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.

Fieldwork in Marathi zone, Dec17-Jan18

I went to Pune in Dec-Jan 2017-18 in order to conduct a preliminary survey of the material available. I returned with an embarrassment of riches, and with an heightened understanding of the long-term and multi-layered presence of Persian in the Marathi-writing zone of the India subcontinent.

I was fortunate to have been able to begin my trip with support from the wonderful scholars of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune. Besides becoming aware of their own excellent if small collection of Persian manuscripts (which include a number of interesting insha), I was also able to establish contact with the activist-scholars of the Bharat Itihas Samsodhak Mandal, who carry on the excellent intellectual activism of V.K. Rajwade and G.H. Khare. The Mandal’s director Dr Bhave, was kind enough to allow me to undertake research in the Mandal’s archives, about which it is worth saying a few words.

Bharat Itihas Samsodhak Mandal

The Mandal’s collection consists primarily of what we may call ‘family papers’ of various military, landed and literary elites of the Marathi-writing zone. These papers are in a mixture of languages – predominantly Marathi written in Modi script, but also Persian because of the imbrication of such elites within the regimes of the Deccan Sultanates, most importantly the AdilShahis. There are around 2000 rumals, or bundles, with several dozens of individual documents in them.

Since the 1950s, there has been an effort to separate the Persian documents from this collection. A large selection was thus published in 6 volumes by G.H. Share, in his Persian sources of Indian history series (which I purchased). In recent times, the outstanding historian, G.B. Mehendale, has published a selection of 40 or so Adilshahi farmans (which, too, I purchased). Many more documents exist – and scholars kindly shared around 1000 such documents with me. There is, however, no simple way of knowing which family a document relates to, because it appears that the integrity of the collections have been seriously damaged by repeated reorganisation of the rumals. This was also confirmed by Dr Mehendale himself, as part of an exhilarating conversation.

The other aspect that impressed itself on me was the necessity of studying the evolving diplomatics of documents from the Marathi-writing region – from the Nizamshahi bi-lingual farmans right up to the Peshwai documentation, perhaps even into the British colonial period. We cannot legitimately separate the Persian and the Marathi era, even when language and script use changes, much of the vocabulary, styles and conventions continue. With this idea in view, I purchased several of the Mandal’s publications of the documents from the Maratha empire.

Maratha history museum at Deccan College

I also encountered several very interesting documents at Deccan College, Pune. I was supplied with digital copies of 6 such documents (which I do not have permission to publish). But I also became aware that the Deccan College holds the famous Parasnis daftar and several other such family archives. Although it is repeatedly asserted that these are all in Marathi; a proper survey through the rumals would be needed to establish their linguistic spread.

Shaniwada palace of the Peshwas

Finally, while I was in Pune, there were unfortunate riots provoked by right-wing opposition to Dalit celebration of the final Peshwa-British battle, during which the Shaniwada palace was burnt. This celebration began almost a century ago, and is a valuable reminder about the exclusiveness of the Maratha, especially the Brahmin-led Peshwa empire, whose artefacts this project is bound to study.

The twists and turns of Modi (script)

This week and the next, I have the good fortune of having Dr Prachi Deshpande here in the UK. I think she is one of the smartest historians of early modern India, with an interest in the histories of language and script use, and an expertise in the archaic Marathi script of Modi.

Together, we are looking at the bunches of Persian documents (mainly Adilshahi farmans) that I collected from Pune in December, peering at the margins, where summaries and signatures in Modi crop up. We are also looking through the the archive of a family of landlords from Dhar, who were kind enough to share their heritage with me. Although these documents are in Persian and/or Hindi/Rangri; the Nagri-script part of these documents demonstrate clear evidence of incursion of Modi as well as Gujarati letter forms.

Let’s see what else we can find!