The ‘outsider’ secretary

Print edition : April 28, 2017

Miniature paintings and artefacts at a July 2009 exhibition of handicraft products inspired by the Mughal era, titled "Mughal Art in Indian Crafts", at the Central Cottage Industries in Delhi. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

A painting at the exhibition. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

A glimpse into the cultural world of a Hindu munshi in the Mughal court.

Writing Self, Writing Empire can be firmly located within what is known as the “cultural turn” in the social sciences that has come about in the last few decades. There is a massive quantum of scholarship on the Mughal dynasty, every one of its individual kings and a few of even the queens, their policies and politics, tolerance and tyranny, administration, and also art and architecture, but the author of this book, Rajeev Kinra, tells us that we actually know precious little on the Mughals’ “day to day cultural life”—this is something surprising and sad.

According to him, the scholarly neglect of the range of literary genres that flowered in the 15th to 18th centuries, like adab (etiquette and aesthetics), insha (epistles) and tazkira (literary biography), is particularly severe and deserves redress. Writing Self, Writing Empire is a valiant attempt at recuperating Indo-Persian literary culture through the life-writings of a somewhat prodigious and long-lived individual who served under three successive emperors, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

This was Chandar Bhan Brahman, who rose to be a munshi (clerk) at the Mughal court by profession but was also an accomplished poet in Persian. Indeed one main hypothesis of the book is that adeptness at literary civility was integral to, if not a prerequisite for, rising in the Mughal court.

This is reminiscent of Daud Ali’s work on Sanskrit kavya in the early medieval period. He argued that kavya, which is highly aesthetic poetry and prose chiefly in Sanskrit, served a similar (though not identical) courtly function of educating the king and other elites in etiquette and refinement. Sanskrit mahakavis (poets) were often also courtiers and even military generals.

The medieval Indo-Persian genres are of course considerably different from Sanskrit kavya in content, character and orientation, as also in their origins outside India. The exogenous origins and thereafter the reworking of these traditions in India is perhaps what is sought to be clarified (emphasised?) by the rather popular adoption by scholars of the conjoint term “Indo-Persian”, where otherwise calling the literature simply Persian after its language should have sufficed.

Be that as it may, the point is not to force a historical connection between kavya and, say, adab, where none may exist, but simply to point to how classical literature in all cosmopolitan languages in the premodern period perhaps set the standard for what was considered cultured and ethically superior in their times. And just as this was, therefore, not peculiar to Indo-Persian writings, so, too, the deference to such standards by the court and their inclusion in a conception of aristocratic merit were not unique to the Mughal royalty and aristocracy.

In Chandar Bhan’s case, however, Rajeev Kinra is probably right in underlining the centrality of his literary pursuits to his life, a passion that blurred and spilled over the boundaries between his personal and professional lives. Hence, the fact that describing the Mughal empire and the emperors he served and their daily routine, the composition of their court, their preferences, their movements and conquests and tribulations, and also their public processions and palace festivals—all these constitute a dominant part of Chandar Bhan’s magnum opus, his memoirs, Chahar Chaman (Four Gardens). This is the text on which Writing Self, Writing Empire is mainly based.

The merging of a personal passion with professional contexts is also witnessed in the fact that this munshi often included Persian verses and entire ghazals composed by him in his letters to his bosses. These epistles, together with the ones he wrote to his father and brothers, are collected by Chandar Bhan in another text, the Munshaat-i Brahman.

Drawing attention to Mughal epistolary culture is certainly one of the strengths of the book under review. The author writes about how sharing one’s poetry, especially on themes of friendship or mystical longing, was an act of intimacy. In conjunction with the culture of Mughal letter-writing, it served as a kind of social bridge, connecting people of diverse classes, backgrounds, and occupations (pages 47-48).

These collected letters show that Chandar Bhan’s superiors, those powerful ministers and generals like Sadallah Khan and Afzal Khan to whom he addressed the letters and the poetry, seem to have reciprocated Chandar Bhan’s enthusiasm for the finer aspects of the literary arts. It is one of these patrons who introduced Chandar Bhan to Shah Jahan. The author is correct in asserting that appreciating this aesthetic and sensitive side to these Mughal aristocrats, who are otherwise known in history only for their military prowess and administrative roles, helps develop a more rounded appreciation of not only historical figures but their milieu and the ideals that constituted it.

