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166 posts categorized "South Asia"

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.

Lithographed black and white page with five scenes inside octagonal frames, two at the top, two at the bottom, and one in the middle of the page. The scenes show two woman seated; three women standing together; one woman playing an instrument among four peacocks and a snake; one woman in profile seated beneath a tree; and one woman seating facing the viewer among plants. The frames are surrounded by floral illumination.
An illustrated page from the Sarmayah i 'ishrat , an Urdu musciological treatise, by Sadiq Ali Khan Dihlavi (1875). (British Library, VT 638)
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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.

A page with highly cursive Arabic script in various positions and angles along with four black ink seals in Arabic script.
Arabic Manuscript from Bijapur Library. (1617, British Library, Bijapur 7)
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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.

A full page painting of a court scene involving Babur seated on his throne meeting a crowd of courtier, most of whom are standing, and some of whom are active in speaking or gesticulating. At the bottom of the painting is a a collection of men on horseback in front of the court building, as well as men standing around them, and the background outside the building's walls shows a landscape scene with a building in the distance that contains two men conversing. The image is surrounded by a gilt floral border.
Babur greets courtiers at the Id Festival (1595, British Library, Johnson 2, 12)
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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.

Double-page spread of a manuscript text in Arabic script with an elaborate illuminated header in blue, gold and red inks, and a thick border including similar illumination. The lines of text are separated by gilt cloudbands.
Opening pages of Sahasras, the 1000 dhrupad songs of Nayak Bakhshu. (British Library, IO Islamic 1116)
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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.

Listen here.

A page of a manuscript text with writing in Arabic script in red ink arranged in two columns.
List of contents from the opening of a late-sixteenth-century collection of letters teaching mystical principles. (British Library, Delhi Persian 1129B)
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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 black and white photograph of a woman in profile, with much of her back in shadow, showing her from the waist up
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.

A black and white photograph containing a portrait of a man from the chest up. The man is in a black jacket and vest with a white collar, is facing the camera, and has spectacles.
A portrait of Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937). (British Library, V 21994) (Not for reuse)

 

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.

A black and white photograph of a street scene with an Indian building in the background, low-rise shops with awnings on the left and right, and scant pedestrians on the street in the middle.
'Street behind the Jama Musjid, Delhi, 1880s'. (S C Sen, 'Earl of Jersey Collection'. Photo 807/2(20))
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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.

Paramdip Khera, Project Manager, Two Centuries of Indian Print
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01 November 2021

Reunion of Krishna icons: A painting of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the Johnson Album

This guest blog post is by Isabella Nardi (PhD, SOAS), an art historian specializing in Indian painting.

In the group of paintings acquired and personally commissioned by Richard Johnson (1753–1807) which are now in the British Library there is an unexpected depiction, a congregation of Krishna icons attended by priests in a palace setting (see Fig. 1). The work, originating from Faizabad or Lucknow, has been dated to c. 1770–1780, a period of artistic ferment in the Mughal province of Avadh thanks to local rulers and Europeans patrons living in the area. The collector, an East India Company servant who arrived in Calcutta in 1770, served as the Head Assistant to the British Resident of Lucknow between 1780 and 1782; this is probably the time in which he assembled a wide range of Avadhi paintings revealing his interest for the traditions and customs of India (Falk and Archer 1981, 135–136). 

Srinathji surrounded by svarups
Fig. 1. Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji. Mughal, Faizabad or Lucknow, 1770–80. British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4. 280 x 209 mm; page 287 x 216 mm. Noc

Titled Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji, the painting has been rightly identified as pertaining to the Vallabha Sampradaya’s cult (Losty and Roy, pp. 180–182). For anyone familiar with this devotional sect, this depiction is a surprising presence in the album for at least two reasons: first, it is a rare representation of a real event, the Festival of the Seven Svarups (Saptasvarūpotsava), which took place in 1739 in the Shri Nathji temple of Nathdwara in Rajasthan. Secondly, this Avadhi painting is found outside the geographical sphere of influence and patronage of the sampradaya which, at that time, covered the land of Braj, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and it was slowly expanding to the Deccan.

To better understand this painting, it is necessary to first introduce the Vallabha Sampradaya and its famous congregations of Krishna icons. This will be accomplished through a detailed iconographic analysis of a representative depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). This digression will allow to acquire the necessary information to examine and contextualize the work in the Johnson Album. The Avadhi painting will also be put into conversation with two earlier depictions; whereas established scholarship in the field will locate it within the cosmopolitan culture of circulation and pictorial exchanges in northern India at the time.

The Vallabha Sampradaya is a krishnaite devotional sect – also known as the Puṣṭi Mārg (Path of Grace) – which was founded by Vallabhacharya (1479–1531) in northern India in the sixteenth century. This religious community, subsequently headed by Vallabhacharya’s son, Vitthalnath (1515–1585), had its headquarter in the land of Braj, around the area of Mathura, where it received support from the Mughal Emperors. The descendants of the two founding fathers decided to slowly shift to Rajasthan and Gujarat in search of new patronage hence forming a complex web of temples which map the region’s religious landscape to this day. This influential network is not only formed by hereditary priests – who claim descent from Vallabhacharya and Vitthalnath – but also by the treasured icons in their possession, the svarups (svarūp-s), which are traditionally nine. The nine svarups are considered self-manifested icons which miraculously appeared to Vallabhacharya or one of his disciples and they are therefore deemed to be different from a common man-made statue (murti). The first svarup to manifest itself to Vallabhacharya on Mount Govardhan is Shri Nathji which, in 1672, was installed in a newly built temple in Nathdwara which became the sect’s main headquarter. 

Among the peculiar characteristics of the Vallabha Sampradaya are its sumptuous temple rituals and visual culture. Well-known are the famous temple hangings or pichhwais (pichvāī-s), which are elaborate textiles, painted or embroidered, used as backdrops in opulent performances (see Skelton 1973; Ambalal 1995). One of their most important festivals is the reunion of the sect’s most sacred icons, the svarups, in the Shri Nathji temple. This congregation, known as the Festival of the Seven Svarups, appears in several Rajasthani paintings especially from the mid-1820s. Despite its numerous depictions, this festival has been celebrated only on rare occasions, that is in 1739 and 1822. This is because of the problems encountered in organizing such enormous undertakings, including the logistic problems involving the transportation of the svarups from one temple to another, the occasional tensions between high priests on matters of power and prestige, and the periodic political unrests that punctuated the area of Rajasthan and its neighboring regions. A celebration of the festival took place also in post-Independence India, in 1966, after a lengthy legal battle over the administration of the temple. Its video coverage can be accessed on YouTube.

Available visual evidence suggests that the imagery of the Festival of the Seven Svarups is indelibly associated to the celebration of 1822 which has an established and easily recognizable iconography as confirmed by a comparison of its numerous depictions that survive in private collections and museums (Nardi 2017, 223). Most of these works flourished from the mid-nineteenth century when the Nathdwara painting tradition was in full swing thanks to the patronage of temple priests and devotees. For a critical analysis of earlier depictions of the festival, such as the Avadhi painting in the Johnson Album, we first need to understand its traditional visual formula which originated in its sectarian milieu.

A notable example, which portrays the event in every single detail, is in the collection of LACMA (see Fig. 2). The work positions the viewer’s gaze directly in the sanctum of the Shri Nathji temple, offering an intimate glimpse of the svarups which wouldn’t be possible in real life. On either side of the icons are the temple priests who are involved in various ritual tasks, including the arrangement of a special food offering in front of the icons. This includes baskets of sweetmeats, vessels containing milk products and, in the foreground, a big mountain of rice (annakūṭa or mountain of food).

LAMCA ma-142207-WEB
Fig. 2. Commemorative portrait of Damodarji II (1797-1826) performing the ceremony of the offering of food to the seven images (Sapta Svarup ka Utsava) in 1822. Rajasthan, Nathdwara, circa 1822-1850. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. 304 x 247 mm; page 330 x 250 mm. LACMA, AC1999.127.41. Noc

The svarups are meticulously portrayed following their iconographic features, such as emblems (flute, ball of butter) and female companions, so that they can be precisely identified by devotees. The icons are depicted in two colours to indicate the materials in which they are made, that is blue for black stone or wood, and golden yellow for metal. This important and tacit rule indicates that their depiction is an actual likeness of the svarups

For the sake of completeness the icons are identified below (Fig. 3), starting from the top level, from left to right:

Detail 1
Fig. 3. Icons on the upper level of the altar. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

  • Madanmohanji, a metal statue of Krishna playing the flute accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
  • Dvarkadhishji (also Dvarkanathji), a rectangular shaped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kankroli, Rajasthan.
  • Shri Nathji, a black marble statue of Krishna with the left arm raised to hold up Mount Govardhan. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
  • Mathureshji, a round-topped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kota, Rajasthan.
  • Gokulchandramaji, a wooden statue of Krishna playing the flute. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
  • A metal statue of Krishna playing the flute known as Madanmohan. This is not one of the sacred svarups, it replaces the absent Balkrishnaji (present location Surat, Gujarat), which did not participate to the festival due to a long-standing dispute (Peabody 2003, 75–78).

