Cogut Institute for the Humanities
Center for the Study of the Early Modern World

This talk by Shahzad Bashir highlighted the stakes of writing about the past in Persian in India during the approximate period 1600-1900 CE. For the first two centuries during this era, Persian was the language of courts in North India, available as a vehicle for self-representation as well as political participation via established literary genres. Between different types of chronicles and prosopography, the use of the past to negotiate the present and the future stands out as a principle concern in this sociohistorical setting. The literary evidence for this pattern is quite monumental, although to date the only effort to discuss it comprehensively is a collection of (often incorrect) summaries and partial English translations undertaken by British colonial scholar-bureaucrats in the 19th century. The talk provided a sense for the richness of the original material by categorizing works according to the way they arrange time and space. This was compared with, first, the stripped-down understandings presented by colonial scholars writing in English, and second, a capacious Persian chronicle finished in 1863 that retains the breadth of earlier Persian works while also absorbing European knowledge into its frame.

The material covered here alerts us to the lively debate on the nature and content of the past in early modern India. 19th-century fate of the material indicates the significance of colonial and orientalist mediation. The pasts contained in early modern sources remain vividly alive in contemporary South Asia, although they are accessed almost exclusively through English translations since Persian declined as an Indian language in the 19th century. The talk is part of a larger project aimed at creating a complex picture of the variety of opinions on the past that mattered in the early modern period. This perspective challenges South Asian nationalist understandings that take colonial-orientalist readings of history as the standard. Examining the early modern world in this instance has direct implications for the way the past can be utilized to understand the present and imagine the future in our contemporary world. Historiographical reconstruction undertaken today thus invites ethical questions in addition to the usual academic work of evaluating literary and other evidence.