Thinking about writing and reading didactic literature in India and England

By Elizabeth Thelen

One thread of inquiry regarding the forms of documents in circulation in South Asia and their stability that Lawforms Project team members have been pursuing is to consider manuals and didactic literature. Between December 2018 and July 2019, we surveyed manuals in various languages and held a project meeting on this subject. Some of the texts we examined contained guides to various technical aspects of administration and business, such as tables of weights and measures or organizational charts of various posts. Others, in line with the well-known Forms of Harkaran (edited and published by Francis Balfour in 1781), contain sample documents for various functions, offering models to scribes (munshis).

In my survey of manuals in the Rajasthani language zone, I came across a set of mid-nineteenth-century Persian administrative manuals in manuscript form from the Princely State of Alwar that join instructions of various administrative procedures with model documents, as well as exhortations about the benefits of good administration. Now held in the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Arabic Persian Research Institute, Tonk, stamps inside these manuals show that they were once part of the Alwar Palace Library. However, there’s no mention of an author or even the date they were composed or scribed. So rather than start with a particular person or specific time period to contextualize these texts, I’ve been starting by understanding these texts as part of a specific genre of technical and didactic writing. Therefore, as I’ve begun more intensive research on these texts and what they might show us about early colonial Persianate administration, I’ve been thinking about manuals more generally, including the genealogy of didactic literature and scholarly approaches to this literature.

One strand of inquiry has been to consider the forms of didactic literature in circulation in early modern South Asia across a constellation of subgenres and languages. These include shurut (model documents, often found as part of Islamic jurisprudential texts), insha (epistolary manuals), nasihat, akhlaq and neetishastra (advice literature); dastur al-ʿamal (a rather capacious term, but often related to revenue collection), and prescriptive literature on rule and governance emanating from the highest offices of the state, such as Abul Fazl’s Ain-i Akbari. The Alwar manuals bear many features of these genres, such as sample documents, descriptions of procedures to be followed by specific officials, and broad statements about the forms and merits of good government.

Another line of my investigation is the production of manuals by the East India Company. Company servants wrote and published scores of manuals and guides to the languages and document-forms of the Indian subcontinent. They also commissioned copies of various local manuals and edited and published a number of these texts. From the 1790s the East India Company also published an increasing number of manuals, handbooks and digests of rules and regulations regarding company rule, in English but also in translation in Persian, Bengali, Urdu, etc. It’s entirely plausible that the Alwar Manuals are based in part on some of these texts.

In reading some of the East India Company manuals, I’ve also become curious about the history of manuals and didactic literature in England and how the EIC texts might be shaped by this history. With this in mind, I recently spoke with one of my colleagues at Exeter, Dr. James Fisher, who is an expert on agricultural manuals in early modern England. I was curious to know more about manual writing and reading in England and also what methodological approaches he might suggest. Through the course of our conversation, several threads of enquiry emerged. These include:  

Manuals as a genre: Even as they move into new formats and audiences, manuals build on previous didactic literature, often repackaging older content. James pointed out that agriculture manuals in early modern England were often based on classical Greek and Latin treatises, sometimes via German and French translations. Some of the English manuals followed Latin models so closely that they offered their English readers agricultural advice based on the Italian climate that was hardly suitable to the colder, wetter English weather! Orality is also an important component of the genealogy of manuals. In the English case, agricultural manuals were often the result of a gentleman’s efforts to codify practical knowledge shared orally. In the case of the East India Company manuals I’ve been reading, we discussed how those manuals might have closer ties to the manuals and handbooks produced in other early modern English colonial contexts, such as Barbados, the American colonies, and Ireland, rather than in England itself. James also brought up some points about the scope of manuals, pointing out how manuals assumed the reader already had certain types of knowledge and suggesting that they were particularly well-suited (and widely used) to convey managerial types of knowledge.

Circulation and audience: Who was the readership of manuals? Sometimes manuals set out clear statements of their intended audience. We can also look at patterns of circulation, including how many copies of the text exist and who owned them, though, as James reminded me, owning a text didn’t necessarily mean that someone read it! Materiality also makes a big difference to circulation. The manuals James studies were printed, which means they were relatively cheap compared to manuscripts and more widely dispersed than manuscript copies of manuals. But it also meant they were subject to market pressures and their content was shaped by what would sell. Another question we discussed was how was the information in the manuals disseminated? James brought up that some English manuals have a ‘double readership’ built in, with explicit instructions for the reader to read out certain passages to particular people. As with thinking about manuals as a genre, here we are once again reminded of the close links of manuals to orality.

