THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

03 September 2018

Wonders 'Gone Viral' in the Sixteenth-Century Deccan

Today's guest blog is by Vivek Gupta, a historian of Islamic and South Asian art, currently working on his PhD thesis “Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600),” at SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology.

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Fig. 1: The Dragon Fish, al-Tannīn, from the Wonders of Creation of Qazwini, 32.7 x 22.4 cm (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1954.70)

The Wonders of Creation and Oddities of Existence (‘Ajā’ib al-Makhlūqāt wa Gharā’ib al-Mawjūdāt) of Zakariyyā’ ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī (1203-1283) had many lives after it was first written in thirteenth-century Baghdad (for an early fourteenth-century copy in the British Library collection see Colin Baker's post The London Qazwini goes live). In sixteenth-century India, Qazwini’s Arabic cosmography, or encyclopedia of the heavenly and earthly worlds, became a veritable hit. Numerous Arabic cosmographies and related Persian works and translations made in India attest to this. The British Library holds at least six such illustrated manuscripts made in the peninsular Deccan region of India. Notable among these manuscripts is an Arabic model created in Bijapur in the 1570s, three copies of which exist at the BL (IO Islamic 845, IO Islamic 1377, Or. 4701); several more are housed in collections including the Chester Beatty Library (CBL) and the Raza Rampur Library. Here, I introduce some art historical parameters of this model and consider the possible factors that led to its immense popularity—to go viral.

The Past and Present of the Deccan Qazwini Manuscripts
The ‘mother’ of the Deccan Qazwini manuscripts, dubbed the “Sarre” Qazwini because of its former owner, the German Orientalist Friedrich Sarre (1865-1945), is a subject of debate (fig. 1). In the past few decades, American and European scholars have attributed this manuscript everywhere from northern Iraq, or eastern Turkey around 1400, to mid-sixteenth century Bijapur. In light of these varying attributions, I raise two points about the Sarre Qazwini vis-à-vis its Indian offspring. First, the style of its illustrations precedes painting of the early-modern Deccan. Second, the Sarre Qazwini’s paintings derive from an idiom that did not develop in India and are in line with a style associated with fifteenth-century Iraq or eastern Turkey. The Deccan Qazwini manuscripts thus implicate the circulation, or knowledge of an earlier codex to India. Because they harken back to the Sarre Qazwini type, these manuscripts demonstrate an impulse to archaise in the sixteenth-century Deccan.

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Fig. 2: Left: Dhumrakali (Tantric Goddess, the Grey Kali); Right: Narasimha tearing open Hiranyakashipu and holding Vishnu’s chakra and conch, from the Stars of Sciences, Bijapur, 1570 (CBL In 02, ff. 255v-256r) © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

If the British Library’s Deccan Qazwini manuscripts gesture to the past, other wonder compendia firmly rooted in sixteenth-century Bijapur express the artistic innovations of their present context. Qazwini’s Wonders of Creation contributed to a dynamic genre consisting of Persian texts and numerous other works that compiled both manmade creations and natural marvels. For instance, before IO Islamic 845 was copied on December 3, 1571, the Chester Beatty Library’s Stars of Sciences (Nujūm al-‘Ulūm) (fig. 2) was completed in Bijapur on August 16, 1570. The several Persian copies of the Stars of the Sciences illustrate both Indic and Islamicate cosmographical sciences and often draw equivalences between these knowledge systems as well as other traditions foreign to India. Beyond the cosmic wonders, the Stars of the Sciences devotes lengthy chapters to manmade creations ranging from perfumes to poetry. A broad corpus of wonder compendia marked by internal diversity thus rose in production in the sixteenth-century Deccan.

Variations on the Deccan Qazwini Manuscript Model
The Deccan Qazwini manuscripts are relatively sizeable and standardised books (fig. 3). Their written surface measures roughly 25.5 x 19 cm and contains 22 lines of black naskh script. A larger script often inscribed in red is used for section headings. The rulings, frontispieces, and illustrations are all executed in gold ink. The new bindings of IO Islamic 845 and Or. 4701 distort the original dimensions of these manuscripts, though the standard deviation for current measurements across this group is a mere .1 or .2 cm. The text of all these manuscripts is consistent, although it varies from Ferdinand Wüstenfeld’s 1849 published edition of Qazwini, which was based exclusively on works in German and Austrian collections. This may be because the manuscripts Wüstenfeld based his edition upon were not of Indian origin.

Although the dimensions of these manuscripts establish their homogeneity, their differences shed light on the processes of their copying. Among all the Deccan Qazwini manuscripts, there is not a single pristine copy. Each of them has lost some of its folios or suffered damage impeding our ability to reconstruct the contents of an original or complete codex. Examining the format of these pages reveals some critical differences.
IO Islamic 845. f73r 4. Per 128.70b
Fig. 3 Left: ‘The Sea of India’ and ‘The Chapter on the Islands of India,’ from the Wonders of Creation of Qazwini, Bijapur, 1571, written surface: 25.5 x 18.7 cm (BL IO Islamic 845, f. 73r); Fig. 4 Right: the same section in another copy, Bijapur, late 16th century, written surface: 25.4 x 19.9 cm (CBL Per 128, f.70r) © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

While all the illustrations in the Deccan Qazwini manuscripts are virtually identical in size and colour, they diverge in some illuminating ways. Let us look at a section within the larger chapter concerning the sphere of the bodies of water. In the heading concerning the islands of the Indian sea, the formats of the corresponding folios in IO Islamic 845 (f. 73r) and Or. 4701 (f. 73r) are nearly identical (fig. 3). The headings are in red naskh centred on the page. The first heading, “the Sea of India / baḥr al-hind,” has the phrase, “it is the greatest and widest of seas,” interspersed between the main title words “baḥr” and “al-hind.” Then, the word faṣl or chapter in the second section heading, “The Chapter on the Islands of this Sea / faṣl fī jazā’ir hādhā al-baḥr” interrupts the space of the black text above it. Though differing from the corresponding folio (59v) of the Sarre Qazwini, these subtleties in page format recur within the Deccan Qazwini manuscript tradition. The corresponding folio from the Chester Beatty Library’s CBL Per 128 (fig. 4) varies on this model. At first glance CBL Per 128’s corresponding folio (70v) has roughly the same format as the BL manuscripts. However, instead of red ink for headings, CBL Per 128’s section titles are executed in blue and gold. The CBL page also bears a bird and ram-like animal adjacent to the second heading on the page foreshadowing other marvels of the Indian islands.