On the lower level, from left to right (Fig. 4):

Detail 2
Fig. 4. Icons on the lower level of the altar. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

  • Gokulnathji, a metal statue of Krishna with four arms accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Gokul, Uttar Pradesh.
  • Navnitpriyaji, a metal statue of baby Krishna holding a ball of butter. Its present location is in the Shri Nathji temple premise, Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
  • Vitthalnathji, a metal statue of Krishna accompanied by Rukmini. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.

A quick count of the sculptures will yield a total of nine, that is the nine svarups. This tally, however, may be confusing given the name of the festival. The Festival of the Seven Svarups takes this denomination from the seven icons that reside outside the main Shri Nathji temple, which houses both Shri Nathji and Navnitpriyaji. These seven deities are those that have to be carried to such location by their hereditary priests.  

Apart from the meticulous depiction of the icons, representations of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822 are distinguishable for other recurring elements, such as the presence of Dauji II (1797–1826) and of a specific pichhwai. Dauji II, or Damodarji II, is the only recognizable portrait on the upper left of the LACMA painting. He was the officiating priest and organizer of the imposing event of 1822 for which he commissioned a special pichhwai. This is the black textile hanging in the background, right behind the svarups, featuring on either side a tree-of-life design embroidered in gold and pearls (Fig. 5). As Amit Ambalal explains (p. 67), this particular pichhwai was commissioned by Dauji after his mother and other priests donated some of their jewels to the temple on the occasion of the festival. This magnificent ritual hanging, whose whereabouts are unknown, is part of the canonical iconography of the 1822 festival and its fame was such that it was also praised in poetic compositions of the time (Taylor 1997, 83). 

Detail 3
Fig. 5. Detail of the special pichhwai, or temple hanging, commissioned by Dauji for the celebrations of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

Unlike the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822, depictions of the 1739 celebrations remain exceptional not only for their paucity but also for their variety of pictorial styles, diverging visual elements, and unexpected provenance. To date, there are very few known depictions of this event including drawings, paintings on paper, and murals dating from the eighteenth century onwards. For the scope of this analysis, we will consider the very few eighteenth century paintings on paper that have come down to us, which are only three. Interestingly, none of them was produced in the pilgrimage center of Nathdwara, denoting a circulation of visual information about the festival as well as an interest in documenting it beyond regional and devotional circles.

The first two depictions, published elsewhere, date from the time of the celebration itself: the first is a painting from Udaipur dated to c. 1739 in the collection of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery (Doshi 1995, 78); the second, in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, is a work from Aurangabad dated to c. 1740 and inscribed to Muttam, formerly known as the Jaipur Painter (Seyller and Mittal 2018, cat. no. 44). Both works can be related to the network of the Vallabha Sampradaya devotees, which included kings and merchants. The painting from Udaipur was probably commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh II (r. 1734–1751), a patron and follower of the sect whose haloed portrait appears with other members of the royal family standing next to the congregation of icons. The example from the Deccan, on the other hand, can be associated with the community of merchants and bankers that started to settled in the area from 1729 (Shah 2015, 43–44).

The third painting in chronological order is the one in the Johnson Album which – after this lengthy but necessary digression – can be examined from a more informed perspective. The first observation that can be made is that, unlike its two predecessors, this work cannot be related to an established religious network of the Vallabha Sampradaya. In fact, its assessment indicates that its anonymous painter and its commissioner were not familiar with the sect’s ritualistic formalities, liturgical textiles, and iconography of the svarups because the work displays a number of notable imprecisions which wouldn’t be welcomed by a follower of the sampradaya. For example, a missing iconographic element is the pichhwai which has been replaced by a palatial setting, a typical background of Faizabad and Lucknow painting at the time (see Fig. 6).

Detail 4
Fig. 6. Avadhi palace setting used – in lieu of a pichhwai – as the background the Johnson Album depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1739. Detail of British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4.

As mentioned above, the pichhwai was an important liturgical element of the celebrations and it also appears in the other two paintings from Udaipur and Aurangabad. Other incongruities can be seen in the depiction of the icons: the stelae of Dvarkadhishji (rectangular) and Mathureshji (rounded) are omitted making their identification impossible. Also the colour of two metal icons on the lower level, Navnitpriyaji and Vitthalnathji, is inaccurate: they should be golden yellow but they are painted in blue (see Fig. 7).

Detail 5
Fig. 7. The metal icons of Navnitpriyaji and Vitthalnathji mistakenly painted in blue instead of golden yellow. Detail of British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4.

These observations unquestionably demonstrate that the sphere of patronage of the painting in the Johnson Album was outside the established circles of the sect and it opens to the possibility that, rather than an acquisition, this work was actually commissioned by Richard Johnson himself. It is well known that pictorial traditions in Avadh flourished thanks to the patronage of Europeans living in the region, such as Johnson and other East India Company officials, and that their commissions included not only portraits but expanded on other themes, such as Ragamalas and Hindu mythology (Losty and Roy 2012, 153). Given Johnson’s demonstrated interest for Indian traditions, he may have wanted a representation of this important event that took place in Rajasthan in 1739 and, considering that he was stationed in Lucknow, he may have hired a leading artist trained in a courtly atelier not specifically familiar with the ritualistic formalities of the sampradaya. Perhaps, the painter was someone who moved to Avadh in the wake of Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739 whose incursion and subsequent period of chaos caused an exodus of artists, including writers, musicians, and painters, who in successive waves left the Mughal capital in search of new patronage (Pauwels 2015, 142; Losty and Roy 2012, 153).

A crucial question remains to be answered: how did an artist not familiar with the sampradaya paint a representation of the Festivals of the Seven Svarups? It is plausible that the anonymous artist may have used an unfinished or uncolored drawing of the festival which provided the basic organizational structure for his work. In fact, ateliers kept collections of paintings and drawings from other traditions from which they could reuse selected elements or take inspiration (Aitken 2015, 89). A possibility is that the artist of the Johnson Album may have used a Rajasthani painting depicting the svarups, a subject that was already popular in Kishangarh, a Rajput court known for its patronage of the Vallabha Sampradaya (Mathur 2000, 54).

A Kishangarh connection with Avadh has already been observed by Heidi Pauwels who has tracked a specific visual reference in a painting of Layla and Majnun from Lucknow (Pauwels, Plate 20). The work, dated to c. 1780, is attributed to Ghulam Reza, a master artist also known for his Ragamala paintings in the Johnson Album (Archer and Falk 1981, 170-173; Pauwels, 2015, 204). In particular, Pauwels (2015, 203-205) detects a stylistic reference in the portrayal of the haloed Layla which displays some peculiar visual characteristics from Kishangarh, such as her silhouette and her elongated eyes and nose. This visual connection is particularly relevant to further strengthen the assumption that Rajput painting was not only known but also one of the sources of inspiration for the artists working in Lucknow and Faizabad. As for the painting of the festival, rather than a stylistic citation we can detect a compositional reference in the display of the icons. Their arrangement – which follows an established formula even though some iconographic elements of the icons are not correct – is juxtaposed to a palace setting and range of colours typical of Lucknow and Faizabad in a combination of visual sources that was very frequent in Avadhi painting (Aitken 2015, 81).

Finally, it is also essential to appreciate the creative aspect of the work which denotes some artistic license. The painter added some interesting touches to the composition rejecting the hieratic and stiff postures of the svarups, a common feature of sectarian paintings. In doing so, he endowed the icons with a gentle smile and a human countenance and gave them a sinuous body slightly curved to one side. These innovations produced a graceful and lively compositional effect which remains a unique feature of this painting when compared to its two predecessors from Udaipur and Aurangabad.    

