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Journal ArticleDOI

Marvellous histories: Reading the Shāhnāmah in India

01 Dec 2012-Indian Economic and Social History Review (SAGE Publications)-Vol. 49, Iss: 4, pp 527-556
TL;DR: In this article, the reception and genre of the Shāhnāmah in India is considered, and a methodological split in the historiographical corpus is proposed, between a rationalist (aqli) and transmission-based (naqli) method.
Abstract: This article considers the reception and genre of the Shāhnāmah in India. It takes as its starting-point comments made by the poet Mirza Asad Allah Khan Ghalib in 1866, moving on to look at a Mughal Shāhnāmah adaptation, the Tarikh-i dil-gusha-i Shamsher-Khani, and its Urdu translations, as well as other Persian, Urdu and Arabic texts. It investigates the (mis)identification of the Shāhnāmah’s genre, looking at cases in which it was understood as historiographical rather than as a romance, and seeking an explanation for this ‘contamination’ of the sincere genre of history by the mendacious romance genre. A methodological split in the historiographical corpus is proposed, between a rationalist (‘aqli) and transmission-based (naqli) method. The contest between these two methods is considered, and the prevalence of transmission-based history and its similarity to romance is brought forward as a possible reason for the porousness of the border between these ostensibly opposing genres.

Summary (1 min read)

SAGE Los Angeles/London/New Delhi/Singapore/Washington DC

  • To begin to answer this question, the authors will take the case of the reception of the Shā hnā mah in India from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth.
  • What is important to understand, for the purposes of the paper, is that the romance was very often set up in opposition to the history as a narrative genre that did not scruple to tell lies and represent impossible things such as dragons, jinns, and so on, in contrast to the ideally truth-telling genre of history.
  • 4 Narayana Rao et al., Textures of Time: Writing History in South India, Ch. 5. 5 Meisami, Persian Historiography to the End of the Twelfth Century.

Conclusion

  • The dilemma posed by Ghalib’s preface to his nephew’s Bostā n-i Ḳ hayā l translation had to do with the apparent paradox of his treating certain episodes of the Shā hnā mah as impossible and yet historiographical—to avoid confusion the authors shall not say ‘historical’.
  • The long multi-regional history of this genre process is much more complex than its story in one moment in a specifi c place and period.
  • It is only that it was not all-important, and indeed suspending rational scepticism in order to accept the seemingly inscrutable, marvellous ‘signs of God’ in the world (a gesture found in ‘aja’ib texts) often led to an enlargement of the intellect’s arena rather than a diminution.
  • Yet as the authors have seen quite suffi ciently over the course of this study, even recurrent motifs did not always lead audiences to identify texts as romances.

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Indian Economic & Social History
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The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/0019464612463807
2012 49: 527Indian Economic Social History Review
Pasha M. Khan
in India ShahnamahMarvellous histories: Reading the
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at MCGILL UNIVERSITY LIBRARY on November 21, 2012ier.sagepub.comDownloaded from

