Prakash,  “The Miftah-ul Fuzala’: A Study of an Illustrated Persian Lexicon.” In Art and Culture Painting and Perspective vol. II, eds. Ahsan Jan Qaisar, Som Prakash Verma, Abhinav Publications: New Delhi, 2002, pp. 17-32.
Titley, Norah, “An Illustrated Persian Glossary of the Sixteenth Century,” The British Museum Quarterly 29. no. 1/2. (Winter 1964-1965), pp. 15-19.

29 June 2020

Two Miscellanies in the Manuscript Collection of Sir William Jones

Add comment

Sir William Jones collected a large array of manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Chinese and Sanskrit during both his life as a student and lawyer in London, and also as a puisne judge in Bengal. Collecting primarily Persian and Arabic materials and mostly commissioning Sanskrit materials, Jones picked up quite a number of oddities along the way. By far the biggest part of the collection is made up of well-known or popular works of Arabic and Persian science, literature and grammar as well as standard reference works in Islamic law; his collection is replete with such wonders as a beautifully illustrated copy of Niẓāmī’s Khamsah (MS RSPA 31), three separate copies of Rūmī’s Mas̱navī (MSS RSPA 34-41), and six manuscripts of works by Jāmī (MSS RSPA 46-50), including a Kulliyāt-i Jāmī (the complete, or collected, works of Jāmī; MS RSPA 46).

The opening of Jāmī's first collection of poems (dīvān) in the centre with his Silsilat al-ẕahab in the margins. Copy dated Shaʻban 940/1534 (British Library RSPA 46, ff. 369v-369r)
The opening of Jāmī's first collection of poems (Dīvān) in the centre with his Silsilat al-ẕahab in the margins. Copy dated Shaʻban 940/1534 (British Library RSPA 46, ff. 368v-369r)
 noc

In this blog post, however, I would like to shine a light on two of the most unusual and most difficult to classify manuscripts in the collection. Perhaps the most strikingly individual manuscript is MS RSPA 55, written on a mix of poor-quality coloured paper by a variety of hands. Impossible to classify or name, RSPA 55 is made up of miscellaneous segments of texts with no clear order or internal principles. Composed largely out of selections of poetry from a range of Persian authors, there are several sections which are devoted to the Dīvān-i ʻUrfī of the 16th century Indo-Persian poet ʻUrfī Shīrāzī, whose work is the most frequently reproduced in the manuscript.

Beyond ʻUrfī, there appears to be little to no rhyme nor reason behind the selections; there are anecdotes referring to Hārūn al-Rashīd followed immediately by a story of three travellers who share ten loaves, shortly after which we find a description of ten different kinds of script (Arabic, Greek, etc.), sayings in Persian by Plato and quotations in Arabic from the ḥadīth. This is all spread over just 4 folios, ff.87-91.

Excerpt from Miʻrāj al-khalīl by the Indo-Persian poet Tajallī (d. 1088/1677) who emigrated from Shiraz in the reighn of Shah Jahan (British Library RSPA 55, f. 236v)
Excerpt from Miʻrāj al-khalīl by the Indo-Persian poet Tajallī (d. 1088/1677) who emigrated from Shiraz in the reign of Shah Jahan (British Library RSPA 55, f. 236v)
 noc

The manuscript continues to spool its way over 469 folios, replete with ghazals, rubāʿīs, letters, witticisms and anecdotes, as well as qaṣīdahs, mars̱īyahs and qiṭʻahs of varying renown; perhaps one of the most striking things about this hodge-podge manuscript is the number of lesser known poets among the ones quoted. Rarely today will students of Persian poetry study in depth (if at all) the Dīvān of, say, Ghanī Kāshmīrī, Mīrzā Jalāl Asīr, Fighānī or Āṣafī, all featured in this miscellany of poetry.

There is no clear indication from the manuscript of how (or why) Jones acquired the work and no reason to suppose he commissioned it. Indeed, there are no annotations on the manuscript that can positively be traced back to him; unusually, the manuscript does not even include title and author details at the beginning in his hand. Who assembled it, and perhaps more importantly why they did so in the way they did, remains, therefore every bit as much of a mystery as how it wound its way into the collections of an English puisne judge in Kolkata.