Bibliography:

Aitken, Molly Emma. “Parataxis and the Practice of Reuse, from Mughal Margins to Mīr Kalān Khān.” Archives of Asian Art, vol. 59, 2009, pp. 81–103.

Ambalal, Amit. Krishna As Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdvara. Ahmedabad: Mapin, 1995.

Doshi, Saryu (ed.). The Royal Bequest: Art Treasures of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery. Bombay: India Book House, 1995. 

Falk, Toby, and Mildred Archer. Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981.

Losty, Jeremiah P., and Malini Roy. Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire: Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library. London: British Library, 2012.

Mathur, Vijay Kumar. Marvels of Kishangarh Paintings from the Collection of the National Museum, New Delhi. Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 2000.

Nardi, Isabella. “La Miniatura come Documento Storico: Le Celebrazioni di Saptasvarupa Annakutotsava al Tempio di Śrī Nāthjī a Nathdwara nel 1822.” Annali Sezione Orientale, vol. 77, 2017, pp. 215–232.

Pal, Pratapaditya, Stephen Markel, and Janice Leoshko. Pleasure Gardens of the Mind: Indian Paintings from the Jane Greenough Green Collection. Middletown, N.J.: Grantha Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993.

Pauwels, Heidi Rika Maria. Cultural Exchange in Eighteenth-Century India Poetry and Paintings from Kishangarh. Berlin: E.B. Verlag, 2015.

Peabody, Norbert. Hindu Kingship and Polity in Precolonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Seyller, John William, and Jagdish Mittal. Deccani Paintings, Drawings, and Manuscripts in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art. Volume 1. Hyderabad: Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, 2018.

Shah, Anita B. “Devotion and Patronage: The Story of a Pushtimarg Family.” Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings, edited by Madhuvanti Ghose, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2015, pp. 42–53.

Skelton, Robert. Rajasthani Temple Hangings of the Krishna Cult from the Collection of Karl Mann, New York. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1973.

Taylor, Woodman Lyon. Visual Culture in Performative Practice: The Aesthetics, Politics and Poetics of Visuality in Liturgical Practices of the Vallabha Sampradāya Hindu Community at Kota. PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1997.

 

Isabella Nardi, PhD  ccownwork

07 June 2021

Portrait of Charles Weston (1731-1809)

In 2019, the Visual Arts Department acquired a late eighteenth-century portrait of the merchant and philanthropist, Charles Weston (1731-1809). Born in Calcutta (Kolkata) of both Indian and British descent, Weston’s portrait is an important document of the Anglo-Indian community in India.

Portrait of Charles Weston
Portrait of Charles Weston by an unknown artist, 1790-1808. British Library, Foster 1104 Noc

His father was William Weston, registrar of the mayor’s court in Calcutta. Little is known of his mother, although she may have been Mrs. Mary Ballantine who married a William Weston in 1731 (Hawes 2004).   

Weston had an accomplished career despite the obstacles he would have faced as someone of mixed ancestry. He began as an apprentice to the surgeon John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-1798), who became a lifelong friend and provided Weston with capital to start his business. Weston accumulated his wealth through commerce, investment in property, and sheer luck – in 1778, he won Tiretta’s Bazar in the Calcutta lottery, which was worth Rs 196,000 and provided him with a monthly earning of Rs 3,500 (Hawes 2004).

Portrait of John Zephaniah Howell
Portrait of John Zephaniah Holwell, platinotype print from a painting attributed to Johann Zoffany, c.1750. British Library, P587 Noc

An eminent Calcutta citizen, Weston’s Lane in the city was named after him. He was also one of two Anglo-Indians to sit on the jury of the infamous trial of Maharaja Nandakumar in 1775 (Hawes 1996, 56). By the 1790s, Anglo-Indians would no longer be permitted to serve on Calcutta juries, and this was later amended in 1827 to allow Christians to serve (Anderson 2015, 14).

Close up of a map of Calcutta showing Weston's Lane
Close-up of a Map of Calcutta showing Weston’s Lane, 1842, British Library, P2348 Noc

Weston was married twice - to Amelia de Rozario in 1758, and after her death, to Constantia Weston. Constantia died in 1801 and was buried at the convent of Bandel, on the banks of the Hooghly River. A portrait of Constantia was published in Bengal Past and Present in 1915.

Weston was an active philanthropist and is said to have donated 100 gold mohurs monthly to the poor. He also served as the parish clerk for St. John’s Church, Calcutta. After his death, he left a charitable fund worth Rs 100,000 to be managed by the church and used towards poverty relief. His will also left bequests to many friends and dependents (Hawes 2004).

WD4381
View of the west end of St John's Church, Calcutta by Amelia Rebecca Prinsep, c. 1830, watercolour on paper. British Library, WD4381 Noc

Another portrait of Weston is housed in the vestry of St. John’s Church. It shows Weston wearing a cotton handkerchief around his head, which he wore to keep warm when in his home as he suffered from rheumatism. A reproduction of this painting also features in the publication Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-Camera Days produced by the Calcutta Historical Society in 1910.

Weston died in 1809 and his grave can still be visited at South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta). His epitaph reads: he led a life marked “by benevolence and charity, seldom equalled, and never yet exceeded in British India” (The Bengal Obituary 1851, 94). He was survived by his eldest son, Charles Weston (1763-1813) and by his grandchildren.

The acquisition of his portrait complements archival materials already held within the British Library’s collection that are related to Weston’s life and estate. For instance, the India Office Records and Private Papers Collection contains a copy of his will (IOR/L/AG/34/29/22) and an inventory taken after his death (IOR/L/AG/34/27/41).

 

References and further reading

Anderson, V. (2015), Race and Power in British India: Anglo-Indians, Class and Identity in the Nineteenth Century. London: I.B. Tauris.

Bengal wills (1810), BL IOR/L/AG/34/29/22 

Bengal: Past and Present (1915), vol. 10 (Jan – March)

Wilmot, C. (1910). Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-Camera Days. Calcutta: Calcutta Historical Society.

Estates and Wills Branch: Inventories and Accounts of Deceased Estates - Bengal: Vol. 1 (1810), BL IOR/L/AG/34/27/41

Hawes, C. (2004), “Charles Weston” in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/63541

Hawes, C. (1996), Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India, 1773-1833. Richmond: Curzon.

List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Bengal Possessing Historical or Archaeological Interest (1896), ed. C. R. Wilson.

The Telegraph India (2013), “New life for church pictures” https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/new-life-for-church-pictures/cid/1287818  

The Bengal Obituary: Or, a Record to Perpetuate the Memory of Departed Worth (1851), Holmes and Co. 

 

Nicole Ioffredi, Print Room Coordinator and Cataloguer Ccownwork

14 December 2020

Plugging the holes in history: banned political pamphlets in colonial India

This guest blog is by Pragya Dhital, a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Queen Mary University London. Her research concerns the British Library’s collection of publications proscribed in colonial India between 1907-1947, one of the largest archives of primary sources relating to any twentieth-century decolonization movement, a catalogue of which is now online. In this blog Pragya writes about her research on proscribed pamphlets, and a parallel collection of political pamphlets collected by the British author, George Orwell.

For plugging the holes in history the pamphlet is the ideal form
George Orwell, ‘Pamphlet Literature’, 9 January 1943

In a 1943 article for the New Statesman and Nation George Orwell regretted the surprising “badness of contemporary pamphlets”. From a survey of his own library he identified nine main trends, ranging from “Anti-Left and crypto-Fascist” to “Lunatic”, and described them as “practically all trash, interesting only to bibliographies”. This was surprising as “the pamphlet ought to be the literary form of an age like our own”, Orwell argued; a time “when political passions run high, channels of free expression are dwindling, and organized lying exists on a scale never before known”. Perhaps for this reason Orwell remained a keen collector of pamphlets, acquiring more than 2700 published from 1915-45. At his request this collection was donated to the British Museum Library in 1955 by his widow, Sonia Orwell, and is now held by the British Library.