Marvellous histories: Reading
the Shā hnā mah in India*
Pasha M. Khan
McGill University
This article considers the reception and genre of the Shā hnā mah in India. It takes as its starting-
point comments made by the poet Mirza Asad Allah Khan Ghalib in 1866, moving on to look at a
Mughal Shā hnā mah adaptation, the Tarikh-i dil-gusha-i Shamsher-Khani, and its Urdu transla-
tions, as well as other Persian, Urdu and Arabic texts. It investigates the (mis)identi cation of
the Shā hnā mah’s genre, looking at cases in which it was understood as historiographical rather
than as a romance, and seeking an explanation for this ‘contamination’ of the sincere genre
of history by the mendacious romance genre. A methodological split in the historiographical
corpus is proposed, between a rationalist (‘aqli) and transmission-based (naqli) method. The
contest between these two methods is considered, and the prevalence of transmission-based
history and its similarity to romance is brought forward as a possible reason for the porousness
of the border between these ostensibly opposing genres.
Keywords: Urdu, Persian, literature, history, genre
This article will examine the border between two genres of writing or speech: the
tā r ī h or history, and the qi ah or dā stā n, which I will refer to as the ‘romance’.
1
I
take it for granted that within any given culture and in any historical moment, genres
The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 49, 4 (2012): 527–56
SAGE Los Angeles/London/New Delhi/Singapore/Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/0019464612463807
* Archival research for this article was possible thanks to a doctoral fellowship from the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. My transliteration scheme re ects classical and
particularly Indo-Persian pronunciations in that, for instance, majhū l vowels are preserved—therefore
classical “dew” for modern “dī w,” and “duroġ h ” in place of modern “durū ġ h ” (nineteenth-century
Orientalist philological works preserve these vowels; see Steingass’ dictionary, for instance). All
translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.
1
I use the English word ‘romance’ to translate words such as dā stā n , qi ah and ikā yat, which, in
spite of slightly different shades of meaning, share a common signi cation. These include works in verse
as well as in prose. The translation of the genre as ‘romance’ originates in questionable assumptions that
Indian qi ahs and so on essentially belonged to the same ‘romance’ genre as Gawain and the Green
at MCGILL UNIVERSITY LIBRARY on November 21, 2012ier.sagepub.comDownloaded from