5. BL 4701 f. 88a 6. BL Loth 723 f. 88a
Figs. 5 and 6: The Dragon Fish, al-Tannīn, from the Wonders of Creation of Qazwini in two of the three Bijapur British Library manuscripts (BL Or. 4701, f. 88r and IO Islamic 845, f. 88r) http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b8d0ab965b970c-pi?_ga=2.260404813.1714225709.1535706032-286112809.1510772067

Another distinction is visible in BL Or. 4701, f. 88r and IO Islamic 845, f. 88r’s illustrations of dragon fishes (al-tannīn) (figs. 5 and 6). On the left, BL Or. 4701 shows the monster facing right, and on the right IO Islamic 845 depicts it facing left. The length of both dragons is 16 cm. CBL Per 128’s depiction of a dragon fish (f. 85v) also faces left and measures only .2 cm more than the British Library groups’ corresponding images. Looking to the earlier model, the Sarre Qazwini’s dragon fish faces right (fig. 1). This was probably produced by a pounce of some kind, since whether the dragon fish is oriented right or left, they are mirror images of each other. All of this suggests that the Deccan Qazwini group was cohesive and requires close examination to apprehend how different artists and scribes rendered this text and preserved the tradition.

Why this Viral Production?
In a world where a meme can go viral, electronically, in seconds we might be inclined to believe that this is only possible in the 21st century. The case of the Deccan Qazwini manuscripts suggests the contrary: it could and did happen in past, albeit achieved by different means. Over the course of studying roughly 60 illustrated Persian, Arabic and other vernacular compendia of wonders I have probed the ways by which this manuscript tradition was transformed from its genesis in Arab and Persianate contexts, to South Asia. By the sixteenth century, I noticed a rise not only in the production but also in the diversity of these works. A fuller understanding of this surge in production awaits study, especially as the number of wonder books from this period is necessarily skewed by what survives. I speculate that anxieties about the end of the first Islamic millennium in 1591 may be one reason. One would want to hold tight to a book depicting all of God’s creations if the apocalypse were looming. The Safavid and Ottoman worlds witnessed a rise in the production of the fālnāmah, or book of omens, right around this time perhaps for similar tensions about the millennium as documented by the landmark Falnama exhibition organized by the Freer|Sackler Galleries in 2009.

The Deccan Qazwini manuscripts also prompt unanswered questions as to why so many of these same archaising books were desired. If they served as a stock handbook for intelligentsia, these multiple owners perhaps travelled far and wide with their books, and increased the circulation of the model. It is for this reason that they have come to the British Library following different itineraries. The lack of finish to some of these manuscripts and their subtle distinctions suggest that they were not made at the same time. Further research on Deccan manuscript production will surely turn up some answers. For now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the archaic form of the British Library group occurred in tandem with other innovations in the literature on the wonders of the universe.

Further reading
Badiee, Julie. An Islamic Cosmography: The Illustrations of the Sarre Qazwīnī. PhD Thesis, University of Michigan, 1978
Berlekamp, Persis, Wonder, Image, and Cosmos in Medieval Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011
Carboni, Stefano. “Constellations, Giants and Angels from al-Qazwini Manuscripts.” In Islamic Art in the Ashmolean Museum, ed. James Allan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995: 83-95
Flatt, Emma. “The Authorship and Significance of the Nujūm al-‘ulūm: A Sixteenth-Century Astrological Encyclopedia from Bijapur.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 131 no. 2 (2011): 223-44
Zadeh, Travis. “The Wiles of Creation: Philosophy, Fiction, and the ‘Ajā’ib Tradition.” Middle Eastern Literatures, vol 13. no. 1 (2010): 21-48

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology
 ccownwork

 

17 August 2018

The Star Lovers

The 7th day of the 7th lunar month has long been the date of the Star Festival 七夕 in East Asia, traditionally known as Tanabata in Japan, and as Qixi - or more recently as the ‘Chinese Valentine’s Day’ - in China. It has always been a very popular festival celebrating the summer evening, and evoking the romantic legend of the star lovers who meet each other once a year by crossing the Magpie Bridge over the Milky Way.

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Above left is the Dunhuang Star Atlas, the oldest known manuscript of a star chart dating to around AD 700. On the right-hand image the Magpie Bridge, which corresponds to the constellation of Cygnus (= Celestial Ford 天津), has been indicated by a green dotted line, and the Milky Way is indicated by two parallel dotted lines in blue (neither feature is marked on the original Star Atlas). The boy lover, known as Niulang (牛郎) in the Chinese folktale, was identified in his original position as Niu su yi (牛宿一), also known as β Capricorni or Dabih Major in Western astronomy. The girl, Zhinü (織女) has always been and still is associated with Vega since the creation of the Dunhuang Atlas. British Library, Stein Collection Or.8210/S.3326. International Dunhuang Project http://idp.bl.uk/

However, the Star Festival is not only for celebrating romance. We first explored the origins of this festival and related astronomical subjects in two previous blog posts in August 2014: ‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (1) and (2). This year we concentrate on how the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month has had a dramatic impact on both the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions.

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A young woman crossing the Magpie Bridge over the Milky Way. Grace James, Green Willow and other Japanese Fairy Tales (London: Macmillan, 1910). British Library, L.R.26.d.7

One of the most notable references to the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in Chinese classical poetry is probably ‘The Song of Everlasting Regret (長恨歌)’ by Bai Juyi (白居易 772–846). The inspiration for Bai Juyi’s poem was the doomed love between Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (唐玄宗帝 685-762) and his imperial consort Yang Guifei (楊貴妃 719-756). On the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, they vowed to be together forever. However, there was to be no happy ending, as Yang Guifei was assassinated.

