Eighteenth century India is usually depicted as the period of transition. The steady dismantling of Mughal Empire and the increasing territorial ascendency of the British is the dominant spectrum within which much of the eighteenth century India is written. Underpinning this spectrum is the notion that Mughal Empire was a stable and uniform political entity, operating as a centrifugal command.
Much of my research during the summer this year involved locating, assembling, and digitizing records and manuscripts that could complicate the transition story of eighteenth century Indian subcontinent. Some of the documents that I was more interested in locating have barely been referenced in historical scholarship. This in itself is indicative of the dominance of the abovementioned narrative of Mughal Empire and the eighteenth century, not to mention the proverbial negligence of historical archives in India. Since one of my chief aims is to disturb the understanding of Mughal Empire as centrally controlled and managed, I am interested in non-metropolitan accounts of Mughal administration. Thus, a substantial amount of my summer was spent in familiarizing with local scholarship and scholars who could help me collect Mughal state archives.
One such exploration, and the most productive one, involved a tour to Khuda Baksh Library in Patna, Bihar. Although Patna enjoyed a significant place in Mughal administrative imagination, very little of that history and intellectual climate is visible in the city now. Khuda Baksh Library specializes in Indo-Persian collection and offers unparalleled Persian historical sources in South Asia. It was at Khuda Bhaksh that I located the manuscripts of one of the most provocative historians of eighteenth century India.
Appointed by Warren Hastings, Maharaja Kalyan Singh (1749-1822 AD), the first British appointed Diwan and Subedar of Patna (1765-1772 AD) is a prismatic figure. He writes two history books, Khulasat-ut Tawarikh and Wardat-i Qasimi, both of which depart significantly from the tradition of Indo-Persian historiography (sabk-i-Hind). Neither do the books have any dedication (extremely radical for any book in the period), nor do they follow a didactic narrative style. This is not the place to debate the intellectual significance of these paratactic and stylistic departures. Nevertheless, it is important to note that despite Kalyan Singh’s own position as a British loyalist, the absence of a direct evocation to a British patron signaled a shift in the circuits of patronage that had shaped the Indo-Persian historiography until eighteenth century. Yet, as one of the historians from Patna stated to me in an interview, writing of history and chronicles was in the Mughal period not merely an intellectual exercise. The power to produce history — typically written in first person, eyewitness style — indicated the political autonomy of authorship and its importance in forging and maintaining alliances.
The intrepid timelessness of the library’s history collection is richly complemented by the Persian poetry collection. Apart from the rich administrative heritage of the city, Patna also was the epicenter of the radical Phulwarisharif group of poets, the most acclaimed of whom is Bedil (1644-1720? AD). Revered in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Bedil’s poetry was known for its savage, unapologetic liberties with the rather constrained metaphors of Indo-Persian court poets. Documenting Bedil’s decrepit putative Phulwarisharif home also illuminated to me abundant potential for research in this region.
The summer funding gave me the opportunity to explore and widen the scope of my research and include some of very compelling insights into the now much-maligned world of late Mughal history. Although the translation of these works is really necessary to understand the historical underpinnings of bureaucracy, I am hoping that concerted effort will be made to curate and maintain the documents. I am grateful to the Centre for South Asia, Stanford for giving me the opportunity to help in the digitization of some of the fast degrading documents.