528 / PASHA M. KHAN
The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 49, 4 (2012): 527–56
exist in hierarchical relationships that re ect the ideologies of the societies in which
their constituent texts are read or listened to. This idea, which has been elaborated
elsewhere,
2
must be grasped in order to understand the role of the romance in the
supposed degeneration of Islamicate historiography in the postclassical period.
The three authors of Textures of Time have documented the stance that was
common among twentieth century Orientalists with regard to historiography in
Arabic and Persian.
3
It was generally agreed that Arabic historiography got off to
an admirable start with the rigorous hadith histories of the rst few post-Islamic
centuries. But as the ranks of the intelligentsia increasingly swelled with non-
Arab, and particularly Persian, mawā l ī , and as Islamicate historiography began
to be written in the New Persian language, it came under the malign in uence of
Persianate tastes and ideas, becoming super uously ornate in its style and careless
in its method. Furthermore—and this is the problem that we will consider in what
follows—it increasingly became entangled with far-fetched legendary accounts.
The new histories consisted of historical narratives illegitimately muddled with
marvellous accounts that properly belonged to the poorly regarded romance genre.
The adulteration of ‘pure’ history by elements of this lower genre was an indication
of historiography’s increasing bastardy.
This view as a whole was challenged effectively towards the end of the twentieth
century by scholars such as Julie Meisami, on the basis of whose work the authors
of Textures of Time also present a critique.
4
Meisami examines the rhetorical aspects
of histories in Persian, showing at length how they served courtly functions.
5
The
supposed irruption of romance-like marvels into chaste histories has been less
carefully studied. It is necessary, then, to take up the question of the romance and
how it was perceived in relation to history before the twentieth century. To begin
to answer this question, we will take the case of the reception of the Shā hnā mah
in India from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. We will see from a mid-
nineteenth century example that it was possible for the Shā hnā mah to be understood
as history rather than—or in addition to—romance. A branch of the Indian history
of this genre identi cation will be traced in order to demonstrate its solidi cation
Knight and the Morte d’Arthur. These assumptions must be done away with, but to properly dispel
them and to truly repurpose the word ‘romance’ in a manner that is sensitive to the speci cities of the
texts known as qi ahs, etc., will require a book chapter at least. What is important to understand, for
the purposes of the paper, is that the romance was very often set up in opposition to the history as a
narrative genre that did not scruple to tell lies and represent impossible things such as dragons, jinns,
and so on, in contrast to the ideally truth-telling genre of history.
2
See for example Cohen, ‘History and Genre’ and Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative
as a Socially Symbolic Act.
3
Narayana Rao et al., Textures of Time: Writing History in South India, pp. 214–15; see also Meisami,
Persian Historiography to the End of the Twelfth Century, pp. 1–3. Both studies point to H.A.R. Gibb’s
representative comments on the contamination of Arabic historiography by Persian history-writing.
4
Narayana Rao et al., Textures of Time: Writing History in South India, Ch. 5.
5
Meisami, Persian Historiography to the End of the Twelfth Century.
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Reading the Shā hnā mah in India / 529
The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 49, 4 (2012): 527–56
through repetition. It will be argued that what enabled this identi cation was a
methodological split between rationalist and transmissionist historiography, the
latter allowing for the accommodation of marvellous and apparently romantic
elements, even as the former method rejected such a possibility.
Ghalib and the Simurgh
A convenient starting-point is provided by some remarks made upon the two genres
by the celebrated Persian and Urdu poet Mirzā Asad Allāh h ān Ġ h ālib of Delhi in
the 1860s. That Ghalib had a deep fondness for romances is well attested. It may be
illustrated by an interesting historical anecdote. On 4 April 1865, the elderly poet
was reading the Awadh A hbār newspaper, when he came across an advertisement
for the newly printed romance Paristān-i hayāl, written by his friend and student
Sayyid Farzand A mad afīr Bilgrāmī. According to the advertisement, the book
had been published in two volumes by the Az
īm al-mat
ābi‘ press in Patna, and
it was available for one rupee and 12 annas, plus postage. Ghalib, who was also
familiar with a previous version of the romance, wrote immediately to the direc-
tor of the press, Mīr Wilāyat ‘Alī, with an urgent order for two volumes. From his
letter, it seems as though Ghalib was eager to get his hands on the book. He writes:
I just found out about this today, and today I’m sending off this letter and the
return postage. I ask you—indeed, I urge you—to act with similar promptness,
and to send out the parcel on the very day that follows the arrival of my letter.
In case of expedition, I am most grateful, and in case of delay, I make ready
my complaint!
6
After he had sent this letter, Ghalib discovered that in his eagerness and haste,
he had forgotten to send the return postage. The next day he sent, along with the
postage, a letter of apology for the decline of his mind, which he blamed on his
declining years: ‘I’m seventy years old, my memory is extinct, forgetfulness has
overcome me!
7
The Paristān-i hayāl was the rst part of Sa r Bilgrami’s ultimately un nished
Urdu translation of Mīr Taqī hayāl’s eighteenth-century Persian romance the
Bostān-i hayāl—it was probably Khayal’s original that Ghalib had read before.
8
Ghalib was well-acquainted with Sa r, and he showed great respect to the young
man, who belonged to an important Su family. Indeed, on the very day that he
sent his initial order to Mir Wilayat ‘Ali, Ghalib also sent a letter of congratula-
tion to Sa r.
9
But there were many translations other than Sa rs, and Ghalib was
6
Ġ h ā lib, Ġ h ā lib ke hut
ū t
, p. 4: 1571.
7
Ibid., p. 4: 1572.
8
Ġ h ā lib, Ū d-i Hindī , 178.
9
Ġ h ā lib, Ġ h ā lib ke hut
ū t
, pp. 4: 1580–81.
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530 / PASHA M. KHAN
The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 49, 4 (2012): 527–56
certainly familiar with at least one other. In 1866, a year after the publication of
Sa r Bilgrami’s volume, the Delhi-based press Akmal al-mat
ābi‘ published the
rst volume of what would subsequently become the most famous Urdu Bostān-i
hayāl (Garden of the Imagination), written by h ẉājah Badr al-Dīn Amān, who
is referred to by Ghalib as his ‘nephew’ (bhatī j ā ). (In reality Aman was the son of a
horse-groom employed by Ghalib’s father on a salary of ve rupees per mensem.)
10
This rst volume was entitled adā’iq-i anz
ār, and it boasted a preface by Ghalib
himself. Before we turn from Ghalib’s enthusiasm for Sa r to his preface in support
of Aman, a caveat should perhaps be expressed regarding his display of zeal. Our
reading of his enthusiasm for these two romances should be somewhat tempered by
a recognition of the social purpose of such displays.
11
Sa rs maternal grandfather
Pī r ā ib-i Ā lam of Marehra was a venerable elder whom Ghalib considered his
spiritual preceptor,
12
while Amā n was at least nominally a family member; thus in
each case Ghalib had reason to maintain good relations with the Bostā n-i hayā l
translators. Nevertheless, we cannot reduce his show of eagerness for romances in
general to his partly socially motivated raptures over these speci c Bostā n-i hayā l
translations. Nor did social factors necessitate the defence that Ghalib undertook
of the romance genre as a whole.
For Ghalib did use his preface to adā ’iq-i anz
ā r to champion the genre, and
wrong-footed its detractors with great eloquence. What concerns us here is his
manner of mounting the genre’s defence, which involves an example that must
have appeared quite inexplicable to many twentieth-century readers. Ghalib takes
the romance’s alleged inferiority to history as his starting point, characterising
each genre in the process:
You may see in biographies and histories what happened hundreds of
years before you. But in stories and romances, you may listen to what no one
has ever seen or heard. Howsoever it may be that the wakeful brains of
intellectual men will incline by temperament toward histories, nevertheless in
their hearts they will attest to the tastefulness and delightfulness of romances
and tales.
13
The division between the two genres seems quite clear. Histories portray events
that have occurred in the past. Romances, on the other hand, represent events that
have always been non-observable because they have never occurred. There is no
doubt that romances are lying tales (jhū ī kahā niyā ), as Ghalib says himself later
in the preface—and yet they are wonderful lies that please the aesthetic sense,
10
Ġ h ā lib, Ġ h ā lib ke hut
ū t
, p. 4: 1669.
11
This helpful caveat with regard to Khwajah Aman was expressed to me by Shamsur Rahman
Faruqi in New York, in September 2010.
12
Mush q h ā jah, Ġ h ā lib aur afī r Bilgrā m ī , p. 69.
13
Ġ h ā lib, Ū d-i Hindī , p. 449.
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Frequently Asked Questions (6)
Q1. What are the contributions in this paper?