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Front cover (left) and illustration (centre and right) of the Daoist master meeting with Yang Guifei in the afterworld (right). Chōgonka Zushō 長恨歌圖抄. Published in Japan, Enpō 5 [1677]. British Library, Or.74.cc.7

Despite the passage of many years, Emperor Xuanzong still pines for his dead lover, Yang Guifei. Although he cannot cross the border into the afterlife, he commissions his Daoist master to seek out Yang Guifei, for whom he is still longing but can no longer see, even in his dreams. Eventually the Daoist master manages to meet Yang Guifei in the afterlife, and she asks him to pass her message to Emperor Xuanzong, calling her Imperial lover to a romantic reunion in the stars. Even though there is no explicit mention of the star lovers in the lines below, the 7th day of the 7th lunar month indubitably references the love of the celestial couple.

“On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, in the Hall of Longevity,
At midnight, when nobody is around, this is when we will make our secret pact.
In the heavens, we vow to be as two birds flying wingtip to wingtip,
On earth, we vow to be as two intertwined branches of a tree.”

Image4a
“On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month”. Chinese text with Japanese annotations. Chōgonka Zushō 長恨歌圖抄. Published in Japan for Japanese readers, Enpō 5 [1677]. British Library, Or.74.cc.7

‘The Song of Everlasting Regret’ was already very well known among the Japanese when Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), who was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi in the 11th century, wrote ‘The Tale of Genji (源氏物語)’, and it is clear that she consciously included many direct or indirect references to Bai Juyi’s poetry.

At the opening of the story, the relationship of Genji's parents mirrors that of the Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, as Genji's father is the Emperor Kiritsubo and his mother is the most beloved one in his court. Genji’s mother dies young, leaving the Emperor in deep sorrow. While they were together, their favourite saying was “In the sky, as birds that share a wing. On earth, as trees that share a branch”, from the famous lines in ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’. Day and night, he repeatedly bemoans the shortness of her life, making his own but an empty dream.

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Chapter 41 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century. British Library, Or.1287, f.43

In Chapter 41, Genji is left alone as his wife Lady Murasaki dies. In this chapter, the episode of the night of the 7th day of the 7th month is described as Tanabata, the day of the blessing of the star lovers. Genji is not in the mood for celebrating romance, and he keeps on thinking of his late wife and composes this poem: “They meet, these stars, in a world beyond the clouds. My tears but join the dews of the garden of parting.” Although the symbolic lines “In the sky, as birds that share a wing. On earth, as trees that share a branch” were not quoted explicitly in his poem, they are evoked implicitly through the whole chapter.

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The celestial lovers - Kengyū (Niulang in Chinese) and Orihime (Zhinü in Chinese). Ikeda, Touri 池田東籬. Amanogawa sōshi 銀河草子. Tenpō 6 [1835.] British Library, ORB.30/3377

Konparu Zenchiku (金春善竹 1405-1470) composed a Noh play, ‘Yōkihi (楊貴妃)’, based on the latter part of ‘The Song of Everlasting Regret’. The key motifs in his Noh play were the tragic separations and broken promises as the lovers believed that nothing could force them to be parted. The lines about the 7th day of the 7th month, the star lovers, tree branches and birds are repeated at the close of the Noh play, leaving the audience filled with sorrow.

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Yōkihi (楊貴妃) from the collection of 200 illustrations of characters from Noh plays. Tsukioka, Kōgyo 月岡耕漁, and Sōfū Matsuno松野奏風. Nōga taikan : nōga nihyakuban ōzoroe 能畫大鑑 : 能畫貮百番大揃. Tōkyō: Seibi Shoin 東京 : 精美書院, 1936. Revised edition of the work originally published in 1934. British Library, ORB.45/153

Lovers in classical literature were aware that they could not thwart fate and that human life is full of uncertainty, but perhaps they admired the star lovers in the night sky as a symbol of eternal love, unobtainable in the real world.

References

Song of Everlasting Regret (Chinese & English translation)

The Tale of Genji (full English translation)

源氏物語と長恨歌

The Dunhuang Chinese sky: a comprehensive study of the oldest known star atlas

With special thanks to Professor Roberto Soria, University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, for identifying positions of the key constellations and the Milky Way on the Dunhuang Star Atlas.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Collections

 

10 August 2018

Testimonial presented to Sir Henry Lawrence

One of the most unusual objects held in the British Library’s Visual Arts collection is an oversized silver candelabra that was presented to Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence (1806-57) as a ‘Testimonial’ from the ‘Friends of the Panjab’ in 1856. Lawrence was appointed as the British Resident in Lahore in 1846 and was the President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab. The Testimonial is currently on loan and featured at the exhibition Empire of the Sikhs at the Brunei Gallery, London which runs from 12 July – 23 September 2018.

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The Lawrence Testimonial, by Hunt and Roskell after the design and model of Alfred Brown, 1853-56. British Library, Foster 1075 Noc

Henry Lawrence started his career as an army officer of the East India Company. He was trained at the Company’s Addiscombe College in south London and travelled to India when he was 16 to join the Bengal Artillery. Lawrence was in fact born in Ceylon and would spend the majority of his life in the subcontinent. From the onset of his career, he was keen to develop his linguistic skills and would become fluent in Persian, Hindi and Urdu. His language skills would prove to become useful and he was appointed as an assistant revenue surveyor for the revenue survey of India in the north-western provinces based in Moradabad from 1833. From the 1840s, Lawrence’s career shifted to a more political nature. In 1840, Lawrence was formally appointed as Assistant to the Governor-General's Agent for the Affairs of the Panjab and the North-West Frontier. In 1843, Lawrence became the Resident at the court of Nepal. Following the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845-46, Lord Hardinge appointed Lawrence as Agent at Lahore and subsequently the British Resident. Following the annexation of the Panjab in 1849, he served as President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab.

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Portrait of Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence painted by Delhi artist Ghulam Husain Khan, c. 1847.
British Library, Add Or 2409 Noc

According to the Illustrated London News (Feb 16, 1856), ‘this magnificent testimonial was projected in the year 1853 for presentation to Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence K.C.B. … upon the occasion of his voluntary relinquishing of the above appointment [President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab] for the no less honourable and important post of Governor-General’s Agent in Rajpootana.’ The Testimonial was in the Lawrence family’s collection until 1949, when it was deposited as part of the wider Lawrence archive to the India Office Records and Private Papers collection by Sir John Lawrence; shortly after the acquisition, the Testimonial was sent on long term loan to the National Army Museum and only returned to the Library in 2015. Tarnjeet Singh Padam, Leading Library Assistant at the British Library, volunteer for the UK Panjab Heritage Association, and a contributing curator for Empire of the Sikhs, located the Illustrated London News article which now provides the documentation regarding the circumstances of production and the symbolic significance of the multiple vignettes presented in this elaborate testimonial.

