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Thursday, January 26, 2012

18th and 19th Century Urdu Poetry

The Mughal Empire, while initially militaristic, at some point in its history, fairly quickly actually if I remember correctly, turned into a center of learning and culture. The Mughal court in Delhi was a huge center for Urdu poetry and literature. There were tons of poets and the royal court sponsored poetry readings and festivals for its celebration. The last Mughal Emperor, and probably some of the other ones, actually were decent poets in their own right, in many ways mirroring the court of Queen Elizabeth in England. Many of the best poets were given status as nobles and were respected in society. There is a huge body of Urdu poetry from this time period as they developed new styles of writing and experimented.

I really would like to go to Delhi and see what I can find of this lost tradition. I know that in the mutiny papers from the 1857 rebellion, there is some of the Urdu poetry. I should think that the central archive has copies of these works. I am not sure if the universities have anything or not.

The goal of doing this would be to go through and perform some analysis and critical examination of Urdu literature during the late Mughal period when literature was at its height, basically the hundred years between the mid 1700's ending with the 1857 rebellion. I would want to look at as many of the originals as possible, and barring that, the poetry presented in the original Urdu, printed in Urdu. This would cover everything from what was written, to how it was written, to how it was presented. Essentially your standard literary analysis. I would need to be in India and actually specifically in New Delhi/Delhi because that is where all of this went down and where I assume most of the originals still are.

This project does have a few minor concerns and one huge concern. The biggest problem is that the English, bless their hearts, destroyed a huge chunk of Urdu literature when they sacked Delhi in 1857. Entire libraries of priceless manuscripts were destroyed or burned or stolen. Even the work of living poets was lost. Considering the manuscript culture of the time, in many cases the texts destroyed were the only existent copies. Thus I am not even sure exactly how much of the Urdu literature I want to study actually still exists since the English performed a sort of cultural cleansing on it. Some other problems are tracking them down. Some of them might be museum pieces, which would make things difficult, either through not being able to see them, having to analyze them through glass, only being able to see one page through glass, or the simple difficulty of trying to access to each of the museums they are in, if they are even in local museums. Another problem is I can't read Urdu, at least not yet. Urdu is essentially identical to Hindi, so that wouldn't be a problem per se, but I would have to learn how to read Urdu, since I don't think relying on a translator is practical or ideal. That basically defeats the whole purpose of traveling to Delhi  in the first place. Another similar problem, is even if I learn to read and write Urdu, I do not know if hand written manuscripts would be legible to me. They could be too ornate or too messy for me to really accomplish much.

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