Thursday, March 29, 2012

Memories of McGill

While watching a piece by Al-Jazeera on Robert Wisnovsky and the Rational Sciences in Islam project at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, I suddenly recognized my old library carrel from the Islamic Studies Library in the background.


For the video see after the break.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Further Transliteration Deliberations

The Mughals, avid inheritors of Turko-Mongol traditions, reveled in maintaining Turko-Mongol terminology for offices, pledges, and terms signifying the nature of relationships. All this makes intelligible and consistent transliteration mindbogglingly difficult.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Remembering Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (November 3, 1929 – March 16, 2012)

The world of South Asian studies lost a valued member and veritable giant of a scholar on March 16, 2012 with the passing away of Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman (born Phillip) Barker, in Minneapolis. Better, more informed obituaries and memorials will be written for Prof. Barker no doubt, but I thought I would share a few words. My own knowledge of Prof. Barker was entirely second hand as I never met the scholar. A Maghribist friend of mine, who took Urdu at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, where Prof. Barker taught the language from 1958 to 1972, at which point he went to the University of Minnesota to chair the Department of South Asian Studies, told me that the instruction books Barker Sahib penned for Urdu were amongst the best language coursebooks she had ever used (this coming from someone who studied French, Spanish, Russian, German, Arabic, Persian and Turkish amongst others). These included A Course in Urdu (1967), An Urdu Newspaper Reader (1968), and A Reader in Modern Urdu Poetry (1968), all published under the auspicious of the Institute of Islamic Studies. Another scholar, who developed her own series of Urdu coursebooks, remarked that he was a pioneer and astute linguist. Being a student of the Institute, odd bits always pop up about its past luminaries in unexpected corners. When the Islamic Studies Library did an exhibition about the history of the department, I was surprised to learn that he also published A Course in Baluchi (1969). I was suddenly reminded of Annemarie Schimmel (April 7, 1922 – January 26, 2003) who even proficient in Sindhi.

What I never knew about Barker Sahib was that he was not initially trained in Urdu, but rather the Native American language Klamath, for which he published, through University of Berkley Press, Klamath Texts (1963), Klamath Dictionary (1963) and eventually Klamath Grammar (1964). But no doubt, outside Urdu classrooms, Barker Sahib was most known for being the Lost Tolkien, a prolific author of fantasy novels and a creator the fantasy role playing game based on the world of Tékumel. Those more familiar with the game, which appears to have a considerable cult following, know better than I on this. He is also reputed to have, on the authority of Barbara Metcalf, created a Mughal Monopoly (mentioned in the comments by reader in the previous post). What I wouldn't give to play that game once!

The thing about scholars is this; like showbiz celebrities, their lives enter some form of public domain, where those who never meet them develop opinions about them, be they laudatory or critical, and the passing away of one gives a moment of pause to even to those who never met them, but simply knew them first through shelving away coursebooks written by them in the library of the department they taught for over a decade. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Foul Language

This may be utterly juvenile, especially for those who contemplate the rhetoric of language and the politics of discourse, but whilst reading a Mughal historical source I came across this awesome sentence:
حضرت  بزبان هندستانی فرمودند که ای گاندو، چرا اتکهٔ مارا کشتی؟
Silly I know, but I did not expect it to pop up. I guess whats good for the bazaars is good for the emperors.

Okay, enough lollygagging, back to writing a paper that has been due for quite a while, after which I have four papers to write on; (i) a late Mughal prosopography (ii) late Timurid court culture (iii) something on the Ottomans (most likely eunuchs at the court), and finally (iv) Zoroastrians in Mughal India.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lecture (6): Revisiting Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh

Perhaps the most compelling call for historians to re-examine our understanding of the last great Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb [Awrangzīb 'Ālamgīr (d. 1118/1707)], who is often accused of being a religious bigot and invariably the reason for Mughal decline (ultimately an intellectually lazy, if not sloppy argument), was Katherine Butler Brown's superb article in Modern Asian Studies [41/1 (2007), pp. 77–120] "Did Aurangzeb ban music? Questions for the historiography of his reign." In challenging the historical veracity of Aurangzeb's ban on music, Katherine Butler Schofield (née Brown), noted that historians of early modern South Asia need to seriously reconsider the received knowledge of the content and tenor of Aurangzeb's reign. Sajida S. Alvi, in her article "The Historians of Awangzeb: A Comparative Study of Three Primary Sources," [in Essays on Islamic Civilization Presented to Niyazi Berkes, Donald P. Little, ed., (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976), pp. 57-73] has previously pointed out the function of rhetoric in Mughal chronicles written under Aurangzeb--a fact overlooked when historians have blithely read the sources to mine data. On the subject, the Indian historian Jnan Chandra has brought to light several documentary evidence that suggests that Aurangzeb was, if not tolerant, certainly a great deal more pragmatic.

The story of Aurangzeb is always contrasted with that of his brother, Dārā Shikoh who, as the narrative goes, was tolerant, syncretic and heir to the composite intellectual and religious tradition of his great-grandfather Akbar (whatever that was). Since, as Hayden White has said, all narrative needs to be emplotted, the one chosen for this particularly is tragedy: Had, in the battle of succession, Aurangzeb not won, Mughal India would have remained a tolerant empire where "Hindus" would not have revolted and Shi'is not felt ostracized (mind you, Shah Kalim Allah did not consider Aurangzeb's Sunni credentials and convictions to be particularly strong), and Mughal India would have continued on. Clearly they never met one Bhimsen.

Today's lecture is by Munis D. Faruqui, who looks more carefully at Dara Shikoh's "syncretic"and "tolerant" thought, given at Habib University in Karachi. Prof. Faruqui's work on Mirza Hakim and the first Nizam al-Mulk Asaf Jah have been some of the most insightful contributions on Mughal political history in quite some time. His eagerly awaited book is The Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504-1719 (Cambridge 2012).

[I just realized that the youtube preview picture for the video is of audience members with comically blasé expressions, *sigh*, a constant reminder that no matter what historians do, people would rather watch a double bill of Game of Thrones and Spartacus.]

Part 2 & 3 after the break

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lecture (5): On How to Read Ghalib

Today's video lecture is by the indomitable Frances Pritchett courtesy of the excellent Hindi-Urdu Flagship program at University of Texas at Austin on "How to Read Ghalib". Despite my high school education being in Pakistan, my abilities in Urdu literature remain remedial at best--just the other day I noticed while reading a Persian translation into Urdu I was looking up every word in the introduction, which baffled me until I realized that the translator had pretty much replaced Persian verbs with Urdu and left all the nouns in, but still--and so having the pleasure of viewing (much preferable to reading!) an expert in Urdu literature actually explain how to develop appreciation skills was a delight.

As a side note, I have only recently discovered the Hindi-Urdu flagship program and they have excellent lectures that they have recorded, which I might post in the coming weeks. There is a wonderful one by Mehr Afshan Farooqi about the development of Urdu and the role of prose works such as Quran commentaries, and an excellent one by Rupert Snell (with his delightfully scholastic and enviable British accent when he speaks English) on Hindi autobiography. For those interested in Hindi, do check out the podcasts on Hindi Thesaurus available on iTunes.

But back to Frances Pritchett. Urdu-philes will be familiar with her enormous contribution to making Urdu literature accessible (not just physically through her website but more uniquely by her commentaries on the diwans of Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir). She has generously posted her materials here.

Frances Pritchett: How to Read Ghalib from Hindi Urdu Flagship on Vimeo.