According to the Illustrated London News: ‘The figure on the summit represents India; beneath, in bassi rellievi, are five reclining Deities, representing the rivers of India. The branches, ornamented in the Indian style, carry twelve lights. The palm, plaintain, and the fig-tree encircle the shaft. On the base is a grand composition of figures, divided into three groups. The first is typical of the state of anarchy which existed in the Punjab previously to the introduction of British rule. One of Runjeet Singh’s body guard is attacked by a hill man-a dismounted irregular horseman lies dead on the ground, and above him is a wounded Akalie. The second group represents the conflict between the British and the Sikh forces which resulted in the conquest of the country by the former. The figures introduced are a Sikh irregular horseman mounted, opposed to by a British foot solider, and a Sikh artilleryman contending with a dismounted trooper. The third group represents the pacification of the Punjaub. Sir Henry Lawrence is represented in the act of receiving from an Afghan villager and a Sikh Chief their arms; in exchange for which he is about to present them with different implements of husbandry, held by Industry and Peace, which are represented by two female figures.’

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Detail showing Henry Lawrence receiving an Afghan villager Noc

‘The entablatures on the three sides of the Testimonial contain respective representations; - firstly, of the sacred Tank at Amritsar (the Pool of Immortality), with the Sikh temple in the centre; secondly, of Sir Henry Lawrence, with the Maharajah of the Punjaub and Chieftains seated in Durbar at Lahore, arranging for the payment of the troops, who were in a state of mutiny; and, thirdly, the establishment of the Lawrence Asylum in the Himalaya, for the children of European soldiers – allegorically represented by Benevolence under the guidance of Wisdom-removing the children from the plains to the salubrious regions of the Himalaya. At the angles are the Brahmin Bull, the Cashmere Goat and the Camel.’

In 2000, the descendants of Henry Lawrence donated to the British Library the Lawrence Album, which contained 66 drawings, prints and cut-outs, along with 35 photographs connected with the life of Henry Montgomery Lawrence (1806-1857) and Honoria Lawrence, née Marshall (1810-54), presented to their daughter Honoria Letitia (1850-1923) in 1859 by her aunt and godmother Charlotte Frances Lawrence (1814-1885). The album includes further information regarding the design of the testimonial, including a set of illustrations showing the original design by Alfred Brown which was manufactured by the silversmith Hunt and Roskell.

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Illustration from the Lawrence Album, c. 1853-56. British Library WD 4464 Noc


IMG_3698
Illustration from the Lawrence Album with the vignette of the Golden Temple at Amritsar on the base, c. 1853-56. British Library WD 4464 Noc

Further reading:
Susan Stronge (ed.), The Arts of the Sikh Kingdom, London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999.
Davindar Toor, In Pursuit of Empire: Treasures from the Toor Collection of Sikh Art, London: Kashi House, 2018.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts  ccownwork

 

18 July 2018

Traditional games in Burma

Manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar) in the form of folding books (parabaik) often contain depictions of traditional games and sports such boxing, martial arts, cock-fighting and chinlone, reflecting popular activities in daily life.

One of the national games of Burma is chinlone, or the cane-ball game, played with a ball made of six hoops of interwoven smoothly-cut cane or rattan. The idea of the game is to try to keep the chinlone up in the air for as long as possible by foot-work, and to not let it drop to the ground. The chinlone can be kicked by the instep, outer and inner sides of the foot, sole, heel and knee, but may not be touched with the hand. It can be played indoors and outdoors, in all seasons and by all ages, and is often played barefoot. Burmese people regard this traditional game as good for exercising leg muscles, building strength and developing body flexibility.

Or_13291_f013r
The illustration depicts a professional solo player playing chinlone in a court yard, while the king and queen in the pavilion watch the game. In the painting, the player has heavily tattoed legs, and his longyi (waist-cloth) is tucked up close round the middle, so that his legs may be quite free to play. In the game, the player sends the chinlone into the air again and again with decreasing force till he allows it to alight in the hollow of his shoulder, and he then rolls it down the back of the arm and jerks the chinlone off at his elbow to catch it on his knee. Up to seven chinlone may be tossed by master players; in this painting the player is playing with three chinlone. In the bottom right, musicians perform with a traditional orchestra and drum. British Library, Or 13291, f. 13 Noc

The game of chinlone can be played solo, but it more enjoyable with teams of six players. The team stands in a circle, the players standing three or four feet apart from one another and the chinlone is passed from one to another, by flipping it in the air using a succession of thirty techniques. There are rules for chinlone competitions between teams. The game exercises the body in a way that restores elasticity to the back and limbs, but it is believed that the game is good not only for physical exercise but also for mental control.

Or_14551_f008r
The above scene shows a chinlone tournament. Court musicians play in a traditional Burmese orchestra while the king and queen under the white umbrellas watch a chinlone game. Four players each toss a chinlone with their feet, without touching it with their hands, trying to keep it in the air as long as possible. They may also touch or flip the chinlones with their knees, ankles, soles and shoulders. British Library, Or 14551, f. 8 Noc

Photo430.15(63)
Four players play chinlone in the monastery compound, watched by a group of monks. Photograph of the national Burmese game of chinlone, taken by Watts and Skeen in the 1890s, British Library, Photo 430/15(63) Noc

Other games depicted in Burmese parabaik include polo, javelin throwing, horse racing and cock fighting. Illustrations in parabaiks show that historically, Burmese royals were very fond of watching polo.

