22 July 2010
Of Sanskrit Kavyas and Punjabi Qisse
Two young scholars examine literary genres ...
FARINA MIR & SHONALEEKA KAUL
The Social Space of Language
Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab
by Farina Mir
Imagining the Urban
Sanskrit and the City in Early India
by Shonaleeka Kaul
When you think of India’s ancient cities, you think of khaki archaeologists digging crumbling structures out of ancient mud. Urban spheres, from this perspective, often look as dull as the dust from which they emerge.
But the early Indian city wasn’t like that at all, says Shonaleeka Kaul; it was certainly not only brick-and-mortar, nor merely an agglomeration of built-up space. In Sanskrit literature these cities were alive, vibrant, teeming with variety. Kaul examines Sanskrit kāvyas over about a thousand years to see what India’s early historic cities were like as living, lived-in, entities. She looks at ideologies, attitudes, institutions, and practices in ancient urban areas, showing the ways in which they often cohered into a worldview, a mentalité.
This is also a book about Sanskrit literature. Scholars have long argued for a nuanced use of literary texts to achieve a more rounded understanding of ancient history, and Kaul achieves exactly that. She takes forward the idea of a Sanskrit ‘literary culture’, arguing that genres influence methods of historical representation. Her book gives us a fresh view of the early city, showing distinctive urban ways of thought and behaviour which relate in complex ways to tradition, morality, and authority. In advocating Sanskrit kāvyas as an important historical source, it addresses not just ancient India specialists but also scholars of literary history: the kāvyas rework history, says Kaul, providing us with ‘transhistoricity’ rather than ‘ahistoricity’.
By asking new questions about early Indian cities and ancient Indian texts, this book asks to be read by every scholar of history, urbanism, cityscapes, literary history, Sanskrit writings, and South Asian antiquity.
SHONALEEKA KAUL teaches in the Department of History, University of Delhi. She was at Jawaharlal Nehru University for her PhD. As part of visiting faculty, she has also taught at Yale.
Hardback / 290pp / Rs 595 / ISBN 81-7824-278-8 / South Asia rights / August 2010
Copublished by Seagull New York
The Social Space of Language
Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab (South Asia Across the Disciplines Series)
This rich cultural history set in Punjab examines a little-studied body of popular literature to illustrate both the durability of a vernacular literary tradition and the limits of colonial dominance in British India.
Farina Mir asks how qisse, a vibrant genre of epics and romances, flourished in colonial Punjab despite British efforts to marginalize the Punjabi language. She explores topics including Punjabi linguistic practices, print and performance, and the symbolic content of qisse.
She finds that although the British denied Punjabi language and literature almost all forms of state patronage, the resilience of this popular genre came from its old but dynamic corpus of stories, their representations of place, and the moral sensibility that suffused them.
This multidisciplinary study reframes inquiry into cultural formations in late-colonial north India away from a focus on religious communal identities and nationalist politics and towards a widespread, ecumenical, and place-centred poetics of belonging in the region.
FARINA MIR is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Michigan.
Hardback / 294PP / RS 695 / ISBN 81-7824-307-5 / South Asia rights / October 2010
Copublished by the University of California Press, Berkeley
“Mir's archival work covers and foregrounds the breadth of the story-telling or qissa tradition, great and little, high and low, Sufi, Sikh and Hindu, showing its wide dissemination. Mir’s findings are of immense significance, given the turbulent history of the region in post-independence India and the political turmoil today, particularly on the Pakistani side of the border. Punjabi seldom finds this kind of focus in cultural history.”—Vasudha Dalmia, University of California, Berkeley
“Farina Mir has given us an outstanding work of literary and cultural history. She skilfully unravels the many versions of the famous folk-tale about Heer and Ranjha to illuminate gender, class and community relations in Punjab. This book will compel historians to rethink the links between language, religion and power and to reconsider the contingencies of union and partition in late colonial India.”—Sugata Bose, Harvard
“Mir makes creative use of archival and folkloric material to tell the history of a composite, modern, and gendered Punjabi self in colonial India that was sadly lost in the welter of partition politics and violence. The story of the legendary lovers Heer and Ranjha haunts her narrative like an artistic lament about a lost Punjabi self without in any way compromising the academic quality of her research and the rigour of her exposition. A very significant contribution to South Asian history.”—Dipesh Chakrabarty, The University of Chicago
“This is a pioneering study. Mir draws upon largely unfamiliar material and suggests new approaches to religio-cultural questions of great importance to South Asianists across a wide disciplinary spectrum.”—Christopher Shackle, SOAS, University of London