Jones also owned another miscellany of poetical works, MS RSPA 109. This very small manuscript, measuring only 200 x 65mm, is a collection of Arabic poetry about love, that Jones entitles Dīwān al-ʻāshiq, with the gloss, “A collection of Arabick poems some of which are extremely beautiful – Anthologia Amatoria.” Including poems written by a wide range of poets, including Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, Ibn Maṭrūḥ, al-Sharīf al-Raḍī and Maḥmūd ibn Fahd al-Ḥalabī. These poets come from all periods of Arabic literature, with perhaps a slightly greater number from the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods than from the earlier periods. This is indeed his only manuscript that would have provided him access to post-Abbasid poetry, as the majority of his Arabic poetry collection was composed of copies of the Muʻallaqāt and other pre-Islamic poetry (MSS RSPA 103-5 and 110), a copy of Abū Tammām’s Ḥamāsah (MS RSPA 106), the Dīwān of al-Mutanabbī (MS RSPA 107) and the Dīwān of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (MS RSPA 108).

Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)
Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)
 noc

This manuscript also includes the only specimens of Turkish literature of the entire collection. Famously a scholar of Arabic and Persian, Jones’s scholarship is not so focused on Turkish (see Cannon, Life, 44-5). Whilst his letters make it clear he at one time viewed himself eligible for the role of ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a job posting that never materialised, he only ever published one work of any significance on Turkish literature, this being “A Turkish Ode on the Spring,” a verse based upon Mesihi, which he augmented with a transliteration of the original and a prose translation. This poem and translation were found within Jones’s 1777 publication of Poems, consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatick languages, before he embarked on his trip to India. In this anthology, however, which does mostly consist of Arabic poems, there are short extracts of poetry by Navāʼī, Nasīmī, Fahmī and others, in both Chagatay and Ottoman Turkish.

Beyond the poetry, the manuscript is also of interest for two further reasons. Firstly, it contains a number of folios dedicated to the writing out of glyphs for numbers of more than one digit, what appears to be several folios of handwriting practice and a folio which lists abbreviations found throughout the manuscript. Whose handwriting practice this is remains a mystery, especially given that the Turkish poetry and these miscellaneous pages were written in a hand different from the Arabic poems.

Finally, the manuscript also includes a page in English that names General John Carnac, a soldier in the East India Company and, later, after returning to India in 1773, a member of the council of Bombay (now Mumbai). This page is a short list of some of his eastern manuscripts with some brief descriptions; it seems likely that this manuscript once formed part of Carnac’s collection of manuscripts; we do not know whether Carnac himself commissioned the manuscript or if he purchased it. Carnac’s work in India did briefly take him to Bengal (in the 1760s), but by the time Jones was resident in India, Carnac was resident in Mumbai and then, Manguluru, both of which are on the western coast of the Indian subcontinent, along the Arabian Sea. It does not appear that Jones ever travelled to the western coast of India. Did Carnac bring the manuscript back to England and give it to Jones before India? Did they meet in India and exchange the manuscript? Did the manuscript go through others’ hands before Jones?

General Carnac's name inscribed in Jones anthology of Arabic poetry (British Library RSPA 109)
A former owner? General Carnac's name inscribed in Jones anthology of Arabic poetry (British Library RSPA 109)
 noc

It seems most probable that Carnac might have given Jones the manuscript in India, possibly in Bengal. In May 1787, for example, John Carnac, also a member of Jones’ Asiatic Society, despite being resident in Mumbai, gave six ancient plates to the society that he had come across (Asiatick Researches, 1:356). Unfortunately, MS RSPA 109 remains unmentioned in both Jones’ letters and the volumes of Asiatick Researches, but the interaction proves the two men certainly knew each other and were part of a broader culture among the English colonial officers of manuscript exchange.

These miscellanies, then, are two of the more curious aspects of the collection that both warrant further study and highlight the diverse nature of the collection. Jones was not only set about collecting classic works that today would form part of a Persian Poetry 101 class at university; instead, he was collecting literary works in a wide array of genres and styles, including these miscellaneous manuscripts that would have given him access to a great amount of literature not represented elsewhere in his collection.