Text versus practice: Given that manuals are aimed at conveying certain sorts of practical knowledge, how can we understand their impact? While it can be hard, and in some cases impossible, to reconstruct the actual use or impact of a given manual, one can start by reading the texts for their intended purpose. In thinking about the relationship of text to practice in his own work, James has focused on identifying the broad function of manuals and to think about their overall impact on society – such as how the move from transmitting agricultural knowledge through orality and custom to the circulation of 100s of books on agricultural methods among a different social class corresponded to changed social structures – rather than how any one individual responded to the text. In order to understand the reception of texts, he has also looked at book reviews that were published on manuals from the eighteenth century, at library records to see who was borrowing a text, at literary and visual depictions of manuals, and at the notebooks of authors of manuals about other manuals they had read.

As I continue my research on the Alwar manuals, this conversation has given me some new ways of thinking about how manuals function as a genre and their textual tradition, who read them and how, and how to assess their impact – as well as insights into the contextual specificity of manuals in England and India.

Archival Research in the Rajasthani Zone, February – March 2019

By Elizabeth Thelen

During February and early March, I travelled in Rajasthan and visited four archives and research institutes. I pursued several strands of inquiry during this trip. First was continuing the matter of manuals we had investigated in London in December. During the London trip, I had found fairly limited materials relating to Rajasthan – partially due to Rajasthani materials not being separated from Hindi materials either geographically or linguistically in most of the British Library’s catalogues. So the question remained of what sorts of manuals, if any, were being produced in Rajasthan in either Rajasthani or Persian. The other matter was to continue the overview of documents and genres begun in our workshop to develop a better understanding of the use of Persian in Rajasthan, including its chronology, geography, and social boundaries of use, along with identifying collections for more in-depth study.

Entrance to the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner

I began my fieldwork in Bikaner at the Rajasthan State Archives, following up on ideas and leads from our workshop held jointly with the archives on February 6-8. While at the Archives, I surveyed the collections of personal papers held in the ‘non-archival’ section. In the Guide to the Archives published in 1992, 32 collections are listed. However, as that guide itself acknowledges, only some of those collections were donated to the archive, while others may have been microfilmed, and yet others remained in the possession of a private individual or organization. the list of collections does not indicate the status for each of the collections. I confirmed the presence of 15 of these collections at the archive and consulted the handlists available for 11 of them to gain an overview of their contents. The collections cover a wide range of material: newspaper clippings, the records of local organizations and individuals involved in the independence struggle, the records of a school in Bikaner, the notes of authors and historians, and family and business records. I took a closer look at the contents of three of the collections that are of particular interest to Lawforms research because of their inclusion of both Rajasthani and Persian documents from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Entrance to the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Jodhpur

From Bikaner, I travelled to Jodhpur to visit the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute and the Maharaja ManSingh Research Centre. The Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute is a government institute holding several hundred thousand manuscripts, mostly in Rajasthani and Sanskrit. The largest part of the collection consists of literary manuscripts, but there are also a good number of historical texts and texts on various sorts of technical knowledge. Sifting through the catalogues, I located a number of texts on mathematics that proved to deal with topics of revenue collection and even a couple Rajasthani texts titled ‘Dastur Amal.’ Several miscellanies also turned out to include transcriptions of a variety of documents, which are interesting both in terms of their contents and what they may show about practices of archiving.

The Maharaja Man Singh Pustak Prakash Research Centre is overseen by the Mehrangarh Fort Trust and is located inside the fort. Its collections include records pertaining to the Jodhpur royal family (all of the records of Jodhpur state affairs were transferred to the Rajasthan State Archives) and the royal family’s manuscript library. Among this collection, I found several short nineteenth-century texts on legal principles and the Centre’s director, Dr. Mahendra Singh Tanwar, alerted me to the presence of a small collection of Persian and Urdu documents.

At the MAAPRI, Tonk with the director, Dr. Saulat Ali Khan, and calligrapher Jameel Ahmed

The fourth institute I visited was the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Arabic and Persian Research Institute in Tonk. This institute is a parallel institute to the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, but contains Arabic, Persian and Urdu manuscripts. A large fraction of its collection comes from the erstwhile Tonk State, but there are also sizable collections from Alwar and Bharatpur among others. At the institute I consulted 13 ‘Dastur al-Amal’ manuscripts, of which a particularly interesting subset that give explicit directions on how to write various types of documents and collect revenue come from Alwar State in the nineteenth century. In addition to these texts, I consulted a number of insha collections containing samples of various sorts of letters and documents, and several collections of Persian and Urdu documents from the state of Tonk. Though they are currently not readily accessible to researchers, the institute has begun a program of scanning the records from Tonk’s courts that are in its collection, which should open up an exciting new set of archives for understanding the legal history of Rajasthan.