Angāre, [Burning coals], nine Urdu short stories and a play satirizing religious conservatism and colonial rule, edited and published by Sajjad Zaheer, who was later to co-found the Progressive Writers’ Movement. The white letters of the title are arranged right-to-left between flickering red flames on a black background. (Lucknow, 1932). British Library, PIB 47/17Angāre, [Burning coals], nine Urdu short stories and a play satirizing religious conservatism and colonial rule, edited and published by Sajjad Zaheer, who was later to co-found the Progressive Writers’ Movement. The white letters of the title are arranged right-to-left between flickering red flames on a black background. (Lucknow, 1932). British Library, PIB 47/17

Around the same time that these texts were being published, the Government of India was acquiring its own collection of political literature. The British Library’s archive of publications proscribed in colonial India consists of more than 2800 items banned between 1907-1947. Details for 1607 of the items are listed in the catalogue by Graham Shaw and Mary Lloyd, Publications Proscribed by the Government of India (London: British Library, 1985), now accessible online. The catalogue includes brief summaries of contents and biographies of the authors of these texts. Shaw and Lloyd’s introduction provides useful information about how they came to be proscribed and collected, building upon earlier work done by Norman Gerald Barrier. The catalogue is a valuable resource for scholars of modern South Asian history, politics and literature, and anyone interested in understanding the period during which this material was banned.

The British Library collection of proscribed Indian publications is particularly rich in pamphlets. Newspapers and magazines were also censored, and one of the main instruments for proscribing literature was the 1910 Press Act. But periodicals were much harder to systematically collect and store. The same qualities that made pamphlets handy containers of seditious material – the ease with which they are carried and concealed – also made them easier for the state to archive.

Merī ātmakathā, [My life story] Irish revolutionary, Dan Breen’s My fight for Irish freedom translated into Hindi by revolutionary martyr Bhagat Singh. Fingers pointing to Dan Breen (left) and Bhagat Singh (right) distinguish the two be-hatted young men. (N.p.: n.pub, 1931). British Library, PIB 27/35
Merī ātmakathā,
[My life story] Irish revolutionary, Dan Breen’s My fight for Irish freedom translated into Hindi by revolutionary martyr Bhagat Singh. Fingers pointing to Dan Breen (left) and Bhagat Singh (right) distinguish the two be-hatted young men. (N.p.: n.pub, 1931). British Library, PIB 27/35

Orwell identified the “flexible” nature of the pamphlet form as uniquely suiting it to the urgent task of documenting “the events of our times”. This flexibility also makes it hard to identify its distinctive features, provoking the question, what exactly is a pamphlet? The UNESCO recommendation concerning international standardization of statistics relating to books and periodicals, defines the pamphlet as “a non-periodical printed publication of at least 5 but not more than 48 pages, exclusive of the cover pages, published in a particular country and made available to the public”. This excludes much of the literature in the proscribed publications collection, which is longer or shorter, sought to evade the attention of the censor, and circulated internationally.

Āzādī ke dīvāne [Freedom’s Ecstatics], biographies in Hindi of various freedom fighters from the 1857 Great Rebellion to the Independence struggle. On the cover a portrait of Kunwar Singh (centre left), a leader of the Rebellion, is juxtaposed with that of Ashfaqulla Khan (centre right), member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. [Not in the catalogue.] British Library, PIB 22/6
Āzādī ke dīvāne [Freedom’s Ecstatics], biographies in Hindi of various freedom fighters from the 1857 Great Rebellion to the Independence struggle. On the cover a portrait of Kunwar Singh (centre left), a leader of the Rebellion, is juxtaposed with that of Ashfaqulla Khan (centre right), member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. [Not in the catalogue.] British Library, PIB 22/6

Looking for a definition that better encompasses this material, I turned to etymologies and historical precedents. The Hindi-Urdu terms pustikā, patrikā and risālah describe the pamphlet as a diminutive form of the book (pustak), extension of the letter (patra) and as bearer of a ‘message’ (risālah, related to rasūl, ‘messenger’ in Hindi-Urdu). European language equivalents such as chapbook, bibliothèque bleue, pliegos de cordel and Volksbuch emphasise how pamphlets were produced, distributed and received: the peddlers who sold them, cheap blue paper in which they were wrapped, string from which they hung, and the popular audience to whom they were addressed. I incorporate these aspects to include under the term pamphlet a wider range of short-form non-periodical literature: speeches, poems, plays and various ‘calls’ addressed to specific audiences – soldiers, policemen, farmers, women and youth. As well as reading their contents I pay attention to their material qualities and the ways in which they were disseminated.

Many of these works were multimedia texts, meant to be sung, recited or spoken, and involved an interactive relationship between performer and audience. “Read and read out loud” is a message that often appears on the proscribed publications; a sign of the influence of missionary publishing on these proselytising texts, from the use of new print technology to adoption of practices such as street preaching and itinerating that accompanied distribution of Christian tracts. These modes of textual transmission were more like gift exchange than reading, and did not require literacy on the part of their recipients.

Aṅgrezoṃ kī-bolatī-banda [The English Shut Up], nationalistic songs in Hindi published by Babu Ram Dauneriya. Both cover and contents suggest a theatrical revue. (Jaitpur Kalan [Agra], 1930?) British Library, PIB 21/5A
Aṅgrezoṃ kī-bolatī-banda [The English Shut Up], nationalistic songs in Hindi published by Babu Ram Dauneriya. Both cover and contents suggest a theatrical revue. (Jaitpur Kalan [Agra], 1930?) British Library, PIB 21/5A

Much of this literature was also meant to be seen. In appealing to a mass audience, the creators of these texts drew upon a wide range of visual styles; India being a context in which multidenominational religious iconography and Anglo-European traditions of popular print are well known. [PIB 98]. The simple line drawings, chromolithographs and halftone photos in these texts often use Hindu imagery, and this has been the focus of previous studies of the proscribed publications collection. But these illustrations also appropriate the politically potent forms of the imperial portrait and police mugshot [PIB 22/6]. The use of Russian constructivist design principles in the red, white and black colour scheme and experimental use of typography in the proscribed publications is common to literature distributed in de-colonizing countries across the world. Some of this material was produced with Soviet funding – something prominently mentioned on the cover of the Urdu translation of the Communist Manifesto amongst the proscribed publications.

Kamyūniṣt mainīfesṭo; ishtimālī manshūr [Communist Manifesto. Soviet Published], Urdu translation of the Communist Manifesto. (Lahore: Maktabah-i Urdu, 1939). British Library, PIB 186
Kamyūniṣt mainīfesṭo; ishtimālī manshūr [Communist Manifesto. Soviet Published], Urdu translation of the Communist Manifesto. (Lahore: Maktabah-i Urdu, 1939). British Library, PIB 186

The audience for this literature may not have been literate, let alone “pamphlet-conscious” in the sense required by Orwell in his essay on the form. Their authors might well fit his description of “lonely lunatics who publish at their own expense”, or adherents of “crank religions” and political parties who lacked the necessary soundness and independence of mind needed to write a good pamphlet in his view. Writing under conditions of surveillance and censorship, they would have struggled to meet Orwell’s ideal: a pamphlet written by a “good writer with something he passionately wanted to say” read by as many people as possible. But precisely because of these limits the proscribed pamphlets reveal much about the anxieties of the colonial state, and the tactics deployed by nationalists to subvert restrictions on permissible speech.

Hama bhūkhe-naṅge kyoṃ haiṃ? [Why are we hungry and naked?], an account of the evils of British imperialism, the first of a planned series of political pamphlets to be written in simple Hindi for a readership of peasants and workers. (Kanpur: Mazdur-Kisan Pustak-Mala Karyalaya, 1935). British Library, PIB 98
Hama bhūkhe-naṅge kyoṃ haiṃ? [Why are we hungry and naked?], an account of the evils of British imperialism, the first of a planned series of political pamphlets to be written in simple Hindi for a readership of peasants and workers. (Kanpur: Mazdur-Kisan Pustak-Mala Karyalaya, 1935). British Library, PIB 98

Art is not the same as “cerebration” Orwell concludes in “Good Bad Books”, his essay on the appeal of a type of book with “no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished”. Orwell was aware that this was a quality ‘good bad books’ shared with propaganda and counterpropaganda; texts in the Orwell and proscribed publication collections also gain power from being pitched at a ‘non-cerebral’ level. One of the only pamphlets that he praises in his 1943 survey is H.V. Morton’s I, James Blunt, “a Good flesh-creeper” written in response to “the justified assumption that the mass of the English people haven’t yet heard of Fascism”. Morton’s account of Britain under German occupation was commissioned by the Ministry of Information, and resembles some of the more sensationalistic proscribed texts in both tone and fictional format. (Although the latter’s descriptions of foreign occupation refer to the past and present rather than speculate about a dystopian future.) Its conceit also looks forward to Orwell’s own Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose depiction of totalitarianism responded to Soviet Communism and National Socialism, and emerged from Orwell’s direct experience of “the dirty work of Empire” as a colonial police officer in Burma. Good or bad, read side-by-side and separately, pamphlets in the two collections continue to fill ‘holes’ in understandings of how global war and nationalist foment played out in colony and ‘metropole’.

