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Number Seven Thousand Three Hundred and Seventy - 23 August 2023
Iran Daily - Number Seven Thousand Three Hundred and Seventy - 23 August 2023 - Page 3

A turning point for Persianate culture in South Asia

Persian did find itself in transition in the latter days of the Mughal Empire. The political shocks of the eighteenth century, such as Nader Shah’s sacking of Delhi in 1739, initiated a breakdown of complex patronage networks and a loosening of the rigid social system of the Mughals, causing literati to leave Delhi and placing Persian literary culture and production in a state of flux.
The arrival of the British on the Indian Subcontinent also played a large part. The impact of the British on informational networks wedded to Persian language and administrative norms is well-known. The way in which the British used and manipulated aspects of Persianate literary culture and reconfigured existing networks to fit with their own political aspirations certainly represents a major turning point for Persianate culture in South Asia.
In their quest to achieve economic and political inroads into the Indian Subcontinent, the British relied on informants, administrators and secretaries versed in the Persian language and its cultural norms.
One of the many ways in which to capture the larger trends working against Persian’s administrative dominance can be gleaned by looking at the figure of the secretary (munshi) and how the British relied on this ever-dependable class whose administrative and scribal skills derived from their placement within Mughal governmental structures.
During the early rise of the East India Company (EIC), especially from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, munshis were crucial in helping the British navigate the established set of cultural norms related to the use of the Persian language. These munshis, skilled in the Persian language and Mughal administrative technologies, ‘were desperately needed by the British as they maneuvered their way through diplomatic exchanges and political intrigues in their rise to power’.
Before 1830 in particular, the EIC used munshis to ‘manipulate the information systems of their Hindu and Muslim predecessors’ to their political advantage. Approaching the Persian language as a ‘pragmatic vehicle of communication with Indian officials and rulers through which … they could express their requests, queries, and thoughts, and through which they could get things done’, the munshi proved indispensable to British political and economic activity.
The British tasked these individuals with a variety of roles, ranging from administrator and secretary to language instructor and author. They served as administrative and cultural interpreters between the EIC and Mughal successor states, accompanied British diplomatic missions abroad and composed works on various aspects of South Asian history and culture at the behest of their British employers. Though no comprehensive work exists on the variety of roles occupied by the munshi class, a variety of studies have been devoted to individual munshis and their role within British residencies and language training colleges.

The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter, ‘Persian Literary Historiography of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, from a book entitled, ‘Remapping Persian Literary History, 1700-1900’, written by Kevin L. Schwartz, published by Edinburgh University Press.


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