Jonathan Lawrence, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, and former doctoral placement at the British Library
 ccownwork

Further Reading

Lawrence, Jonathan, “Sir William Jones’ manuscript copy of al-Fatawa al-'Alamgiriyyah
Society of Bengal, Asiatick Researches, Volume the First , London, 1799-1839.
Cannon, Garland, The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones. Cambridge, 1990.
Dennison Ross, E. and Browne, E.G. Catalogue of Two Collections of Persian and Arabic Manuscripts Preserved in the India Office Library, London, 1902.
Jones, William Letters of Sir William Jones, ed. Garland Cannon, 2 v., Oxford, 1970.
——— Poems, consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatick languages, London, 1777; second edition
Sitter, Zak, “William Jones, ‘Eastern Poetry’ and the Problem of Imitation” in Texas Studies in Language and Literature 50:4 (2008), pp 385-407

23 March 2020

Ulli Beier at the British Library

Add comment

I occasionally come across relevant materials in the British Library collection in connection with my original mandate on the Yorùbá print materials (see earlier blog post), even when they are not published in my target language, Yorùbá.

Recently, I stumbled on the materials on Ulli Beier, the German writer, editor, curator, and art scholar and enthusiast who lived in Nigeria between 1950 and 1966, and whose papers and other archives reside now in Osogbo at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, and at the Iwalewa Haus at Bayreuth University in Germany.

Yoruba myths Yoruba poetry

The distance between Beier’s work and the Yorùbá collections at the Library isn’t much, in fact. The writer’s creative output during his stay in Nigeria includes a number of original writings in the Yorùbá, translations from and into the language, and the promotion of work of writers producing in the language to the rest of the world. His work of translation of traditional Yorùbá poetry, myths, and proverbs into English are some of the most notable works of documentation done by any one person during that period.

His interest was in art and oral literature, but also drama, performance, and written literature. He helped introduce to an international audience, some of Nigeria’s later successful writers and artists, from Wọlé Ṣóyínká to Chinua Achebe with both of whom he founded the Mbari Club in Ìbàdàn and the M̀bárí M̀báyọ̀ in Òṣogbo; Dúró Ládípọ̀; and many others he published in Black Orpheus, a literary and arts magazine he edited. His first wife, Susanne Wenger, remained in Òṣogbo and became a devotee of the river goddess, and artist. As a creative writer himself, Beier also often published under the Yorùbá pen name "Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè".

30 years of Oshogbo art

The following are some of his works — or works related to him — that I have found in the British Library Catalogue relating to Yorùbá.

There are a number of other works about Beier, not particularly relevant to this write-up, just as there are a few dozen others about his work on Nigerian poetry in English as well as his work on Papua New Guinea. All these can be found in the British Library catalogue.

Yoruba poetry2 The stolen images

Here are a few more, including some published under his adopted Yorùbá penname “Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè”.

Researchers interested in the life and work of Beier will find a lot to benefit their work using the Library’s extensive collections on the man without whom a lot of what came to define Nigerian literature and art movements in the sixties and seventies may not have come to be.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
© CCBY

26 February 2020

William Jones, al-Mutanabbī and Emotional Encounters

Add comment

In 1774, William Jones (1746 – 1794), then 27, a graduate from Oxford University, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a barrister with the Middle Temple, received a copy of al-Mutanabbī's Dīwān (poetry collection) as a gift from a certain ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

1. William Jones by Arthur William Devis Foster 840
Portrait of Sir William Jones aged 47 by Arthur William Devis (1762-1822). Oil on canvas, ca. 1793 (Foster 840). Public Domain

ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Beg, it would appear (although it is not certain), lived in the town of Hama (Ḥamā) in modern-day Syria and then an important administrative and trade centre in the Ottoman Empire. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg sent this gift (now known as MS RSPA 107), having never met Jones, along with the following inscription:

يصل الكتاب إلى بندر أقفرد ويتشرف بلثم أنامل الألحن الممجد حضرة وليام جونس
يَا رِياحَ العَاشِقينَ أَوْصِلْ مُحِبّينا السَلَامَ *** شابَهو الرَيحان وَالأزْهارَ شَماً فيِ الجِناَنْ
إِنْ وَصَلْتُمْ يَا نسِيم الحُبّ مِنَا قُلْ لَهُم *** يَا عَمِيدَ العِلْمِ كْن عَن كُلّ كَرْيِب في الأمانْ
فِي الفَصَاحَة كَالحَرِير في السَّخاوة حاتمٌ *** كَان هَذَا وِلِيام جُونس انَكليزان في العيان
من عند العبد الفقير عبد الرحمن بيك

