Mughal inshā: A literary history of Persian epistolary prose in Early Modern South Asia


Project Leader: Dr. Stephan Popp

Project Coordination: Dr. Stephan Popp

Duration: 09/2017 – 08/2021

Abstract

The Mughal Empire has been researched for political history, economy and relations of its nobility to the court, but its intellectual history has hardly met with any investigation yet. The proposed project will set up a literary history of Persian inshā in Early Modern India, focusing on the classical period of the Mughal Empire. In contemporary Persian literary history, inshā is considered a prose genre comprising several sub-genres, mainly letters, essays, and prefaces. It can be defined as non-narrative, aesthetic prose. While fundamentally non-fact-related, inshā is historically embedded and interacting with narrative prose genres such as historical writing. Official correspondence was also seen as a branch of this genre and its most important application.

The proposed project will study Early Modern Persian inshā in India, its characteristics and development, and its interactions with Iran and Central Asia. It aims at establishing a thoroughly documented literary history of early modern Persian non-narrative artistic prose. It targets three main literary and historical interests which cannot be separated: 1) the development of an understudied but central and influential genre of late medieval and early modern Persian prose literature; 2) opening a new axis of access for historical source criticism in the light of the centrality of inshā to historical writing and correspondence; and 3) looking for clues on the readership of letters and essays in order to trace changes in cultural value sets of Early Modern elite society in India as mirrored in inshā.

The main goals of the project are therefore: A documentation of production of inshā collections and manuals in Early Modern South Asia based on the extant manuscript record; a characterization of inshā styles and their changes in the Mughal Empire; an assessment of audiences and readership and their transformations in the period under study; and an assessment of societal changes, especially the change of value sets as reflected in Persian epistolary prose.

The importance and dynamics of inshā and the sheer amount of available material call for a historically meaningful balance between a long-term study and viability. The project will therefore use 15th century Timurid inshā as a point of departure and continuing reference frame for Iranian, Mughal, and Deccani (Islamic South Indian) inshā; it will then concentrate on the 16th and 17th centuries up to the earlier part of Aurangzeb’s reign. Based on previous knowledge on influential inshā works, it will proceed by forming a corpus of typical examples for the consecutive periods of the Mughal Empire, and of exceptions, singling out the characteristics of inshā in a period, and analysing its development.