Or_6779_f008r
The above scene shows nine military men on horseback playing polo in a courtyard. According to  Burmese historical sources, this game was probably brought to Burma from Manipur in northeast India. British Library, Or. 6779, f. 8 Noc

Or_14963_f009r
This painting depicts Burmese courtiers on horseback playing a game of polo, watched by the king and queen in the pavilion. The teams of four players on horseback try to hit the ball through the goal posts in order to score. In the illustration, the team wearing green (on the left) is competing against the team wearing red (on the right). British Library, Or 14963 f. 9 Noc

Or_13291_f015r
Shown here are two large long legged fowls fighting each other, and people betting. Cock fighting was a favourite game of village people in the past, and despite being condemned by religion, people still bet heavily on their birds. British Library, Or 13291, f. 15 Noc

Or16761f31
The above painting shows the traditional Burmese form of boxing. The two boxers have their longyis gathered up over their groins to their waists, in order to move their knees and legs easily. Tattoos can be seen on their legs, but other parts of their bodies are left bare. No gloves are worn in Burmese boxing; instead, the skill in this game lies in leaping into the air and kicking each other with their bare feet. On the left, the royals watch the boxing tournament, while to the right, musicians  entertain them. British Library, Or 16761, f. 31 Noc

Or_14963_f010r
An equestrian competition. This painting shows the king and queen watching a competition in martial skills. The competitors are princes, officials of ranks, and officers of the army, who are throwing spears from horseback at a gallop at targets placed on poles ranging from 15 to 50 or 100 cubits in height, standing at intervals one after the other. Under the monarchy, kings held equestrian competitions to select the best soldiers for the cavalry. British Library, Or 14963, f. 10 Noc

All the scenes of games in these Burmese folding books are painted in water colours and enclosed in yellow panels with a single line or a few words of explanatory text in Burmese script along the bottom border.

In Burma today, the game of chinlone can still be seen being played everywhere, by players young or old, male or damile, in fields and yards or in tournaments. Young girls play hop scotch at school or in playgrounds. Some seasonal festivals in Burma involve athletic competitions, with games such as climbing a greased pole, tugs of war, pulling a rope and pillow fights. In the mid-nineteenth century, western sports such as football, badminton, tennis, volleyball and golf were introduced to Burma.

Further reading:
'Chinlone: the Burmese Cane-ball game', by U Ah Yein. Guardian magazine, August 1960.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

11 July 2018

‘An inexperienced and incompetent chauffeur’: the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran

At dawn on 25th August 1941, the people of Iran awoke to a full-scale invasion of their country by the combined forces of Britain and the Soviet Union. Within three weeks the Iranian military had been overwhelmed, Tehran had fallen under foreign occupation for the first time in its history, and the Shah had been forced into exile and replaced with his 21-year-old son Mohammad Reza. Operation Countenance, as the invasion was codenamed, was one of the most successful Allied campaigns of the war and it was carried out against a neutral nation. Although British troops had occupied parts of Iran during the First World War, that occupation had been characterised as a response to direct German and Ottoman aggression in the region and they had neither entered the capital nor disrupted the government. There were a complex array of factors that provoked the far more extreme manoeuvres of 1941, some of which are revealed within certain India Office Record files held at the British Library.

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Detail from a map of Iran (1912) showing the unofficial demarcation line between the British and Soviet spheres of influence (British Library, India Office Records IOR/L/MIL/17/15/5, f 230)
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The reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi had been marked by his large-scale modernisation projects, not least in terms of Iranian military power. Even before his elevation to the throne, as Minister of War under his predecessor Ahmad Shah Qajar, he had created the country’s first unified standing army. As Shah he continued to build on this, making significant arms purchases from various countries. “We have been viewing with a certain amount of concern Persia’s large orders in the arms markets of Europe and America” wrote Hastings Ismay in the introduction to a War Office report of 1933 estimating that in the previous two years Iran had purchased 119 aircraft, 1,400 machine-guns, nearly 200,000 rifles and over 16 million rounds of ammunition, among much else.

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Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shah of Iran (1925-1941)
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However, not everyone in the British Government agreed that these purchases were a cause for concern. “All these highly technical appliances are of little value unless the best can be got out of them” a Foreign Office official wrote in reply to Ismay’s report, “I have not noticed anywhere that the Persian Army is considered either highly trained or high in morale.” A report from 1936 agreed with this assessment that the Iranian military were ill equipped to make use of their newly acquired equipment, comparing them to “an inexperienced and incompetent chauffeur placed in sole charge of a fleet of expensive motor cars of intricate design.” The British Government certainly never made any serious attempt to limit Iranian arms purchases. As late as 14th July 1941, less than six weeks prior to the invasion, a Foreign Office telegram sent to the UK Ambassador in Iran stated that the Government would “continue to permit the export to Iran of aircraft material.”

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Telegram from the Government of India to the War Office, 28th June 1941, suggesting an end to military exports to Iran (British Library, India Office Records IOR/L/PS/12/551)
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Taken more seriously as a threat than Iran’s military strength was the perceived growth of German influence in the region. A small number of German engineers employed in Iran as industrial consultants were suspected not just of promoting their country’s cause to those in positions of power, but also of secretly stirring up anti-British sentiment among the native population. Although Iran may have favoured the Allies at the outbreak of the war, wrote the British Envoy to Tehran Sir Reader Bullard in March of 1940, “recently there has been a slight change in the other direction.” A telegram from the Government of India to the India Office sent on 6th July 1941 described Iran as the “centre of German intrigue in Asia [which] now harbours important Arab revolutionaries,” and suggested that the removal of German nationals “could not fail to add to military security and upset the German plans.” In the months leading up to the invasion both the British and Soviet governments put increasing pressure on the Shah to expel all Germans from Iran and his failure to comply was cited as justification for their intervention.

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British officers inspecting a Soviet tank during the invasion, 31st August 1941
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Soviet concerns over German influence were initially kept in check by their non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On 22nd June 1941 the pact was suddenly demolished by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, which created drastic implications for the situation in Iran. “German attack on Russia has introduced entirely new element into situation,” wrote India Secretary Leo Amery three days later, “which affects our whole policy in Central Asia.” He classified Iran as being in “immediate danger from a German victory.”