Orwell’s copy of The Wisdom of Gandhi. This collection of Gandhi’s writings has been inscribed by its editor, Roy Walker, “To George Orwell – who seems to need it”. (London: Andrew Dakers Limited, 1943). British Library, 1899.ss.1-21Orwell’s copy of The Wisdom of Gandhi. This collection of Gandhi’s writings has been inscribed by its editor, Roy Walker, “To George Orwell – who seems to need it”. (London: Andrew Dakers Limited, 1943). British Library, 1899.ss.1-21

Pragya Dhital  ccownwork
I am grateful to the Bibliographic Society for a grant to acquire a scan of the Proscribed Publications catalogue, and to Catherine Eagleton and Hamish Todd for giving me access to the collection.

Pragya Dhital has written two previous blogs on this collection for the British Library - Inflammable material (2017) and  Insurgency in the archives (2018) - and edited a special section of History Workshop Journal (2020).

 

 

 

16 November 2020

Object, Story and Wonder: Museum Collections Revealed with the British Library

Earlier this summer while in lock down, the Bagri Foundation extended an invitation to curators based in the UK and abroad to collaborate on a new digital series to showcase their collections while museums and libraries were forced to shut down and be closed to the public. For this series, Malini Roy, the Head of Visual Arts (Asia and Africa Collections) at the British Library, talks about natural history drawings produced in South Asia during the early 19th century. The video clip is featured below.

The British Library's collection includes several thousand natural history drawings produced in the subcontinent; only a selection is featured in the YouTube video.  In the late 18th century British and Scottish botanists and surgeons led a movement to document the natural history of the subcontinent. The East India Company, initially established as the British trading company and eventually a major governing power over parts of the subcontinent, recognised the need for this scientific research. Its practice was therefore adopted as official policy and resulted in the collection of rare species of flora and fauna. The specimens were preserved in the newly established Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta and the Barrackpore Menagerie. As part of the documentation process, Indian artists were hired to illustrate the scientific specimens. Sets of the watercolours and drawings remained in archives in India, while duplicates were sent to the East India Company’s Library in London, and are now held in the British Library.

While not all of our collections are on public display, in recent years a range of natural history drawings have been on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery. More recently, the works by Haludar were featured in the Wallace Collection's exhibition Forgotten Masters that ran until September 2020. You can read more about the South Asian natural history collections in the following blog posts and articles:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, Natural History Drawings from South Asia, Asia and Africa Blog, 8 August 2013.

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Malini Roy, Moloch Gibbons and Sloth Bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar, Asia and Africa Blog, 7 February 2020.

William Dalrymple (ed.), Forgotten Masters: Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

 

 

02 November 2020

Muhammad Najib Khan, a Sufi soldier in 18th century southern India

In recent months I’ve been working on manuscripts in the British Library which formed part of Tipu Sultan’s library and were acquired by the East India Company after the fall of Seringapatam in 1799. The history of how this part of the collection came to London has been recently described by Joshua Ehrlich (Plunder and prestige) and in several blogs by myself (notably Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah). The collection itself, however, was made up of many smaller collections, acquired mostly by conquest, and it is on one of these that I will focus today, namely the collection of the Sufi Muhammad Najib Khan Shahid (‘martyr’), an official of Anvar al-Din Khan, Nawab of the Carnatic from 1744 to 1749. While the apparent contradiction between the spiritual and military roles of courtly life has long been acknowledged, it is reinforced by the identification I propose here of Muhammad Najib the political adviser with our Sufi author and collector, an identification which is underlined by a shared Chishti affiliation and high status, further evidenced by the acquisition details of Muhammad Najib's own collection.

Death of Nabob of Carnatic
'The Death of the Nabob of the Carnatic'
in battle against the French in 1749, an anachronistic interpretation by Paul Philippoteaux (1846-1923). According to Burhan ibn Hasan, Muhammad Najib Khan was sitting behind the Nawab. From M. Guizot’s A popular history of France, vol 6, Boston, [187-?], p. 174.
 noc copy

What do we know about Muhammad Najib Khan?

From the Tūzuk-i Vālājāhī, a history of the Walajah dynasty completed in 1786 by Burhan ibn Hasan, we learn that Muhammad Najib was originally a resident of Ajmer, and was one of the servants of the shrine of Muʻin al-Din Chishti. From the time that Anvar al-Din was stationed at the Mughal court in Shahjahanabad (ca. 1699), Muhammad Najib became “his intimate companion and a counsellor in all his affairs” and subsequently his “most intimate companion and the right hand man”. Caught up in the conflict between the rival factions of Hyderabad, the French and the East India Company, he was killed in action at the Battle of Ambur in 1749 during the Second Carnatic War together with his patron Anvar al-Din — after which they both became referred to in Persian sources as shahid (‘martyr’).

Muhammad Najib Khan’s scholarly credentials are evident from his Makhzan-i aʻrās (‘Treasury of death anniversaries’[1]), a calendar commemorating the deaths of Sufi saints which is based on a wide range of Chishti authorities dating from the 13th century onwards (Ernst, An Indo-Persian Guide). His lengthy introduction, in which he cites his full name as Muhammad Najib Qadiri Nagawri Ajmiri, offers a comprehensive guide to pilgrimage in the 18th century besides mentioning his patron Anvar al-Din Bahadur, a “lover of darwishes, the believer in their believers” (Ernst, p. 193). The work was completed on 5 Shavval 1156 (18 November 1743) during the period when Anvar al-Din was engaged in the army of Nizam al-Mulk Asaf Jah (Nizam of Hyderabad 1724-48). Muhammad Najib may also have been the subject of a biographical account, the Najīb nāmah, by the Sufi poet ʻAbd al-Latif Zawqi of Vellore (d. 1194/1780)[2].

Muhammad Najib Khan as a collector

Altogether sixteen volumes from Tipu Sultan’s library contain indications of having belonged to Muhammad Najib Khan. These include four different seals dated 1143 (1730/31), 1154? (1741/42), 1157 (1744/45) and one in which the date is illegible.

Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1143 (1730/31). IO Islamic 705
Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1143 (1730/31). IO Islamic 705
Muḥammad Najīb Khān, 1154 (1741/42). IO Islamic 1754
Muḥammad Najīb Khān, 1154? (1741/42).
IO Islamic 1754

 

Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1157 (1744/45). IO Islamic 1672
Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1157 (1744/45). IO Islamic 1672
Muḥammad Najīb Khān. IO Islamic 2221
Muḥammad Najīb Khān.
IO Islamic 2221

His manuscripts cover a range of Sufi and religious subjects including several works which he used in his Makhzan-i aʻrās mentioned above. All are in Persian excepting the Arabic ʻAyn al-ʻilm (IO Islamic 1672) which Muhammad Najib copied himself in Chicacole, at the time a dependancy of Hyderabad (Sīkākūl mutaʻallaqah-i Ḥaydarābād), completing it on 1 Jumada I 1149 (7 September 1736). In date they range from 1577 to 1749. Importantly, several manuscripts contain acquisition details which place Muhammad Najib in Hyderabad in 1743 and in Arcot between 1747 and 1749. These dates correspond with the periods when his patron Anvar al-Din Khan was Governor of Hyderabad (1725-1743) and Nawab of the Carnatic (1744-1749). Several of Muhammad Najib's manuscripts were purchased - prices varying from RS 3 to 50 - and a Mulla ʻAbd Allah in Arcot is mentioned as a specific source. One manuscript also carries the seal of an unidentified Ahmad Khakpaʼi whose seal occurs in at least one other manuscript in Tipu Sultan's collection.