This book is to arrive at the port of Oxford and is honoured to kiss the fingertips of the most intelligent and glorious Sir William Jones:

O winds of the lovers, send greetings to our beloveds
They are akin to the sweet smell of flowers in a garden
If you arrive, o fragrant breeze of love, say to them,
“You pillar of learning, be free of all worries!”
Judicious in his generosity, he is like silk in his elegance,
This man is William Jones, the Englishman

From your humble servant, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

2. RSPA 107 marbled and note JPG
ʻAbd al-Raḥmān's dedication and Jones note underneath. Jones' translation is just visible, attached to the marbled endpaper (RSPA 107). Public Domain

Below this inscription, Jones has written:

I received this valuable manuscript by the hands of Mr. Howard to whose care it was entrusted in June 1774 at Venice, by Mr. W Montague. It was a present from Abderrahman Beg, who wrote the Arabick verses in this page, which are so flattering to me, that I can hardly translate them without blushing, 3 Oct. 1774, W. Jones.

Jones comment on receiving this book
Jones' note (RSPA 107, flyleaf). Public Domain

Yet, translate them he did – or at least, it would appear, given that the opposite side has been ripped out, but you can still make out the beginning of the word Oxford at the start of the page. Jones was clearly troubled by the verse. In two letters, also dated to 1774, Jones tells of his receipt of the gift and his consequent embarrassment. In a letter to the Mr. Howard who presented him with the manuscript, he wrote (Jones, pp. 229-30):

I have just received your most obliging letter, with a fine Arabic manuscript, containing the works of a celebrated poet with whom I have been long acquainted: this testimony of Mr Montague’s regard is extremely pleasing to me and I have a most grateful sense of his kindness. I am conscious how little I have deserved the many honours I have lately received from the learned in Europe and Asia: I can ascribe their politeness to nothing but their candour and benevolence. I fear they will think me still less deserving when they know that I have deserted, or rather suspended, all literary pursuits whatever and am wholly engaged in the study of a profession for which I was always intended. As the law is a jealous science, and will not have any partnership with the Eastern Muses, I must absolutely renounce their acquaintance for ten or twelve years to come. This manuscript, however, is highly acceptable to me, and shall be preserved among my choicest treasures, till I have leisure to give it an attentive perusal. There is a compliment to me written in Arabic verse, in the first leaf of the book, and signed Abdurrahman Beg: the verses are very fine, but so full of Oriental panegyric, that I could not read them without blushing. The present seems to come from the learned Arabian: but as he has not inserted my name in his verses, and speaks of Oxford, he must have heard me mentioned by Mr. Montague, to whom therefore I am equally indebted for the present.

At the same time in October 1774, Jones wrote a very long letter to Hendrik Albert Schultens, the Dutch linguist, in which he said (Jones, pp. 227-8):

Whilst I am writing this letter, a person called upon me with a manuscript, which he had received at Venice from Mr. Montague, a man of family. I immediately perceived it to be a most beautiful and correct copy of Motanabbi with a letter addressed to myself in Arabic verse, from some person named Abdurrahman, whom Mr. Montague had probably seen in Asia. I owe great obligations to the politeness of the learned Arab but I by no means think myself worthy of his exaggerated encomiums – but you know the pompous style of the Orientals.

In both letters, as well as the note he appended to the verse inscription in the manuscript itself, Jones emphasises his embarrassment at receiving these “exaggerated encomiums”; his response encapsulates a particular form of the colonial encounter, this being the interaction of two emotional regimes, expressed in two very different literary styles. Why did Jones feel so awkward about this poem?