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Sir Reader Bullard, British Minister in Tehran, outlines British justification for the invasion in his annual report issued at the end of 1941 (British Library, India Office Records IOR/L/PS/12/3472A)
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In the weeks following Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, British and Soviet considerations over Iran escalated quickly. Of particular concern was the sudden vulnerability of Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus region. Should these fall to Germany, Iran would then become a vital component of the Allied war effort, meaning that securing their position there was of the utmost importance. Sir Stafford Cripps, the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, reported on 8th July that Stalin felt that “the Germans and the Italians will try to carry out a coup against Baku oilfields, and against us in Persia and that it is urgently necessary that something should be done about it.” Far from perceiving Iran’s increased military strength as a threat, the Allies were now worried that Iran was too weak to resist German influence and potential invasion. Furthermore the supposedly neutral Shah was considered to be uncontrollable at best, a Nazi sympathiser at worst. The British and Soviet governments reached the conclusion that trying to influence Iran would not be enough. Slightly over two months after Operation Barbarossa, Operation Countenance was launched.

Primary sources
IOR/L/PS/12/87 ‘Persia: Persian armaments’
IOR/L/PS/12/551 ‘Persia: situation leading up to, and after, the Allied occupation’
IOR/L/PS/12/553 ‘Persia – General Situation (Sept. & Oct. 1941)’
IOR/L/PS/12/3472A ‘Persia: Annual Reports, 1932- ’

Further reading
Amin Banani, The Modernization of Iran, 1921-1941. Stanford University Press, 1961
Mohammad Gholi Majd, August 1941: The Anglo-Russian Occupation of Iran and Change of Shahs. University Press of America, 2012
Ursula Sims-Williams, ‘The New Age (Ruzgar-i naw): World War II cultural propaganda in Persian’ , Asian and African Studies Blog 12 May 2014


Matt Griffin, Cataloguer, Gulf History, BL/QF Partnership
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06 July 2018

Bugis manuscript art

In my recent post on a court diary from Bone in south Sulawesi, I noted the tradition in Bugis diaries of leaving blank pages between each year, which could then be filled with notes and copies of important documents. Such pages also often contain doodles and, not infrequently, small sketches such as floral motifs. Quite exceptional, though, is a full-page, highly accomplished painting of a winged horse, found at the end of the diary of the Maqdanrang of Bone, Muhammad Ramadan, uncle of the Sultan of Bone, Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin (r. 1775-1812).

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Painting of a winged horse, found in the Bugis diary of Muhammad Ramadan, Maqdanrang of Bone, 1790-1800.  British Library, Or. 8154, f. 3v  noc

My attention was particularly drawn to the sage-green clump of rocks in the foreground on the left, with an undulating outline and with small tufts of vegetation. Although green is fairly common in Javanese illustrated manuscripts, as in the copy of Serat Sela Rasa below, this pigment is only rarely encountered in manuscript art from other parts of the Southeast Asian archipelago such as Sumatra or the Malay peninsula. Indeed, the use of this particular shade of green for landscape features, and the small sprigs of grass, cannot help but recall certain paintings in Persian manuscripts, such as the two Mughal examples shown below. It is well-known that the refined tradition of miniature painting which flourished in Persianate courts, and others influenced by them, never took root in Islamic kingdoms in the Malay world. But the green rocks in the Bugis painting might be the smallest hint that even if the tradition itself never developed in Southeast Asia, such paintings may occasionally have been glimpsed in the courts of south Sulawesi. In the 17th century, Makassar was one of the most cosmopolitan and cultured cities in the Malay world, and the sultan of Talloq who was also the chancellor of Gowa, Pattingaloang, was known to have possessed a great library, including many European books.

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A partridge (durraj) against a hilly green backdrop, by Manṣūr Naqqāsh, from the Memoirs of the Mughal Emperor Babur, c. 1590-93. British Library, Or. 3714, f. 387r  noc

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Gushtasp kills a rhinocerous, in a landscape of green hills with grassy tufts, from Firdawsi's Shāhnāmah, North India, 1719. British Library, Add. 18804, f. 7r  noc

Within the field of Islamic manuscript art, a winged horse often suggests Buraq, the steed on which the prophet Muhammad travelled to heaven during his miraculous night journey (al-Isrā’ wa-al-Mir‘āj). And yet Buraq is usually portrayed with a human-like face, which is not the case here. A closer parallel may be drawn with winged horses occasionally encountered in Javanese illustrated manuscripts, for example in Serat Sela Rasa shown below. However the significance of this Bugis horse, and any possible literary allusions, remains enigmatic. 

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Winged horse in a Javanese manuscript of Serat Sela Rasa, 1804. British Library, MSS Jav 28, f. 68r  noc

The painting of the horse in the Maqdanrang's diary is of very great significance in being the only known example of developed figural painting in a manuscript from Sulawesi, although anthropomorphic stick-figures are frequently encountered in divination and calendrical manuscripts. The confident presentation of the horse—with the stylized single-plane wings contrasting with the naturalistic portrayal of the body—and the skillful colouring hint at a tradition of Bugis manuscript art, as also manifest in a number of impressive illuminated Qur'an manuscripts known from south Sulawesi (cf. Gallop 2010).

More drawings, albeit uncoloured, are found on other pages of the Maqdanrang’s diary, and similar sketches can also be seen in the Bugis diary of the Maqdanrang's brother, Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin himself, for the years 1775-1795. These sketches are reproduced below.

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Two sketches from the diary of the Maqdanrang of Bone, 1790-1800. Left, a highly stylised representation of a peacock, Or. 8154, f. 7v; right, a peacock fan, Or. 8154, f. 7v and f. 2r.  noc

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Calligraphic composition with the first two verses of Surat al-Ikhlas in the diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone, 1775-1795. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 201v  noc

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Doodled sketches on the first page of the diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone. The floral design in the middle, with the word Allah at the centre, may be of of mystical significance. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 1r   noc

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Beautiful eight-pointed star design within a circle, sketched in the diary Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone, 1775-1795. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 172v   noc

With many thanks to Ursula Sims-Williams, Elaine Wright and Marianna Shreve Simpson for advice on paintings in Persian manuscripts.

Further reading:

Annabel Teh Gallop, The Boné Qur’an from South SulawesiTreasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the book and calligraphy, ed. Margaret S. Graves and Benoît Junod.  Istanbul: Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Sakip Sabanci University & Museum, 2010, pp.162-173.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

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03 July 2018

Explore the British Library’s collections for Black British and Asian British Studies

With the launch of the Black Britain and Asian Britain subject hub, we are offering a resource to help researchers find and engage with our collections and activities in these areas.