IO Islamic 705  f1v  opening of Rashahat
The illuminated opening of Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, biographies of Naqshbandi saints, by ʻAli ibn Husayn Vaʻiz Kashifi, dated 17 Zu’l-Hijjah 984 (7 March 1577) (IO Islamic 705, ff. 1v-2r)
 noc copy

Details of Muhammad Najib’s manuscripts are given at the end of this post, arranged in approximate order of acquisition. His collection almost certainly included other manuscripts, some of which are likely to be found in the library of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta where a substantial portion of Tipu Sultan’s collection remains. Probable candidates include a copy of the Makhzan-i aʻrās mentioned earlier (Ivanow ASB 1631). Tipu Sultan was undoubtedly very interested in saint anniversaries, in fact a second copy of this work (Ivanow ASB 1632) was copied, presumably at his request, by Sayyid ʻAli Riza, Superintendent (mutavallī) of the Masjid-i aʻla, Seringapatam, who also copied IO Islamic 1638 and IO Islamic 2734 for Tipu Sultan. Tipu also commissioned his own calendar of saints' deaths (Ṣaḥīfat al-aʻrās, IO Islamic 1176[3]) which is, however, just a list of names and dates.

IO Islamic 1672 ff1v-2r
The opening of  ʻAyn al-ʻilm by an unnamed author, copied in Chicacole at the beginning of Jumada I 1149 (7 September 1736) by Muhammad Najib who signs himself in the colophon as Khan Sahib Muhammad Najib Khan. (IO Islamic 1672, ff. 1v-2r)
 noc copy

It is not clear what happened to Muhammad Najib's collection after his death. A reasonable supposition might be that it was absorbed together with the collection of his patron into the library of Anvar al-Din Khan's son Nawab ʻAbd al-Vahhab Khan, which was siezed by Tipu's father Haydar ʻAli in 1780. However none of the 16 volumes include any seals or other indications of having belonged to ʻAbd al-Vahhab. Until extensive research has been carried out on the corresponding collections of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta we will just have to speculate!

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork copy

Details of Muhammad Najib’s manuscripts, arranged in approximate order of acquisition

  • IO Islamic 705. Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-hayāt, biographies of Naqshbandi saints by ʻAli ibn Husayn Vaʻiz Kashifi. Dated 17 Zuʼl-Hijjah 984 (7 March 1577) and copied by Muhammad Husayn ibn Mawlana Abuʼl-Qasim al-Haravi. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1143 (1730/31).
  • IO Islamic 1672. ʻAyn al-ʻilm, a compendium on asceticism in Arabic by an unnamed author, copied by Khan Sahib Muhammad Najib Khan in Chicacole (Sīkākūl), Hyderabad, at the beginning of Jumada I 1149 (7 September 1736). Muhammad Najib’s seals of 1143 (1730/31) and 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 1754. A collection of 8 works mostly by or connected with the Sufi saint Gisu Daraz (d. 1422), copied by several scribes between 1646 and 1686. Contains several examples of Muhammad Najib’s oval seal of 1154? (1741/42).
  • IO Islamic 2053. A collection of 4 works including the masnavis Tuḥfat al-aḥrār by Jami and Maṣdar al-ās̱ār by Muhsin Fani dated 22 Rabiʻ I 1067 (8 Jan 1657). Purchased in Hyderabad by Muhammad Najib on 4 Ramazan 1156 (22 Oct 1743), his seal dated 1143 (1730/31).
  • IO Islamic 27. Javāhir al-asrār, on the esoteric meanings and sayings of holy men by ʻAli Hamzah ibn Malik ibn Hasan Shaykh Azari. Copy dated Safar 1014 (June/July 1605). Acquired in Hyderabad in Zu’l-Qaʻdah 1156 (Dec/Jan 1743/44), Muhammad Najib’s oval seal dated 1154? (1741/42).
  • IO Islamic 703. Tarjumah-i Kanz al-daqāʼiq, a Persian translation from Arabic by Nasr Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Jamad. Previous owner Miyan Miran ibn Miyan Husayn called Miyan Hana Manju Khilji ʻAbbasi. Value Rs 11. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 946. Nafahāt al-uns, biographies of Sufi saints by Jami, dated 8 Rabiʻ II 987 (4 June 1579). Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 1372. Badāʼiʻ al-inshā, on the art of prose composition by Yusufi. Copied by Sayyid Muhammad ibn Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghani and dated 29 Jumada I 1078 (16 November 1667). Purchased from ʻAbd Allah, perhaps the same source as mentioned in IO Islamic 972, for Rs 3. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 2209. Shabistān-i khayāl, ornate prose and verse by Fattahi. Undated but possibly 17th century. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 2255. Nuzhat al-arvāḥ, a Sufi treatise in prose and verse by Mir Fakhr al-Sadat Husayni. Dated at Hyderabad 4 Jumada I 1079 (10 Oct 1668). Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 1625. The Divan of a poet Raja or Raju, dated 1158 (1745) followed by the poem Nān u ḥalvā by Amuli. Muhammad Najib’s seal dated 1157 (1744-5).
  • IO Islamic 972 and 973. Ashiʻāt al-lamaʻāt, the first two volumes of a commentary by ʻAbd al-Haqq Dihlavi on the Arabic collection of hadith, the Mishkāt al-maṣābīḥ. Possibly 17th century. Two of three volumes purchased by Muhammad Najib, his seal dated 1157 (1744/45), for Rs. 50 from Mulla ʻAbd Allah in Arcot, in Ramazan 1160 (Sept 1747). Previous owner Ahmad Khakpaʼi, his seal dated 1117 regnal year 49 (1705).
  • IO Islamic 2039. Javāhir al-ẕāt, a masnavi by the Sufi poet ʻAttar, copied by Haji Muhammad Hayat in Benares in 1139 (1726/27). Undated but possibly 17th century. Purchased by Muhammad Najib in Arcot in Jumada I 1161 (April/May 1748), his seal dated 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 523. Maktūbāt-i Yaḥyā Munīrī a fourth collection of letters by Shaykh Ahmad ibn Yahya Muniri copied, perhaps for Muhammad Najib, in Arcot in Muharram 1162 (1749), his seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 2221. Khat̤imah by Gisudaraz. Undated but possibly 18th century. Muhammad Najib’s oval seal with illegible date.

Further reading

Ehrlich, Joshua. “Plunder and prestige: Tipu Sultan’s Library and the making of British India”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 43 (2020): 478-492.
Burhān ibn Ḥasan.  Tūzak-i-Wālājāhī ; translated into English by S. Muḥammad Ḥusayn Naynar. (Sources of the history of the Navvābs of the Carnatic; 1 & 2). Madras 1934-1939.
Ernst, Carl. “An Indo-Persian Guide to Sufi Shrine Pilgrimage”. In It’s not just academic: essays on sufism and Islamic studies. New Delhi, 2018, pp. 165-95; also available online in an earlier recension. Includes a lengthy discussion of the Makhzan-i aʻrās and also a translation of Muhammad Najib’s introduction.

--------------------------

[1] A lithographed edition was published under the title Kitāb-i aʻrās in Agra, 1883 (BL 14837.f.17, see E. Edwards, Catalogue of Persian printed books in the British Museum, p. 511).

[2] Nabi Hadi, Dictionary of Indo-Persian Literature. Delhi, 1995, p.636; also Kokan, Muhammad Yusuf. Arabic and Persian in Carnatic, 1710-1960. Madras, 1974, p.147. However it seems quite likely that the work cited there may in fact be a work on Najib Khan, a Rohilla chief in the service of Ahmad Shah Durrani, by Muyhi al-Din ibn Abu al-Hasan Zawqi (IO Islamic 2725).

[3] So titled in the introduction. Attributed in a note on the flyleaf to Muhammad Sharif of Adhoni. See Ethé 2733 for more details.

12 October 2020

For your eyes only: Charles Masson’s observations on the Durrani states

Searching the name ‘Charles Masson’ online returns a healthy amount of results about a rather mysterious historical figure. Born in England with the name ‘James Lewis’, this enigmatic individual enjoyed several adventures in Asia during his relatively short life (1800-53). After deserting from the Bengal European Artillery in 1827, changing his name to Charles Masson, and travelling extensively throughout Afghanistan and modern-day Pakistan, he was hired by the East India Company to conduct antiquarian research in Afghanistan. He continued to travel and excavate sites until his true identity as a deserter was revealed in 1834, at which point he was forced to become an intelligence agent in Kabul in exchange for a royal pardon. He resigned in 1838 and continued to conduct archaeological work before returning to London in 1842.

View of Kabul by Charles Masson
View of Kabul, from Godfrey Thomas Vigne's A personal narrative of a visit to Ghuzni, Kabul, and Afghanistan, and of a residence at the Court of Dost Mohamed. London, 1840, p. 194 (British Library Digital Store 1046.e.17)
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It is his archaeological work for which Charles Masson is largely remembered today. Many of the objects that he took from Afghanistan and parts of modern-day Pakistan are now housed in the British Museum. Indeed, a substantial research project led by Dr Elizabeth Errington has provided a catalogue of material relating to Masson.

