Exploring Perso-Marathi connections

Guest post by Dr Prachi Deshpande

This February 2018, I spent a very productive and insightful couple of weeks in the UK, working with Dr. Nandini Chatterjee as part of her Lawforms Project. I am a historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Maharashtra, and my broad interests are in Marathi language practices. I am especially interested in Marathi scribal culture and the broad gamut of Marathi documentary forms and conventions written in the cursive Modi script first under the Maratha states, and then under the British colonial state as well. Persian is very much present in all of these materials – as vocabulary, as template for a wide variety of documentary templates, and of course as script and language in actual bilingual documents too. Medieval Marathi has been dubbed Perso-Marathi with good reason.

My response to this Persian presence was rather like that of an ostrich. That is, until I began participating in this project and thinking more seriously about the different ways in which Persian and Marathi interact in the medieval and early modern archive. The broad-brush consensus appears to be that it was Sultanat, and later Mughal documentary forms and conventions that influenced several bureaucratic practices in Marathi. Within this broad picture, however, it is worth peering more closely at the ways in which certain Persianate legal or epistolary forms were adapted in Marathi, or indeed what the precise trajectory of influence might have been at different moments over the early modern and even colonial eras.

I was able to articulate some of these inchoate ideas more clearly during this trip, where I worked closely with Nandini on reading some Modi documents from the multilingual archive of a central Indian landed family.

Marathi/Modi accounts of a zamindar family in central India (courtesy Mr. Amit Chaudhuri)

We also read some bilingual documents together – an Adilshahi farman, for example. Reading together what appears to be the same text in two scripts and languages, but which coheres and departs in particular ways with respect to vocabulary or the nature of information provided, was very useful in helping me think about how to map these linguistic interactions across different documentary genres. Thanks to Nandini, I am also more aware of the materiality of the document itself – the placement of the seal, the writing, the paper and the arrangement of the scripts – and it has been a valuable learning experience to think about legal, epistolary or accounting materials in this way. Following this train of thought, I will present a paper at the ‘transactions’ workshop as part of the Lawforms project in July 2018, on the Marathi form of the kaulnama, an ubiquitous legal form drawing on the Mughal qaulnama, that was widely used as a form of reassurance from the state about hereditary rights or as grants of land tenure. My aim is to think about them in a sort of constellation of Persianate documentary forms that proliferated in Marathi – such as ināmpatra, sanad, ajnapatra. 

During my work at the British Library in February, I also consulted a series of Marathi manuscripts in the Modi script. Many of these are Marathi translations of well-known Persian histories of Bijapur or the Mughals. What is interesting is that many of them were commissioned and collected by early colonial officials – it is worth exploring further the ways in which the colonial presence may have newly mediated the relationship between Persian and Marathi during these early decades in western India.

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