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Writing Self, Writing Empire

Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandar Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary OPEN ACCESS

Rajeev Kinra
Copyright Date: 2015
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    Writing Self, Writing Empire
    Book Description:

    Writing Self, Writing Empireexamines the life, career, and writings of the Mughal state secretary, or munshi, Chandar Bhan "Brahman" (d. c.1670), one of the great Indo-Persian poets and prose stylists of early modern South Asia. Chandar Bhan's life spanned the reigns of four different emperors, Akbar (1556-1605), Jahangir (1605-1627), Shah Jahan (1628-1658), and Aurangzeb Alamgir (1658-1707), the last of the Great Mughals whose courts dominated the culture and politics of the subcontinent at the height of the empire's power, territorial reach, and global influence. As a high-caste Hindu who worked for a series of Muslim monarchs and other officials, forming powerful friendships along the way, Chandar Bhan's experience bears vivid testimony to the pluralistic atmosphere of the Mughal court, particularly during the reign of Shah Jahan, the celebrated builder of the Taj Mahal. But his widely circulated and emulated works also touch on a range of topics central to our understanding of the court's literary, mystical, administrative, and ethical cultures, while his letters and autobiographical writings provide tantalizing examples of early modern Indo-Persian modes of self-fashioning. Chandar Bhan's oeuvre is a valuable window onto a crucial, though surprisingly neglected, period of Mughal cultural and political history.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-96168-5
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. 1-15)

    To gaze upon the Taj Mahal in Agra remains, even today, nearly four hundred years after its construction, an exhilarating experience. One of the most recognizable structures in all of South Asia, and arguably in the entire world, it has become a visual icon not just of the Mughal dynasty that built it but of the entire subcontinent’s rich courtly, artistic, and architectural history. Something about the Taj just says India to most observers, almost as a floating visual signifier. And as a result, its iconic image has come to grace countless travel brochures, movie posters, advertisements, coffee-table books, and...

  2. (pp. 16-59)

    The typical modern narrative of Mughal history still goes something like this. After its establishment in 1526 by the dynamic Turko-Mongol conqueror Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (1483–1530), the Mughal Empire soon passed into the hands of Babur’s less effective son, Humayun (r. 1530–40, 1555–56). Within a mere ten years, Humayun had lost the dynasty’s Indian territories to an upstart Indo-Afghan rival named Sher Shah Suri (1486–1545), who then established his own imperial order in northern India. The resulting “Afghan interregnum” nearly smothered Mughal imperial ambitions in their infancy, and in fact most historians agree that Sher...

  3. (pp. 60-94)

    As an heir to the rich tradition of great secretaries of the Indo–Persian cultural world, Chandar Bhan was expected to embody the high standard of erudition, professional training, administrative ability, political discretion, diplomatic panache, ethical behavior, mystical sensibility, literary flair, and general interdisciplinary excellence that had been cultivated for centuries by notable earlier “masters of the pen” (ashāb-i qalam).¹ The need for a successful Mughal state secretary to embody these qualities is a regular theme of much of his most famous prose work, “The Four Gardens” (Chahār Chaman), and we will spend much of this chapter examining precisely what...

  4. (pp. 95-158)

    In the previous chapters we examined myriad facets of Chandar Bhan’s experience as a prominent Hindu, secretary, and poet at the Mughal court—his literary self, his administrative self, and his political self, in particular. But what was Chandar Bhan’s view of the emperor whom he served in all these capacities, and of Mughal sovereignty generally? There has been some notable scholarship in recent years on the general question of Mughal theories of sovereignty and royal legitimacy.¹ But how did Chandar Bhan, as a Hindu, and a Brahman no less, treat the question of the legitimacy of Muslim rule in...

  5. (pp. 159-200)

    In the previous chapters, I have from time to time called attention to the firstperson perspective that our seventeenth-century Mughal informant,munshīChandar Bhan Brahman, cultivates in his magnum opus, “The Four Gardens” (Chahār Chaman). As I have tried to suggest, for all its fragmentary nature,Chahār Chamanis quite consciously constructed as a memoir of the secretary’s own personal experiences in the wider panoply of Mughal courtly and cultural life. In this chapter, we will examine this feature of the text in its most explicit form, namely, the third and fourth “gardens” (chamans), in which Chandar Bhan gives us...

  6. (pp. 201-239)

    All poets, in all ages, have placed a premium on timely themes, verbal dexterity, and aesthetic innovation, but in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century India there was a heightened sense of newness in the air. By the end of Emperor Akbar’s long reign (1556–1605), the Mughal Empire was well established, and, as we discussed above in chapter 2, the ensuing years that coincided with Chandar Bhan’s life and career saw the consolidation of a number of composite cultural trends that had, in many cases, been centuries in the making but now received a more explicit political and administrative formulation than ever before....

  7. (pp. 240-285)

    In the previous chapters, we have examined Chandar Bhan Brahman’s life and career against the backdrop of multiple facets of seventeenth-century Mughal cultural and political life. Along the way, we have seen that he was patronized by, and often formed powerful and intimate friendships with, a veritable galaxy of Mughal notables, both Hindu and Muslim. He often recited his own poetry in palace gatherings and other occasions, both formal and informal, performances for which he was rewarded on numerous occasions by the emperor, with cash, or a robe of honor, or a promotion, or sometimes all of the above. He...

  8. (pp. 286-296)

    A colleague of mine who studies ancient and medieval South India once asked me: “Aren’t you worried that the Mughals have been studied to death, and there won’t be anything new to say as you get older?” I chuckled. To someone like my friend, who works on a time and place for which the surviving archival and archaeological evidence is admittedly much thinner than what I have to work with, I suppose it is easy to look on the Mughal specialist’s embarrassment of riches with a touch of envy. From the outside looking in, one could easily get the impression...