As well as the British Library’s Masson Collection , the Masson project catalogue points to traces of Masson’s story which can be found in less obvious sections of the India Office Records. As a cataloguer for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme, it was through an item from the Board’s Collections (IOR/F/4) that I was first introduced to the talented Mr Masson.

IOR/F/4/1399/55442A captures the beginning of Masson’s relationship with the East India Company. It starts with a letter from Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, David Wilson, who wrote excitedly to the Government of Bombay [Mumbai] in September 1830 to inform them of his encounter with a certain Charles Masson at Bushire [Būshehr]. Masson had made extensive observations on his travels through the Durrani states (parts of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan). Wilson enclosed these accounts in his letter, believing they would be of great value and interest to the Company.

Route map illustrating Massons journey in Baluchstan  Afghanistan and Panjab
Extract of map illustrating Masson's journey thorugh Baluchustan, Afghanistan and Panjab, appended to Volume 4 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalāt (Library of Congress DS377 .M4)
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Spanning nearly 514 pages, Masson’s accounts relate to the political status, culture, languages and religions of numerous states, provinces and tribes, and the routes taken during his travels. They include details of the people he encountered, caravan entourages, landscapes, climate, agriculture, villages and fortresses along the routes. In particular, Masson dedicates a significant space to describing ‘the Seicks’ [Sikhs] and Ranjeet Sing [Ranjit Singh, Ruler of the Sikh Empire].

Whilst the observations contain a lot of detail on a variety of subjects, it is possible to glean from Wilson’s letter the particular details that piqued his interest. He states that he queried Masson about the suitability of the routes taken for the conveyance of troops, and whether ‘vessels of considerable burthen’ could pass from Multan to the sea via the Ravee [Ravi] or Indus rivers. Wilson also notes Masson’s thoughts on whether Ranjit Singh planned to extend beyond Punjab, and if there was any concern amongst the Chiefs of Scinde [Sindh] about whether Singh intended to overthrow their power.

IOR_F_4_1399_55442A_f235_imageforMassonblog
Extract of a copy of a letter from David Wilson, Resident in the Persian Gulf, to the Government of Bombay, 11 September 1830, discussing the suitability of a ‘large body of troops traversing that country by the route [Masson] did’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A, f. 235v). Crown Copyright

The details highlighted by Wilson’s letter from September 1830 are significant because they hint at British activity in Sindh and Afghanistan. The 1830s saw large parts of Sindh annexed by the British, followed by an 1838 treaty between the Company and Ranjit Singh to restore Shah Shojāʿ to power in Kabul which led to the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-42). It is this context which reveals to us why Wilson thought Masson’s information was useful to the Company.

In his letter, Wilson also recommended that the Government of Bombay should consider employing Masson in some capacity. He wrote that he had sent Masson to Tabriz in July 1830, equipped with a letter for the British Envoy to Persia, asking the Envoy to ‘direct Mr Masson’s future enquiries to objects in these countries that require elucidation’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A, f 242r).

Whilst Wilson’s letter establishes the circumstances in which Masson was hired by the Company, it also touches on an important point which was to be addressed by Masson in later years – whether Masson had intended his observations to be used as intelligence.

Towards the end of his letter, Wilson wrote that, whilst he had not told Masson that he intended to send the accounts to the Government of Bombay, he argues that Masson ‘must have been aware, that a Public Officer situated as he knew me to be and making the enquiries I did, must have done so with a view to the good of the service.’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A, ff. 243r-243v).

However, whilst Masson later spoke highly of Wilson, he disputed the extent to which he had intended his accounts to be used as political information. Not long after his return to England, he published an account of his travels, entitled Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalāt. The preface to this work included the following passage (see image below):

Extract from Volume 1 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan  Afghanistan  the Panjab  and Kalat
Extract from Volume 1 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalāt, p. v (Library of Congress DS377 .M4)
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Therefore, it seems it was not made explicitly clear to Masson that Wilson was going to send the former’s observations to the British Government in Bombay. Taking into account that Masson was later forced to become an informant in exchange for his royal pardon, and that he went on to become a critic of the Company’s policy in Afghanistan in the late 1830s, this point adds an intriguing element to the question of how Masson viewed his relationship with the Company, both at the time and later. Did he naively assume that Wilson would not pass on his observations as intelligence, or was he fully aware of the ‘interesting schemes’ for which they might be used? Were his comments in the preface to his book a way of setting the record straight, or an attempt to portray his own past in a different light?

The relevant papers in IOR/F/4/1399/55442A form a small but significant part of the Masson project catalogue, as they reveal the interest that the East India Company had in Masson’s earlier explorations. In doing so, they serve as the opening chapter in the story of how Charles Masson became a British informant on Afghanistan, a role it is unclear he wanted to play.

Curstaidh Reid, Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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Further reading:

‘Report by Major Wilson, Resident at Bushire, dated 11th September 1830, with observations on the Political condition of the Dourannee & neighbouring states by Mr. C. Masson. Vol: 4’ (IOR/F/4/1399/55442A).

Charles Masson, Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, & Kalât, during a residence in those countries : to which is added an account of the insurrection at Kalat, and a memoir on Eastern Balochistan, 4 vols (London: Richard Bentley…, 1844).

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Anglo-Afghan Wars’, Encyclopaedia Britannica online, November 13 2019.

Elizabeth Errington, ‘MASSON, Charles’, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 16 June 2004.

Khushwant Singh, ‘Ranjit Singh’, Encyclopaedia Britannica online, June 23 2020.

21 September 2020

Curating Curation: Making Sense of the British Library’s Chagatai Collections

Full-page painting showing a man dressed in Central Asian clothing seated before his courtesans in similar dress
Chagatai Khan at in council with his courtesans. (Nusratnama, Central Asia, 970 AH/1563 CE. Or 3222, f 86r)
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In March of this year, when the necessity of lockdown became painfully apparently to those in positions of authority, the British Library closed its doors to the public. Curatorial staff were asked to work from home. We were lucky; unlike many of our peers in other cultural institutions across the country – not to mention millions of other workers throughout the United Kingdom – we were not furloughed. We were asked, however, to begin working on tasks that did not require access to the Library’s physical collections. I decided to use this time to create long-overdue digital records for our Chagatai holdings, among other things. In this blog post, I’m going to share a few insights that I gained from this work about the composition of the collection.

The British Library holds nearly 150 manuscripts containing text in Qipchaq and Qarluq Turkic lects. Within the Library’s structures, these are generally referred to as “Chagatai manuscripts,” despite the fact that such nomenclature is at best controversial, and at worst wrong. Chagatai is a literary language used from the 15th to early 20th centuries CE. Its lack of a documented standard meant that some degree of variation was tolerated, but not to the extent that it might include works in all regional lects spoken by communities from Tabriz to Ürümqi. The use of “Chagatai” was convenient as an analog to Ottoman, however, even if it wasn’t correct, and it stuck as a label for these items throughout the latter part of the 20th century. For this reason, I’ve decided to leave the term relatively unchallenged for now, and to reserve a discussion of the collection’s linguistic diversity for a later date.

A page featuring text in Uyghur script inside multicultural angular waves, and text in Arabic script in the margins
Two texts grace this page: one in a Turkic lect written in the Uyghur script; and one in Persian in Arabic script, written in the margins. (Yazd, 835 AH/1431 CE. Or 8193, f 16v)
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Of the 150 items held, only five have been digitized. I wrote about two of them in this blog post from early 2019. To these, we can add three other volumes: the Nusratnama, a history of the Shaybanids from Genghis Khan down to Shaybani Khan (Or 3222); an incomplete copy of Gharaib al-sighar, a collection of poetry by the great Chagatai poet Navoiy (Or 13069); and an exquisitely illustrated majmua of poetry, moral tracts and religious doctrine in a Turkic language written in Uyghur script and Persian (Or 8193). This means that the vast majority of the Chagatai works held by the British Library can only be consulted at our St. Pancras Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and thus remain heavily restricted to the public for the time being.

