ECSAS conference July 2021 : Magic texts

Reported by Nandini Chatterjee

The European Association for South Asian Studies had postponed its annual conference of 2020. It was held online in July 2021. The Lawforms project organised a panel looking at texts whose meanings, effects and power extended far beyond their actual written content. We decided collectively, with generous scholars externally collaborating with the project, that such texts act as talismans: their compressed texts, symbols and graphics endow them with powers that were magical. Some of these texts were directly about magic while others conveyed forms of transcendence that were sometimes supernatural but in all cases extraordinary.

The panel was titled Talismanic Writing: Powerful Texts and was held over two sessions on 28 July. We had participants from the USA (where one of the Lawforms team members, Dominic Vendell, is also located), UK, Pakistan and India. Getting all of them together in one ‘room’ without the necessity of environment- and budget-destroying air travel was itself a bit of magic that the Covid-19 pandemic has gifted us!

We opened with a presentation by Fouzia Farooq, project associate fellow from Quaid-i Azam University, who spoke about an Urdu book of spells, titled Shama-i Shabistan-i Raza.

Shama Shabistan-i Raza (a book of Indo-Islamic charms)

Using this wonderful book, widely printed and circulated in 20th-century South Asia, she opened up a world of Indo-Islamic magic, associated with the Barelvi sect. Crucial to the inclusion of such practices and knowledge about them within the range of Islamic practices was the distinction the author of the text drew between white, or religiously sanctioned magic, and black or evil magic. A complex and detailed set of rules of comportment helped distinguish and demarcate the white from the black—rules that were strikingly similar to those recommended for good Mughal and Maratha scribes! (Bathing and praying before writing activities seems to be a common South Asian recommendation.) Fouzia explored the range of social and personal needs that led people to the many talismans, fals (bibliomancy) and spells described in the book—including the ability to control the outcome of cricket matches!

Fouzia’s paper and the discussion around it tied very nicely into Nandini Chatterjee’s paper on a curse appended to a deed of gift by a Hindu woman landlord who passed on certain villages to her nephews. For anyone who interferes with their title, she threatened, I shall seize their robes on the day of judgement! Here we speculated together whether the pattern of use of curses in legal deeds and other documents was directly co-related to uncertainty and temporality. The more unknown the agents are, the more long-term the aims, the greater the need to draw on supernatural powers and/or divine intervention to undergird them. This might also explain why we see far more numerous instances of curses, including the infamous gadhe-gal in stone inscriptions, than on paper deeds, the latter having a more immediate audience.

Dominic Vendell, until recently Lawforms Postdoctoral Research Associate, spoke about the ritualistic aspects of Maratha diplomacy, including the use of golden pots, sanctified water and bel leaves. All of these fed into inter-polity negotiations that included verbal as well as documentary exchanges. One the one hand, his paper pointed to the complexity and richness of the Maratha political structures of the eighteenth century, which many still hesitate to call an empire because of its multi-centred nature. It also resonated with the work done by historians of the New Diplomatic History network, which is doing stellar service to the history of diplomacy by releasing it from the overbearing Eurocentric narratives of post-Westphalian international dealings. Vendell’s work suggests diplomacy is always about negotiating much more than actual terms of treaties, including the cultural pitfalls, personal relations and transcendental claims such as oaths in god’s name.

Elizabeth Thelen, Lawforms Postdoctoral Research Associate, took us into the world of Sufi pirs and temple managers of Rajasthan, who turned out to be as savvy as they come in terms of self-branding and claiming authority. She showed us instances of legal documents in which Sufi pirs of Nagaur used seals modelled on the genealogical seals of the Mughal emperors. In the case of the Sufis, the genealogy was spiritual rather than filial, but the graphic model of a central circle with the name of the signatory, and surrounding petals with names of the ancestors was exactly the same. Not without reason has the Indo-Islamic Sufi shrine been called a dargah, the same word for the imperial court! But with her typical cross-sectarian expertise, Elizabeth also showed us the little signatory seals, bearing the name of the god Govinddevji himself, came to mark documents issued under the issue of the idol’s authority from the temple in Jaipur. This is an excellent instance of the Hindu idol’s being treated as a legal person, a tradition with enormous case-law from colonial courts and backed up with dharmashastric traditions.

Persian metrical inscription dated AH 1180=1766-67 AD from Hirapura gate, left side. States that under the instructions of Nawwab Ismail Khan, the nazim, who, in turn, had received orders from Asaf Jah (II) for the construction of a fort at Ellichpur, Khushkhabar Khan built this lofty edifice (i.e., the gate).

Muntazir Ali, epigraphist from the Archaeological Survey of India, joined us with a marvellous paper surveying the Islamic religious elements in inscriptions from various regions of South Asia. Among other things, he also discussed the process of creating such inscriptions and the roles of the poetry-selector, calligrapher and carver in the process. While clearly derived from standard high-status religious texts, passages were selected to communicate specific messages, especially those of power and awe to those outside mosques and of community and peace to those inside.

Arighna Gupta, PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, took us to a different kind of material, showing us the braiding of legal and literary authority in Nawabi and early colonial-era Bengal. Looking at epics such as Annadamangal and Bidya Sundar from the eighteenth century on the one hand and Pratapaditycharita and Krishnachandrarayasyacharita of the nineteenth century on the other, he discussed the long shadow of Mughal authority in legitimating kingship in Bengal. Moral successes and failures of kings were not only co-related by the authors to their dynastic outcomes, but also attributed to their relative success or failure in upholding Mughal authority, represented in some of the narratives through the issue of a Mughal farman.

Walter Hakala, University at Buffalo, SUNY, pointed us towards a different kind of transcendent claim of authority and community, where the script of a text itself communicated meanings. Presenting work from a project on Urdu inscriptions in southern and western India, which he has been carrying out with a team of students at the University of Buffalo, Walter speculated on the functions of writing spoken languages like Urdu in public settings. He argued that Urdu inscriptions in the Arabic script functioned by articulating political solidarities for Muslim elites and, especially in the 19th century, communicating messages to expanding populations of readers that included women and merchant communities.

Overall, this was a great get-together despite all our exhaustion with the now seriously greying magic of Zoom conferences! It was also a very timely opportunity for the Lawforms team to consider some parts of our material that are literally marginal and tangential to legal functions.