A Desire for Meaning: Ḳhān-i Ārzū's Philology and the Place of India in the Eighteenth-Century Persianate World

Arthur Dudney

A Desire for Meaning: Ḳhān-i Ārzū's Philology and the Place of India in the Eighteenth-Century Persianate World
Dudney, Arthur
Thesis Advisor(s):
Pritchett, Frances
Ph.D., Columbia University
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Persistent URL:
Geographic Area:
South Asia
During the early-modern period, Persian was the language of the imperial court and a prestigious literary medium in South Asia. Not only did Persian connect the Subcontinent with intellectual and cultural trends across western and central Asia, but during the early-modern period, India--even compared with Iran--was arguably the world's main center for the patronage of Persian literature and scholarship. However, our understanding of the societal role of Indo-Persian (that is, Persian used in South Asia) is still hazy in part because the end of Persian as a language of power in India has been so historiographically over-determined. Colonial intellectuals and nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalists in Iran and India have claimed that by the eighteenth century Indo-Persian had become an artificial, ossified tradition in decline, symptomatic of a political system in decline, whose ineluctable destiny was to be replaced by supposedly more democratic and properly Indian languages like Hindi and Urdu. The present study seeks to nuance and in some cases to completely revise this declinist narrative through an examination of eighteenth-century primary sources. This dissertation traces the development of philology (the study of literary language, known in Persian under several names including 'ilm-i lughat) within the Indo-Persian tradition, concentrating on its social and political ramifications, and the modes by which Indo-Persian writers smoothed the way for the adoption of the vernacular in contexts formerly reserved for Persian. The eighteenth century is a hinge between the pre-modern and the colonial modern, and yet our understanding of the intellectual history of that century is much poorer than for the colonial period. The most prolific and arguably most influential Indo-Persian philologist of the early-modern period was Siraj al-Din 'Ali Khan (1687/8-1756), whose nom de plume was Arzu. Besides being a much-admired poet in Persian and Urdu, Arzu was a rigorous theoretician of language. Arzu's conception of language accounted for literary innovation and historical change, a project whose newness he acknowledges and which was necessary in the face of the tazah go'i [literally, "fresh speaking"] movement in Persian literature. Although later scholarship has tended to frame this debate in anachronistically nationalist terms (Iranians versus Indians), the primary sources complicate the picture. The present study draws an analogy to the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns in Europe to show that the contemporary concern had far less to do with geography than with the question of how to interpret innovative "fresh speaking" poetry (just as in Europe the concern had been over assessing the value of texts not modeled on the Classics). Arzu used historical reasoning to argue that as a cosmopolitan language Persian could not be the property of one nation and be subject to one narrow kind of interpretation. In doing so he carefully defined the differences in usage within the Persian cosmopolis, and concluded that Indo-Persian usage was within the norms of Persian usage generally, meaning that properly educated Indians had as much right as Iranian native speakers to innovate in Persian. An intervention offered by the present research is the recognition that Arzu's theories, which superficially seem to concern only Persian, apply to language more generally. A study of his work can therefore elucidate the mechanisms that allowed Urdu to gain acceptance in elite literary circles in northern India during his lifetime. An often-overlooked aspect of intellectual history, both in India and in the West, is that advances in vernacular literary culture have usually come about not through a repudiation of the classics and their language but rather through a sustained engagement with them by bilingual writers. By changing attitudes about rekhtah, a Persianized form of vernacular composition that would later be renamed and reconceptualized as Urdu, Arzu defined and systematized vernacular literary production. Furthermore, this study presents a challenge to the persistent misconception that Indians started writing Urdu because they were ashamed of their poor Persian.
Persian language
Oriental literature
Middle Eastern literature
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Suggested Citation:
Arthur Dudney, , A Desire for Meaning: Ḳhān-i Ārzū's Philology and the Place of India in the Eighteenth-Century Persianate World, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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