A market for speech : poetry recitation in late Mughal India, 1690-1810
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This project focuses on 18th-century Persian and Urdu language mushairahs or poetry gatherings patronized by Mughal India’s urban elite and depicted in period compendiums or tazkirahs. Besides preserving poetry, the compendiums chronicle the social, aesthetic, and sensual aspects of 18th-century public and private gatherings from a stance that prizes the delight of lyric verse. The 1740s in particular mark a watershed decade for poetry exchange and criticism as they bridged several generations of India-based poets who were advancing the “fresh” goals of contemporary Persian writing and who were also recasting Persophone civility according to vernacular sensibilities in a social setting that was arguably the heart of Safavid and Mughal literary production. This dissertation examines how poets, listeners, and patrons enacted a material form of literary sociability that informed the circulation of people and verse over the 1700s. Analyzing this pre-colonial context allows for a more critical understanding of aesthetic and ethical drives in South Asian literary practices, providing a more grounded and critical understanding of lyricism as a cultural practice. By foregrounding the socio-aesthetic implications of recitation as a discursive practice, the present study understands the mushaʿirah as a unique site of literary subjectivity. Hence, the disciplinary boundaries between history, literary criticism, and ethnography are blurred to show that lyricism was not abstracted in 1700s poets’ gatherings. Instead, it formed a highly instantiated social script that allowed for the playfulness of Persian-based aesthetics to parallel the levity of Mughal-era sociability found in period salons. The Mughal literary sphere in the 1700s was governed by expectations of honesty, humor, exaggeration, enchantment, and originality, qualities that were not bounded by one language or textual medium. Historiographically, the compendiums from the 1700s attest to mushairah verse being self-referential, intertextual, and multilingual whereby the conventions of Persian-based aesthetics had a charismatic social life.