Guest post by Fouzia Farooq Ahmed
Attending the July 2018 conference on Forms of Law in the Early Modern Persianate World, 17th-19th centuries was a unique opportunity for me to delve into the politics behind the form and production of the Persianate official documents. Scholars presenting their research works on less-explored aspects of Persianate documents in a posh Book of Exeter themed hotel where walls, carpets and chandelier in the central lobby celebrated the famous document inspired me to physically recreate medieval farmāns.
My motive behind recreating farmānswas to understand the mindset of those who were producing such documents during the medieval period. Needless to say, for medieval official documents, form seems to be dictated by the purpose of the documents and agenda of its producers. My earliest understanding was simple; that the more politically significant a document, the more ornate and decorated it should be. Complexity of the content should also correlate with the purpose and consumers. The more localized a document is the plainer it should appear. For instance, the local revenue records in various regional languages that were presented in the conference were generally intonate, organized and legible, making clear statements of authentic financial interactions. I juxtapose these documents with beautifully calligraphed royal farmāns (imperial decrees). My hypothesis about the politics behind form of documents proved wrong when I started looking at the inconsistencies in the appearance of the farmāns.
First, there is a stylistic difference between the farmāns produced in Persian, Indian and Ottoman empires. Broadly speaking, the farmāns from Qajar Persia are very elegant, gold painted and look like calligraphic masterpieces, the Mughal farmāns with two royal seals imprinted on the top, written with simple ink on paper from Akbar to Shah Alam’s period are very plain yet graceful and Ottoman farmāns with illuminated tughras are neither as simple as the Mughal farmāns nor are very decorated like the Qajar farmāns.
There are inconsistencies in how the farmāns look within each of these cultures as well. For instance, some Persian farmāns are plain and some Mughal ones are decorated with gold. I am still unsure why certain farmāns were kept very simple while others were embellished. I would like to observe that farmāns might have had sub-categories according to their purposes and this might explain why certain farmāns appeared in a certain format.
After the conference I attended a lecture in SOAS, London by the famous Urdu writer and poet Javed Akhtar. It was a rare privilege to listen to Javed Akhtar reciting his famous satirical poem “Naya Hukm-nāma” or the new ordinance. This poem is a parody of the content of royal farmāns. It has six parts of which the first three parts explain the ambition of the powerful to control all, the remaining three parts elaborate how this control is beyond human agency. The tone of the new ordinance is callous, the demands are idiosyncratic and the issuer of the new ordinance seems to be an eccentric megalomaniac. This poem was the most suitable content for my artwork.
I have painted the Naya Hukm-nāma in two farmān formats. The first format is a 3×2 feet on canvas artwork in paint medium. This artwork has two parts. The central colorful core and the golden margins (hāshiya). The title of the poem is the title of my painting i.e. Naya Hukm-nāma. The colorful core of the painting has gilded words including sach, sachchāī (truth), barabarī, musāwāt (equality), izhār (expression), āzādī (freedom), haq(right), ʿadl (justice) and khūdī (self- respect), the civic values that have become impracticable ideals in non-representational governments. These boldly inscribed clichés look imposed and artificial in an otherwise harmonious document. These clichés are regular rhetoric of every regime. Contrary to the title of the Naya Hukm-nāma (new ordinance) there is nothing new in the apparent hukm-nāma. The newness of the ordinance is written in the margins (hāshiyas) in an almost invisible and hardly legible hand writing. The hāshiyas contain first three parts of the hukm-nāma. The painting also has a golden stamp of Sarkar (the one with authority) on the bottom of the document.
The second farmān is gold on paper with simple calligraphy in acrylic paint with a royal seal on the top.