This paper examined three texts that were based on the Shā hnā mah and designated as histories, and found that all of them were either circulating vigorously in Ghalib 's nineteenth century India, or were at least composed in that milieu, and that one of them, the Surū r-i sult̤ā nī, was written by an esteemed contemporary and acquaintance of Ghaliib 's. 

The authors have also examined the two methodologies that were used by historiographers, and the argument has been put forward that histories of the transmission-based variety could be sincere without necessarily representing truths, and could therefore even represent impossibilities without ceasing to be histories. The long history of these methods, broached already by Khalidi, deserves further study. 

Over a hundred South Asia-based manuscripts are known to the Shamsher-Ḳ hā nī ’s modern editor Tahira Parveen Akram, including sixty in India.30 And Munzawī ’s catalogue lists eleven Shamsher-Ḳ hā nī manuscripts from the eighteenth century and a remarkable 26 from the nineteenth century in Pakistani archives alone (out of a total of 53, many undated). 

As the authors will see, the intellect’s supremacy in the system of the faculties was favoured by many, probably thanks to the wide infl uence of the Aristotelian model found in the Kitā b al-nafs (the Arabic translation of On the Soul). 

in this passage the words qiṣ ṣ ah and ḥ ikā yat appear to refer to a unit of speech, the ‘account’, which is not in and of itself characterisable as historiographical or romantic, sincere or mendacious. 

This manifested itself most visibly in the genre hierarchy against which Ghalib’s writing tends, in which the history was privileged and the romance was treated somewhat scoffi ngly as an inferior form of narrative.