Diwan al-Mutanabbi RSPA107
The opening pages of the Dīwān of al-Mutanabbī (RSPA 107, ff. 1v-2r). Public Domain

The poetry is a fairly standard example of Arabic panegyric (madīḥ ), a genre in which al-Mutannabī was one of the most exemplary poets of the entire tradition; his panegyrics for the tenth century Amir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawlah established his reputation and was, according to Margaret Larkin, the pinnacle of his career. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg’s poetic homage to Jones is, in many ways, a pastiche of the conventional symbols of poetic panegyric which al-Mutanabbī used – to much greater poetic effect and success – in his panegyrics of Sayf al-Dawlah. The winds of lovers (riyāḥa 'l-ʿāshiqīna), the south-winds of love ( nasīma 'l-ḥubbi) and the sweet floral smell of the odoriferous plants and flowers in the garden which the object of poetry is akin to ( shābahū 'l-rayḥāna wa-l-azhāra shamman fī-l-jināni): these are all very conventional tropes of Arabic love lyric (nasīb), cliché almost. The clichés used by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg may be conventional, but they also reveal an emotional regime which is expressed through the intermingling of the language of love and the language of admiration and an emotional regime in which this literary expression is completely normal, conventional and expected. Our concern here is: how did Jones read such poetry?

Jones was certainly well versed in Arabic poetry and would have been very familiar with the linguistic register of the nasīb and the panegyric which are both on show here. Having already read al-Mutanabbī, he would surely have known the idiomatic nature of the verse in front of him and the hackneyed terms of praise chosen by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg. Why the embarrassment, then?

William Reddy has proposed the ‘emotional regime’ as a useful framework for studying emotion history, this being what he terms the normative set of emotions in any one culture and the linguistic, ritualistic and practical structures of that culture which produce and embed them. Here, we see the interaction and conflict of two such emotional regimes: the “exaggerated encomiums” and “pompous panegyric” of the poetry mixed with Jones’s blushing, embarrassment and ‘English reserve’. Jones’s reading sees the poetry as awkward, over-the-top flattery. This he ascribes to the “pompous style of the Orientals”, rather brushing it aside as a local custom, a linguistic cliché that is, to his mind, in the context of the men never having met, a faintly ridiculous example of such poetry, of which Jones feels “wholly unworthy”. Yet, in the colonial politics of the moment, it would be easy to forget that Jones was subject to his own emotional regime, one which does not valorise such overt intermingling of personal feeling with professional compliment, hence Jones’s feeling ‘unworthy’ of such compliments and emphasising in each of the letters his detachment from the subject of praise (his knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit literature) and instead his professional attachment to a new field: the law.

However, Jones did not just read the poem. Rather, he struggles to accept the compliments and to see the poetry as anything other than “pompous” because he translates them into his own idiom and sees them from within his own emotional regime, and it is at the English expression of emotions, which has become decontextualised from its linguistic formality, that he blushes. Translation can be a tricky business, displacing a constellation of poetic tropes and images from its historical and literary context and embedding them within a new language’s and a new emotional regime’s constraints of style. Whilst in Arabic the poem is a fairly conventional intermingling of nasīb and madīḥ linguistic registers and images, the English translation stands out as unusual within the broader English poetic tradition and imaginary, exemplifying the discord felt by the inter-linguistic politics of emotional translation, the difficulty of expressing oneself comfortably across languages and emotional regimes which have their own register of emotional expression. In his translation, Jones has transformed the poem: out of a standardised and conventional set of images spread over three short lines of poetry, Jones has created this awkward feeling for himself in his attempt to read the Arabic into English, in his use of Arabic emotional expressions outside of their context.

This single interaction speaks to the difficulty we face in traversing emotional regimes, in translating styles and ways of speaking which are so at home in their own context into a new and unfamiliar emotional background.

Further Reading
Bray, Julia, “Yaʿqūb b. al-Rabīʿ Read by al-Mutanabbī and al-Mubarrad: A Contribution to an Abbasid History of Emotions”, Journal of Abbasid Studies 4:1 (2017).
Jacobi, Renate “Qaṣīda (pl. Qaṣāʾid)” in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey (eds.) Encyclopaedia of Arabic Literature, 2:630-33.
Jones, Sir William (ed. John Shore and S.C. Wilks), Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of Sir William Jones, by Lord Teignmouth. With the Life of Lord Teignmouth, and Notes, by S.C. Wilks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1835).
Larkin, Margaret Al-Mutanabbi: Voice of the ʿAbbasid Poetic Ideal (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).
Meisami, Julie Scott, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Lyric Poetry: Orient Pearls (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
al-Mutanabbī, Abū al-Ṭayyib (tr. A. J. Arberry), Poems of al-Mutanabbī: a Selection with Introduction, Translation and Notes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967).
Plamper, Jan et al, “The History of Emotions: an Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns" in History and Theory 49, no. 2 (2010): 237-65.
Reddy, William, The Making of Romantic: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan 900-1200 CE (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
–––––, The Navigation of Feeling: a Framework for the History of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Sadan, Joseph, “Maiden’s Hair and Starry Skies – Image Systems and Maʿānī Guides” in Sasson Somekh (ed.), Studies in Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Poetics (Leiden: Brill, 1991).