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First edition of the classic autobiography of Olaudah Equiano (BL 615.d.8)
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The hub page presents a mine of information on the British Library’s collections about the experience of people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage in Britain. From it, you can access our collection guide pages, which cover our books and other printed material, manuscripts and archives, and sound and audio-visual collections. The guides explain what we hold, how to research it further, what you can see or listen to online, and what you can access if you come into our Reading Rooms.

Our collections are wide-ranging in these areas. You can get a peek at some of them through the collection guide pages: the title page of Olaudah Equiano’s 18th century autobiography, for example, or newspaper reports on Asian suffragettes, or extracts from manuscripts by Hanif Kureishi. Much more is held in our stores, like the publications of pioneer publishers Bogle L’Ouverture, New Beacon Books and other British Black and Asian publishers. Anyone who wants to see this material can do so – check out How to get a Reader Pass.

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A selection of printed books in the British Library’s collections
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The image on the subject hub page is a detail from the costume of a joyful carnival dancer, created by Ray Mahabir of Sunshine International Arts for our previous West Africa exhibition (which I had the pleasure to co-curate). Her costume is composed of a patchwork of Caribbean and West African textiles and symbolises the Black presence in Britain and its broader historical roots.

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Bele 
carnival costume, designed by Ray Mahabir (photograph: Toby Keane)
© Ray Mahabir

Further down the subject hub page, you’ll find examples of projects and people connected with these research areas, as well as relevant British Library blogs. Scroll down also to see a selection of events – full details to be found on our Events pages. These are wide-ranging, including talks, discussions, music, literature and comedy.

In addition to what’s offered on these new pages, there are also relevant Learning pages, showing what the British Library has to offer for children and young people. We also offer advice for people starting or running their own businesses.

Why create this web resource?
The launch of Black Britain and Asian Britain subject hub is the result of extensive discussion within the British Library, as well as some external consultation. Curators have long been aware of a gap in the information we make available about our collections. With the rise of Black British Studies as an academic discipline in particular, as well as a much longer history of the development of Black British and Asian British history, there is substantial interest in these subjects, from scholars and the public more generally.

This subject area demands a new approach to the way in which we present information about our collections on the British Library website. We tend to categorise by geographical area (Africa, the Americas, Asia); date (Contemporary Britain); or type of material (News media, Maps). And all these areas are relevant to Black British and Asian British Studies – whether it’s 18th or 19th century records or newspapers dealing with slavery, indenture and empire, 20th century books published in the UK, or sound recordings of nurses from Barbados of the Windrush generation.

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Letter written by Ayuba Suleiman Diallo in his campaign to be released from enslavement (?1731) (BL Add MS 20783a)
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Our collections are multi-faceted. They reflect the British Library’s long history since the foundation of its predecessor, the British Museum, in 1753, and thus are connected to turbulent and controversial histories of race and empire. They have also come into being because as the UK’s national library and one of its six legal deposit libraries, we endeavour to obtain a copy of every UK publication. Since 2013 this has included electronic publications and websites. These collections are held in perpetuity for future readers and researchers, and now, for example, provide a resource for young people to become aware of the struggles of former generations who arrived in the UK. Our sound collections include recordings of the voices of members of these generations.

That these collections are hard to find was brought into relief by our Bringing Voices Together workshop held on 7 September 2017, organised by Chantelle Lewis, a PhD student at Goldsmith’s, University of London, during her placement with our Contemporary British collections. This was attended by writers, academics and publishers from Black British, Asian British and British Middle Eastern heritages. The workshop explored barriers to inclusivity in British publishing and heard about initiatives to combat this. Participants wanted the Library to do more to raise the profile of publishing by writers of colour, and to make it easier to find out about what the Library holds of particular relevance to people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritages.

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Sophia Duleep Singh selling The suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace, 1913 (BL L/PS/11/51)
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Finding the right words
Using a questionnaire, we asked participants at the Bringing Voices Together workshop for feedback about the structure and terminology to be used in these pages. We are more than aware that no terminology is perfect, and not everyone will agree with what we have used here. To help make our decisions, we have also had lengthy internal discussions, and in-depth conversations with two other external advisers, as well as carrying out some research into what is being used on the web.

The conclusions of this research were interesting, and made us reflect on recent history and the changing meanings of words. First, it was clear that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) was pretty universally disliked. What about Black? There was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the term was used to reference a shared experience of racism in the UK, and many people of Asian origin adopted it. But that is no longer so much the case, and the point was strongly made to us that Black and Asian experiences in Britain are often quite different.

Should we then, we asked, be discussing resources for Black British Studies together with Asian British Studies? Respondents to the Bringing Voices Together questionnaire – who were generally positive about the idea of the pages – were about evenly divided on this issue. It is for this reason that we took up the suggestion of two respondents that the two areas should be ‘separate and grouped’, or ‘separate but linked’. The hub page is called ‘Black Britain and Asian Britain’, but the collection guides on the page are divided between these.

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The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, who was still enslaved when she published this volume in 1773 (BL 992.a.34)
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Our guides to Asian Britain follow the predominant British practice of focusing on South Asian heritages. This was a practical strategy to make the project manageable, but one that we know has shortcomings: our collections are rich in materials from the whole of Asia, and our holdings of British materials similarly reflect the academic and creative expression of people of a range of ethnicities with roots in East and South East Asia as well as the Middle East or Western Asia. Links on the Black Britain and Asian Britain pages take visitors to our resources on these parts of the world.

Overall, we are aware that there are many ways of defining identity in the UK, and other options besides the titles we have used. Our aim is not to exclude or divide, but to find a workable solution in a world of imperfect solutions.

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One of the only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho (BL Add MS 89077)
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The terms Black Britain and Asian Britain themselves were a further point of discussion. We chose these broad headings because our practice is to use brief, clear demarcations in our subject pages, and academic disciplines (Black British Studies, for example) may seem exclusive outside academia. The British Library website also defines its collections in part by geographical area, and these terms fit into that pattern.

At the same time, we don’t want to suggest that Black Britain and Asian Britain are somehow separate from ‘mainstream’ Britain. Our point here is to foreground the presence, shared experience, activism and other contributions of people of colour in Britain, recognising how these communities have become integral to national life, not only since the arrival of the Windrush, but for centuries before then (a story we also tell in our current exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land). At the same time, we want to make it possible for people to find resources directly relating to their own experience.