Black and white image of typed text on rectangular paper
A black and white image of the acquisition slip for Or. 9660, the Tazkirat ul-cinān. 
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A number of obstacles present themselves in the cataloguing of these items, only some of which are unique to the collection. To start, the metadata that exists for this collection is fragmentary at best. Items acquired by the British Museum prior to 1888 are included in Charles Rieu’s 1888 Catalogue of the Turkish Manuscripts in the British Museum. Given the early date of this catalogue, it only carries those items marked as Additional Manuscripts or with Oriental Manuscript references less than 3300. To this we may add a skeletal handlist compiled by my predecessor, Muhammad Isa Waley. The list provided me with bare-bones descriptions of the Chagatai works held by the Library. On occasion, I was able to add information gleaned from our blue slips, or acquisition slips, for some of the items given Oriental (Or.) shelfmarks. Such data was sparse, but it does provide further indications about content, script, materials, and, on occasion, source and date of acquisition. In sum, the quality and length of the records added to the online system is highly variable, but at least it marks a start to the process of making the items more visible.

One of the pieces of data that is often missing from many of these sources is provenance. This often-overlooked part of the manuscript’s story can contain incredible narratives of knowledge transfer and trade, as well as dispossession, theft, and alienation. As a literary language, Chagatai was used primarily in Central Asia, Iran, Siberia, East Turkestan, and Northern India. It is no surprise, then, that many of the volumes in the Library’s possession come from these regions, although a few others were copied as far afield as Istanbul. Our holdings, however, demonstrate a unique distribution of origins compared to many other collections, owing largely to the history of the British Empire. Over a quarter of the items held by the Library are in some way connected to India, either as their place of creation or as a transit route. Compare this to the Jarring Collection in Lund, where most manuscripts are from East Turkestan; or the Bibliothèque nationale de France, with most of its holdings from Dunhuang; or the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, rich in Central Asian manuscripts. This makes the BL’s collection a fascinating object revealing as much about British desire for Turkic cultural heritage as it does about the context in which such heritage was created.

Page of text in Arabic script with red inked title at top Page with Arabic-script text and seals in black ink
Left: The start of the Vaqiat-i Baburi, the Chagatai-language version of the Baburnama, or autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. (Add MS 26324)
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Right: Ownership seals and inscriptions from the Vaqiat-i Baburi. (Add MS 26324, f 118v)
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British commercial and colonial actions in South Asia from the 17th through to the 20th centuries ensured a pronounced interest on the part of the British elite in the languages, history and cultures of the region. Sometimes directed towards scholarly pursuits, sometimes motived by political or military strategies, the sum of this fascination was the acquisition and transportation of South Asian physical heritage to the Imperial centre. Here, it was housed in museums and libraries, both public and private. These objects included Chagatai literary and scientific works penned by Mughal literati or copied by scribes for their influential patrons. The importance of the language for South Asian history is exemplified by two Chagatai versions of the Vaqiat-i Baburi (also known as the Baburnama), the autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. One copy, Add MS 26324, was purchased by the Museum from William Erskine in 1865. Erskine, a well-known Scottish orientalist and first translator of the Baburnama into English, occupied several colonial posts in India in the first half of the 19th century. Another, more complete 16th-century copy exists at IO Islamic 2538 (formerly part of the India Office Library). The presence of English annotation leads us to believe that this copy might have been used extensively by Annette Beveridge. Beveridge, a member of the late 19th-century British colonial elite in India, translated the Baburnama and the Humayun-nama into English, relying on both Chagatai and Persian sources.

Page featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patternsPage featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patterns
The double-page seccade from the start of the Divan-i Navā'ī. (Iran. Or 1374, ff 1v-2r)
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India also appears to have been an important market for imported manuscripts before the advent of British colonization. Or 8193, for example, was originally created in Yazd, Iran in 835 AH (1431 CE). At some point, however, it was acquired and moved to India, where it later passed into the possession of a British official, A. Seton. Other Iranian items likely arrived in the UK directly from Persia. Many of the men charged with an Imperial mission were apparently avid collectors of manuscripts. These manuscripts were eventually sold or bequeathed to the British Museum and the India Office Library during financial difficulties or after the men's passing. Add MS 7910, Divan-i Nava’i, for example, was acquired from Claudius Rich. Rich was a former British consular and commercial agent who had worked in India, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Syria and Egypt. A similar story can be told for Or 1374, an exquisite copy of Navoiy’s Divan featuring lacquered hunting scenes on its binding and a double-paged seccade. The volume was bequeathed to the Museum by Sir Charles A. Murray, British Ambassador to Qajar Persia from 1854 to 1859 and, just possibly, one of the instigators of the Anglo-Persian war of 1856-57.

The remaining parts of the collection came from majority Turcophone regions, most of which were never subjected to long-term direct British occupation or colonial rule. The Abushqa (Add MS 7886), for example, was copied in the Ottoman Empire (which was occupied, at various times and in various locales, by British forces, but never in its entirety). This Ottoman-Chagatai dictionary based on the poetry of the great Chagatai poet Alisher Navoiy likely arrived in London through commercial routes, highlighting the lucrative business of selling historic manuscripts to European visitors and residents.

Arabic-script text in black ink on marbled paper
A page of text from the Qisas al-anbiya' demonstrating the peculiarities of the language employed. (Add MS 7851)
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The manuscripts from Central Asia tend to be the stickiest in terms of identifying provenance. Only minimal information is provided in the handlists and the acquisition slips, and the source of the item isn’t always recorded in the volume itself. The Library holds 40-odd items from the region, some of which are absolute treasures. The Nusratnama, mentioned above, is a case in point. Recently made available online, it features breathtaking illustrations of each of the rulers in the Shaybanid line. Rieu informs us that this was a gift to the British Museum by Mr. Joseph King, but goes no further in identifying its putative journey to these shores. A similar lack of provenance information bedevils Add MS 7851, a 15th-century copy of Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya’. Rieu tells us it was formerly in the collections of Claudius Rich, and that’s where we lose its tracks. The work is of exceptional linguistic value, charting an intermediary stage between Khwarezmi Turkic and Chagatai, and its voyages over time have great importance in understanding intellectual history in the Turkic world.

Chinese and Arabic-script text with the latter enclosed in a stamped blue border and covered with Chinese calligraphy in red ink
A laissez-passer in Chinese and an Eastern Turkic lect granting travel permission to Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he can accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. (Kashgar, 1903. Or 13151)
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Finally, the approximately 40 items that were produced in East Turkestan/Xinjiang (combining the regions of Dzungaria and Altishahr) is a motley crew in terms of both provenance and content. Some of these items were brought – licitly or illicitly – to the Museum by Europeans who sought out the physical heritage of the Silk Road’s eastern branches. Chief among these was Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-British orientalist whose collections form a large part of the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project holdings. Only a small fraction of these items are in Turkic languages, including administrative or miscellaneous works that made their way back to the United Kingdom as packing materials (Or 12201). Other items speak to the social and political structures in place at the time of the expeditions. Or 13151 is a laissez-passer issued in 1903 in both Chinese and a local Turkic language to one Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he might accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. It is a rare window onto the life of one particular local participant in the global effort to understand the history of the region.

Unbound sheets with Arabic-script text inside a box
An unbound manuscript containing a Turkic translation of the Tārīkh-i Rashīdī. (East Turkestan. IO Islamic 4866)
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Another tranche of this subset likely came to the Library through the work of George Macartney, a British diplomat connected to the Chinese political elite through his mother. Macartney lived in Kashgar from 1890 to 1918 and was closely linked to various expeditions, including the Younghusband one. His wife, Catherine Macartney, worked with the Dunhuang Expedition regarding their acquisition of manuscripts. These might have included religious, literary or historical works such as IO Islamic 4846, 4848 and 4849, all of which relate the story of Ya’qub Beg, the leader of Yarkant who attained political independence for the region in the late 19th century.

From this overview of the British Library’s Chagatai collections alone, it’s clear that there is still so much more for us to learn about the origins and journeys of the individual pieces that make up the whole. What is obvious, however, is that collections reflect much more the proclivities and propensities of the personalities behind them than they do the total sum of a people’s creative output. The Chagatai holdings at the British Library provide us with insights into the linguistic, literary, religious, economic, political, social and intellectual histories of the Turkic peoples. But their selection and curation say much more about British officials’ and scholars’ engagement with this history, and the narratives they have woven about it, than they do about collectivities’ yearning to be seen and heard. In using this lens to understand and interpret a set of works, we can move beyond the idea of the archive as an objective monolith. In its place, we can reinvigorate our collections as one component in a broader effort towards an equal and mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and perspectives about the history of the Turkic world.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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