A talk by Dr Arthur Dudney, scholar of the history of early modern Persian literary education and lexicography in India.
At roughly the same time during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, men of letters in Europe and the Persian-using world were debating roughly the same aesthetic problem: What did it mean that contemporary literature was very different from the standard-setting literature of centuries before? In Europe, this debate is charmingly called the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns and is generally thought of as an early chapter in the story of the birth of Western Modernity. In scholarship on the Persian-using world, especially in the context of South Asia, a very similar early-modern debate was until recently dismissed as a symptom of a decadent and hidebound tradition that led nowhere. The contrast in the portrayal of these parallel debates opens up a set of questions about the methods available to us for comparative intellectual and cultural history. What can we learn by considering the European and the Persianate cases in the same frame? What differences between the two cases might disqualify a comparison? How should we in the twenty-first century value aesthetic judgments made in the eighteenth century (or any other century)? This lecture will address these methodological questions as it traces the impact of the Persian debate over poetic authority on Urdu literary culture, especially during the formative eighteenth century.
Dr Arthur Dudney is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University, from August 2015 until August 2018. His three-year research project aims to write a history of Persian literary education, focussing on places like India where Persian was culturally important but not the local language of everyday life.
As a TORCH Early Career Fellow (Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford) he was pursuing new research on the history of philology in South Asia. The two-year project considered how philologya traditional discipline combining what we would consider literary criticism, rhetoric, and linguisticswas imbricated in the exercise of political power in Delhi Sultanate and Mughal India. Persian, the primary language for the project, is effectively a dead language in the Indian Subcontinent today, but was in prior centuries a vibrant language of high culture and administration. This research made use of materials that are not typically the focus of intellectual history, such as dictionaries and works of literary criticism.
Dr Dudney received his PhD from Columbia University in 2013. His doctoral thesis, A Desire for Meaning: Ḳhān-i Arzūs Philology and the Place of India in the Eighteenth-Century Persianate World, is the first in-depth study of Sirāj al-Dīn ʿAlī Ḳhān Arzū (d. 1756) in English. Arzū was not only a leading philologist of his time in the Persian tradition, but is also regarded as the first teacher of Urdu, that is, of the vernacular literature of Delhi. The thesis begins the process of re-interpreting the well-worn paradigm of the early-eighteenth century decline of Mughal society through the seeming incongruity of the robustness of the philological tradition of the same period. It argues that our understanding of the function of literature at that time has been shaped by anachronistic concerns that can be dispelled by engaging with Arzūs works. In particular, contemporary debates over innovation in poetry have come to be understood in unhelpfully nationalist terms as confrontations between Indians and Iranians. Likewise, our understanding of the relationship of Persian with Indian vernacular languages has often been coloured by the fact that Persian was eventually supplanted by these vernaculars in South Asia, which has led many to claim that Persian in India was inauthentic and its replacement by indigenous languages was inevitable. The research draws upon examples from Latinate Europe to contextualise Persianate South Asia and to rethink claims of early-modern Europes socio-cultural uniqueness. In many cases, nearly identical social processes have been hailed as progress towards modernity in the Western context while being presented as evidence of social and political decline in the Indian context.