It is to fleshing out this Mughal milieu and ethos that the author devotes two heavily descriptive chapters on the quotidian life of Mughal kings and courtiers. These chapters, though picturesque, end up merely paraphrasing Chandar Bhan’s descriptions of life in the palace, down to the royal breakfast (!), the harem and the private assembly (ghusl khana). They also recreate the hustle and bustle at elite literary salons ( majlis).

While this narrational mode of writing history is not quite in vogue these days and for good reason, one supposes that its adoption in large parts of Writing Self, Writing Empire takes history back to the style of storytelling. That, in turn, may make this book attractive to lay readers and Persian culture aficionados rather than only academics.

Despite the strength of the book being its delineation of medieval Indian literary culture, the author cannot resist the temptation of plunging into the medieval politics of religion. Thus the running strain of the book, which is stated so often as to become tiresome, is the supposedly startling anomaly of a Hindu writing Persian poetry and working in and for a Muslim state. The author is at pains to argue that Chandar Bhan’s example, howsoever solitary, establishes that there was fundamental “pluralism” and sectarian freedom and bonhomie in the Mughal court and in Mughal India consequently.

Writing Self, Writing Empire, in fact, fashions itself as self-avowedly revisionist, challenging the influential historiography of the likes of John F. Richards on the one hand and nationalist scholars such as Jadunath Sircar on the other who posited an orthodox Islamist revival among Mughal emperors after Akbar’s liberal rule. Not only does the author believe that Akbar’s sulh-i kul, which he translates as “universal civility”, continued under Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb (as seen from the fact that Chandar Bhan Brahman continued in their service); he also questions the supposed liberalism attributed to Dara Shikoh as having played any role in the political alliance that was forged against him and in favour of Aurangzeb.

All this is assuredly exciting, as all antinomian academic works are. But there is something very programmatic about this book’s explicit project of chasing signs and symptoms of sectarian “pluralism” and “tolerance”, a project that is clearly fuelled by present-day concerns and scenarios as much as it may be by medieval conflicts. An obvious weakness in the book’s argument, and one that the author is well aware of, is that it stands on slim and largely negative evidence.

Thus, in this argument, centuries of Mughal state policy, not to mention Hindu-Muslim interface, can be read out of and extrapolated from one man’s privileged experience. Moreover, that one man’s allegedly benign experience too is supposed to be proved by the absence of active complaining by him in his poetry of any sectarian animosity shown towards him by his Mughal peers.

It is interesting to ponder how and why a courtier like Chandar Bhan, addressing the court and entirely at the mercy of its despotic power, would venture to publicly complain against it. Given that Chandar Bhan’s writings not only drew on Persianate themes, genres and idioms but were also “meant for a larger Persianate audience” (page 117), why would the expression of Hindu angst have been of interest or relevance to these florid works? Indeed, if it is any indication, even in his coverage of noteworthy saintly figures of Hindustan in one section of the Chahar Chaman, it is striking that Chandar Bhan sees it fit to speak of only Muslim saints (pages 151-152), ignoring in the process the likes of a Tulsidas or a Rupa Gosvamin.

Of course, the author’s argument is that Chandar Bhan had no cause for angst as a Hindu under Muslim rule in the first place. But the author then finds himself helpless in accounting for the antagonistic and disparaging image of poor Chandar Bhan that crops up in the tazkira by Muhamad Ahmad Sarkhwush, writing about our munshi barely a decade after his death circa 1670. What of this “cultural memory” of Chandar Bhan as an upstart Hindu heretic who tried to insult Shah Jahan’s religion to his face? (page 259)

The author tells us about this post-mortem image only at the very end of his book. He also candidly admits that it is this image of Chandar Bhan, and not the one of an accomplished and respected courtier which Writing Self sets up, that endured through the works of still other Muslim poets and anthologists over the next two centuries. He tries to explain away this vilified memory of Chandar Bhan as the “cultural anxiety” of Muslim intellectuals over a non-Muslim, an “outsider”, gaining facility over Persian literary culture. But would that too not have to be factored into any assessment of the religious and social milieu in Mughal India?

The author of Writing Self, Writing Empire is surely aware of these thesis-threatening implications. We must conclude with his disclaimer, therefore, that “the evidence of Chandar Bhan’s life and experience at court… is probably not, by itself, sufficient to undo generations of conventional wisdom about the growing orthodoxy at Shah Jahan’s and Aurangzeb’s courts.… But hopefully it will provide enough food for thought …” (page 59).

Shonaleeka Kaul is Associate Professor in the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.