Jonathan Lawrence, D Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, doctoral placement at British Library
© CCBY

30 December 2019

African Literature through the Language Lens: The Yorùbá Example

Add comment

As one of the two 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellows at the British Library, my work revolves around literature produced in Yorùbá.

Literature written by Africans in African languages existed before African literature in English (or other European languages). This fact, frequently overlooked, has coloured the discussion of what we talk about whenever we explore “African literature”. Some of the first writings we instinctively think or talk about when discussing African literature, for instance, are usually in English: Amos Tútùọlá’s Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (1961), among others. But the history of writing and publishing literature by Africans in Africa started much earlier, and in other African languages.

Periodicals
You can find some earlier newspapers published in Yorùbá at the British Library.
CC Public Domain Image

On November 23, 1859, the first newspaper in Nigeria was published in Abeokuta, titled Ìwé Ìròhìn Fún Àwọn Ará Ẹ̀gbá àti Yorùbá. It was printed by the printing press of Henry Townsend, established five years earlier as an arm of the missionary endeavour he was involved in, and as a way to keep the few literate people in “high society” engaged in the day-to-day of society. The newspaper was published in both Yorùbá and English. It was published every fifteen days and sold for 120 cowries (about a penny at the time). Its readership rose to around 3000 subscribers before it went belly-up after the printing press was burnt during one of the skirmishes between the British visitors and the Ẹ̀gbá residents.

In 1891, another iteration of the paper resurrected in Lagos, retaining a version of the original name. Now it was called Ìwé Ìròhìn Yorùbá àti Èkó — the newspaper of Yorùbá and Lagos. The word “Yorùbá” at this point had just begun to be adopted as the general name for all the people who speak associated languages and dialect, and who live in South-western Nigeria. Before then, the word had only referred to the Oyo people. Others retained their own ethnic names: Ẹ̀gbá, Ìjẹ̀bú, Èkìtì, Ìjẹ̀ṣà, Yàgbà, etc.

Masthead of Yoruba paper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó. First page of Yoruba newspaper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó 9 May 1891.
Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó (1891) was one of the first newspapers published in both Yorùbá and English. (1866.c.5.(18.))
CC Public Domain Image

Through these publications, many of which were printed in both Yorùbá and English, the educated elite found ways to learn about what was going on in other parts of the world. Through letters to the editor, they were also able to respond, and participate in ongoing civil and social debates. It was not surprising to read then, for instance, that many Africans had read, debated, and written rejoinders to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 which codified the demarcation of the continent. According to this Al Jazeera news opinion , “a week before it closed, the Lagos Observer declared that ‘the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.’" The Lagos Observer was another one of those newspapers at the time, established in 1882. (The British Library holds copies from 1882 to 1888 in microfilm).

In 1928, another one of those newspapers was founded, called Akéde Èkó (The Lagos Herald). It was edited by Isaac Babalọlá Thomas (1888-1963), journalist and writer. In 1929, he wrote what has been generally agreed upon as “the first Yorùbá novel.” The work, titled Ìtàn Ìgbésí Ayé Èmi Ṣẹ̀gílọlá Ẹlẹ́yinjú Ẹgẹ́ Ẹlẹ́gbẹ̀rún Ọkọ L’áíyé ( The story of my life; me, Segilola, one with delicate eyes and a thousand living husbands ), was published first as a serial, disguised as a letter to the editor by a dying old lady willing to spill the story of her exciting and sometimes tawdry adventures on the pages of the newspapers. When it was eventually published, with the author being credited merely as a custodian of the story by the “anonymous” lady, it caused some scandal in the new society not used to reading such open discussion of sexual relationships.

