Summer School ‘Working in an Indian Archive,’ Hyderabad, August 19-30, 2019

By Elizabeth Thelen

A sign for the Summer School on the MANUU campus

During the last two weeks of August, 30 young scholars from around the world gathered on the campus of Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU) in Hyderabad for a summer school on reading Indo-Persian documents. I was fortunate to be one of the participants in this intensive programme, which was organized by Prof. Dr. Eva Orthmann of the University of Göttingen and Prof. Chandar Shekhar of Delhi University in collaboration with the Persian Department at MANUU and Dr. Zareena Parveen, the director of the Telangana State Archives.

The first several days of instruction focused on the technical skills for decoding documents and an introduction to several common genres of document. Ali Langroudi of the University of Göttingen taught the principles of the Nastaliq and Shikasta scripts and reviewed forms of words commonly found in the archival documents, while Prof. Orthmann introduced us to reading seals and tughras and to the genre of farmans. Prof. Najaf Haider of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi joined us for a day to focus on documents relating to financial and economic history. We read several types of records with him including a farman promulgating a revenue grant and an excerpt from an administrative manual on the process of minting coins.

A demonstration of how to distinguish letters in Shikaste writing

We then applied the training from the first four days and continued to develop our reading skills during three days at the Telangana State Archives. The director, Dr. Zareena Parveen, took us on a tour of the archives, showing us how the documents are stored and the conservation processes. We also visited the archive’s display room, which has a sampling of the types of documents held by the archive on display. The archive has the largest collection of Mughal records from the reigns of the emperors Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb available in India, as well as the records of the Nizam period of rule in Hyderabad and post-Independence records. During our classes in the archives, we examined and read a number of Mughal administrative documents relating to the functioning of the mansabdar system. Written for an internal audience of administrators, these documents are often written in a shikasta hand that is particularly difficult to decode until you know the common formulae and structures of the documents. Drawing on her three decades of experience in the archives, Dr. Parveen showed us how to decipher salary calculations and orders to increase or decrease mansab ranks.

Prof. Chandar Shekhar addressing the participants alongside Dr. Zareena Parveen and Prof. Eva Orthmann

In the second week, we were joined by Prof. Chandar Shekar, who led us in the reading and translating of a variety of document types. He guided our reading of additional documents in the Telangana State Archives, including charitable grants. We also read eighteenth-century roznamcha reports. Along the way, he shared insights into the interrelations between different types of documents and administrative practices. We also took a trip to the Bargah of Hazrat Pathar Wali Sahib, which is home to the Haadi-e-Deccan Library and Research Institute. Over the last 170 years, the sajjada nashins of the bargah have developed and maintained a library including rare Urdu publications and over 600 Persian and Arabic manuscripts.

Alongside our classes, the programme included an evening lecture series, during which participants shared their research. I spoke about my research on the use of Persian documents in Rajasthan, while Dr. Stanislaw Jaskowski discussed polish reporting on the 1638 battle in Qandahar between the Safavids and Mughals, Guiseppe Cappello shared insights from his work on the Gulzar-i-Hal, Pia Malik introduced her research on sufism in the Deccan, and Anurag Advani talked about madness in the Mughal period.

Though I had worked with Persian documents before, I came away with increased fluency in decoding and reading shikasta documents, an understanding of document types I had not encountered previously, and an overview of the collections of the Telangana State Archives.

A workshop on Persian documents, royal decrees and the Naya Hukm-nāma (the New Ordinance) by Javed Akhtar

Guest post by Fouzia Farooq Ahmed

Naya Hukm-nāma 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. 

Naya Hukm-Nāma 2 by Fouzia Farooq Ahmed

Javed Akhtar reciting naya hukm-nāma