Cover of Print Culture and the first Yoruba Novel.
Print Culture and the First Yorùbá Novel” edited by Karin Barber. (Print culture and the first Yoruba novel : I.B. Thomas's 'Life story of me, Sẹgilọla' and other texts , edited by Karin Barber (Leiden: Brill, 2012). (YD.2012.a.5228)
CC Public Domain Image

There had been many pamphlets, religious texts, poems, tracts, etc. published before this time, some of them unattributed to anyone but religious organisations. But over the next decades, scores of literary works — short stories, novelettes, novels, travelogues, poetry and other personal narratives were published to limited audiences literate in Yorùbá and in the culture of the changing times. By the time the first notable English language novel The Palm Wine Drinkard was published in 1952, it had a whole generation of Nigerian Yorùbá literary oeuvre to longingly gesture towards, and borrow from.

The fame of the English language genre would come to eventually supplant and stunt the growth of Nigerian-language creative output in the subsequent generations. By the mid-eighties, long after the departure or nationalization of the earlier British establishment firms that had published some of the earlier Nigerian writers, including D.O. Fágúnwà, J.F. Ọdúnjọ and Adébáyọ̀ Fálétí, the creative output in the local language also seemed to gradually disappear. Today, there is no reputable institution publishing Nigerian language fiction or drama or poetry. There are still publications, but they are mostly self-publications with no peer review or professional vetting and critical appraising mechanism.

As a 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow, my work over this next year will examine the Yorùbá language collections in the British Library — containing over two hundred years of documentation and preservation — to draw patterns, find gaps, identify trends and relevant research directions for future researchers who will come to use the Library, and generally provide expert analysis of the Library’s Yorùbá language material holdings. And sometimes, non-Yorùbá texts of relevance will also come my way, as one did a few weeks ago when I discovered that the original typescript of Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s Ìdànrè, eventually published in 1965, resides in the manuscript section at the Library, still bearing the marking, handwritings and musical directions of the then 31 year-old-author.

I also happen to be a linguist, interested in the growth, development, and sustenance of the Yorùbá language (and other Nigerian languages) in literature, education, governance and technology in the 21st century. And so, I will be looking to better understand the evolution of the orthography of the language, through the texts that have carried it in literature from its early beginnings until today. The work of forbearers like Samuel Ajayi Crowther to Ayo Bamgbose stand as guiding lights, as do the work of faceless and notable writers of the Yorùbá language whose texts provide the most visible account of the language and its journey from just a spoken language to a medium of transmitting generations of stories, both in fiction and history, in the many written patterns and styles.

My thought process on these discoveries will be shared on the British Library blog as the year unfolds.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
CCBY Image

08 August 2019

Emanating light: Illumination in Islamic manuscripts

Add comment

Without the ability to travel time it may forever be impossible to restage the medieval and early-modern viewing conditions of Islamic manuscripts. Whereas in paintings books are often shown being enjoyed outdoors, architecture can offer insights into the experience of manuscripts indoors.

Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14)
Fig. 1: Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14). Public domain

Consider the wholly illuminated central prayer niche (miḥrāb) at the Jāmi‘ Masjid of Bijapur in Deccan India (mosque: 1576; miḥrāb: 1636) (fig. 2). The entire niche is covered with calligraphy and micro-architectural details that are a mise en abyme within the mosque. Hanging lamps and manuscripts that likely represent the Qur’ān fill smaller niches at the dado level flanking both sides of the central niche. The books bear gilt bindings and the lamps have delicate golden tassels that accentuate their light-giving quality. The simple juxtaposition of lamps and books reminds us that the viewers of these manuscripts did not encounter them under the harsh lighting of today’s modern libraries. In an assessment of illumination, the problem of light is inescapable.

Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636
Fig. 2: Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

Generally, manuscript illumination is a practice where reflective substances have been applied to the surfaces of books. These surfaces include the binding, support (paper, parchment), and the edges of the support. While illumination is most commonly associated with gold, other metals including silver and tin are also used to create lustre. I refer here to gold as shorthand, but the material was in fact a liquid gold or alloy that was malleable to various surfaces and showed a variety of hues. This material can be flattened, painted, scattered, and pricked to create different effects on the surface of a support (fig. 3).

Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Figs. 3a and 3b: Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Illumination occurs everywhere on the page: its edges, borders, line rulings (jadval), rosettes (shamsahs), frontispieces (sarlawḥs), headpieces (‘unvāns), headings, interlinear space, the writing itself, and even the edges (fig. 4). There is no authoritative handbook for these terms in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc., and this nomenclature has evolved with convention. For example, the term ‘unvān has caused some confusion. The word literally denotes ‘title,’ and therefore I have used it for headpiece. In the British Library’s Persian manuscript catalogue edited by Rieu, ‘unvān denotes anything from illuminated headpiece to frontispiece (single or double page) to heading. Beyond references to illuminators (mudhahhib), the practice of illumination (tadhhīb), other words formed with the Arabic root dh-h-b or the Persian word zar, the textual record offers remarkably little prescriptive terminology for illumination. Even less defined are the names for particular illuminated patterns. While some of these patterns have analogues in architectural ornament, they do not always seamlessly translate to book decoration. For this reason, one safe compromise is to use English words, yet this can often be dissatisfying.

Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)
Fig. 4: Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Regardless of the lack of an established technical vocabulary, illumination and light (nūr) are everywhere in Islamic art and architecture. This is best attested by the Qur’anic Light verse (24:35) that begins, "God is the light [nūr] of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is a niche [mishkāt] wherein is a lamp [miṣbāḥ]," which frequently graces miḥrābs. Widespread lamp imagery such as that found in Bijapur’s Jāmi‘ Masjid also alludes to it. When books like the Qur’an or poetry reflected light through their illumination, this took on a divine significance. Through technologies such as multi-spectral imaging it may be possible to recover how premodern manuscripts looked by candlelight and evaluate the effects of how different lighting changed the experience of these books. Collaborations between architectural historians and scientists have started to reveal how sites such as the Mosque of Córdoba looked when lit with early Islamic glass lamps (Kider, Fletcher, Yu, Holod, Chamlers, and Badler, 2009).

Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699
Fig. 5: Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699). Public domain

In painting, illumination has been applied to nearly all forms. Fire, the sun, skies, and halos are popular gold elements. In her several articles and books on images of the Prophet Muhammad, Christiane Gruber has demonstrated how this tradition evolved. On the double-page frontispiece of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī dated 1571 from Safavid Qazvin (Fig. 5), gold is deployed profusely in a scene showing the Prophet’s ascension (mi‘rāj). In the flowering cartouches in the borders, the swirling clouds, and the fire they cast upon the Prophet and his steed Burāq, this page is fully illuminated. The dramatic interplay of these gold swirls and lapis blue surface would have created a startling effect especially if this page were viewed in low light. In experiencing the open book, the light of Muhammad (nūr Muḥammad) would have certainly shone onto the viewer.

Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar
Figure 5: Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

The study of book illumination should be placed in an expanded visual context that also includes architecture. In an early fifteenth-century Deccan shrine/tomb initially studied by Helen Philon (2000), I later drew comparisons between its domed apex and specific Indian maṇḍalas or yantras that Philon previously compared to Islamic talismanic bowls as well. Yet, the entirety of the shrine is covered in gold illumination. One of the clearest comparisons between the apex and a manuscript would be an illuminated shamsah or starburst. The completely calligraphed golden dome when lit with lamps would reflect light onto visitors below.

Illumination in Islamic manuscripts thus is no simple matter. Here, I have tried to make its obvious connection to light both practically and spiritually. While the majority of my research for the British Library has involved developing a method to catalogue illumination in Persian manuscripts (ca. 100 manuscripts completed), I do sometimes imagine the buildings and spaces in which they once were read, enjoyed, and seen. For, illumination allowed books to emanate light.

With thanks to Umberto Bongianino, Eleanor Sims and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Use #BL_IslamicIllum to share your favourite examples of illumination at the library and follow @_nainsukh for more!

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD placement
 ccownwork


Further reading:

Akimushkin, Oleg F. and Anatol A. Ivanov. 1979. “The Art of Illumination.” In The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th-16th Centuries, ed. Basil Gray, London: Serindia, 35-57.

Brend, Barbara. 2015. “The Management of Light in Persian Painting.” In God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth: Light in Islamic Art and Culture, eds. Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, New Haven: Yale University Press, 198-229.

Gruber, Christiane. 2019. The Praiseworthy One: the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic texts and images. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Waley, Muhammad Isa. 1997. “Illumination and its Function in Islamic Manuscripts.” In Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, eds. François Déroche and Francis Richard, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 87-112.

Wright, Elaine. 2018. Lapis and gold: exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an. London: Chester Beatty Library in association with Ad Ilissvm.