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Letter by C L R James, historian, journalist, intellectual and socialist (1965)
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So we hope that we’ve reflected current thinking, and that these pages will fulfil a useful role in drawing attention to the rich and deep – and previously rather hidden – collections at the British Library. We’ll be listening to comments, and we’d love to hear about how you’re using these collections (contact Customer Services).

If you are involved in publishing, or creating your own publications, and would like to know more about depositing with the British Library, please see our Legal Deposit page. Items deposited can include books, magazines, pamphlets, zines, newsletters, reports or websites.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa
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28 June 2018

Sophia Plowden, Khanum Jan, and Hindustani airs

This guest post by Katherine Butler Schofield introduces her recent talk at the British Library on Sophia Plowden, Khanum Jan, and 'Hindustani airs', now available as a podcast “The Courtesan and the Memsahib: Khanum Jan meets Sophia Plowden at the Court of Lucknow”, and accompanied here by a collection of images forming a visual record. The podcast, produced by Chris Elcombe with music by harpsichordist Jane Chapman, is part of a series of presentations at the British Library in 2018 for Katherine’s British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship programme “Histories of the Ephemeral: Writing on Music in Late Mughal India”.  Special thanks are due to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for permission to reproduce the images below from MS 380, Mrs Plowden’s beautiful collection of North Indian song lyrics and tunes.

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Mrs Sophia Elizabeth Plowden in middle age (BL MSS Eur F127/100)  noc

Among the British Library’s extraordinary collection of materials relating to the history of Indian music in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries lie dozens of European accounts of the nautch—intimate musical parties at which troupes of high-status North Indian courtesans would sing, dance, recite poetry, and match wits with the assembled company, often to mark special occasions like marriages or festivals. In the late Mughal and early colonial period, nautch troupes were employed as enthusiastically by Europeans as by Indian gentlemen. This famous painting from the Library’s collections below shows a man who is almost certainly Sir David Ochterlony, early nineteenth-century British Resident to the Mughal emperor, being entertained by his own personal nautch troupe at his home in Delhi.

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David Ochterlony (1758–1825) watching a nautch. Delhi, 1820 (BL Add.Or.2)  noc

Published European travel writings from this period, by men and women, nearly all feature noteworthy encounters with North India’s famous “dancing girls”. But some of the most important materials on the nautch and its performers are to be found in the private papers of Europeans resident in India preserved in the collections of the India Office.

Of these, one set in particular stands out as unusual: the diary, letters, and other papers of an eighteenth-century Englishwoman—the memsahib of my title—Sophia Elizabeth Plowden. Sophia and her husband, the East India Company officer Richard Chicheley Plowden, were resident 1777–90 in Calcutta and the independent princely state of Lucknow under its ruler the Nawab Asafuddaula (r. 1775–97). The portrait of her in her papers, above, shows her as a respectable middle-aged matron of ten children, having returned to London and a genteel life in Harley Street. But in her younger days in India, in between having several babies Sophia spent a great deal of her time collecting and performing the Persian and Hindustani songs of nautch performers at the Lucknow court. One in particular captured her fascination—the celebrated Kashmiri courtesan Khanum Jan. Sophia wrote down Khanum’s songs and those of her companions in European notation; they were then turned into harmonised arrangements for the harpsichord, and published to great acclaim by William Hamilton Bird in Calcutta in 1789. For a while, these European-style salon pieces known as “Hindustani Airs” were all the rage in drawing rooms across the British Empire from Inverness to Singapore.

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The frontispiece and Air no. IV, “Sakia! fuſul beharuſt, by Chanam”, from William Hamilton Bird’s Oriental Miscellany. Published Calcutta, 1789 (BL RM.16.c.5)  noc

The European side of this story has been told before: it was in fact the British Library’s Ursula Sims-Williams who wrote the first lengthy piece on the Hindustani Airs phenomenon in 1981 for the India Office Library and Records Newsletter. Those who are interested can explore this angle further in books by Ian Woodfield, Music of the Raj, and Gerry Farrell, Indian Music and the West. Plowden’s harpsichord transcriptions and Bird’s arrangments squeezed the Indian originals firmly into European corsets, rendering Khanum’s songs ultimately impossible to recover. This has led to the obvious interpretation that they were instances of colonial violence to Indian culture. But recently I have been investigating a number of sources from the Indian side for this and similar musical engagements with Europeans in the late eighteenth century. These suggest that the episode was more complex, mutually enjoyable, and less morally certain.

At a time of heightened debate over the ethics of empire, it is important to keep in mind that sharing a moment of musical harmony was not why Plowden and her compatriots were in Lucknow. The British were there to pursue a colonial project designed to benefit themselves; and less than seventy years later in 1856, the East India Company would use the last Nawab of Lucknow’s attentions to exactly the same kind of music as their primary excuse to depose him—a major grievance that fed into the horrendous tragedy of the 1857 Indian Uprising. At the same time, viewing Plowden’s efforts from the perspective of the Indian musicians who engaged with her and others like her in the 1780s reveals the Hindustani Airs episode to have been a two-way affair of mutual curiosity and delight in musical minutiae— an open exploration of affinities and possibilities through trained bodily proficiencies, rather than a closing of ears to offensive differences. The wider historical ramifications of the mutually pleasurable liminal space of the nautch are thus ambiguous and unsettled.

The most important of the Indian sources for the Hindustani Airs are the loose-leaf folios of poetry in Persian, Urdu (then called rekhta), Punjabi, and other Indian languages that Sophia Plowden brought back with her from India alongide the tunes she wrote down from live nautch performances. These are held together as MS 380 in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and are an invaluable counterpart to her other papers in the British Library. Until recently, because of the exquisite illustrations garnishing each one, the loose-leaf folios were mischaracterised as a set of miniature paintings. But through painstaking detective work, I have identified them instead as the lyrics that go with the tunes. I have also managed to put about a quarter of them back together for the first time in over 200 years.

The question then is—is it possible to bring them back to life?
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Above: Urdu mukhammasKya kam kya dil ne” by Sauda (1713–81). Plowden Album f. 12.
Below: Tunebook f. 21v. Lucknow, 1787–8 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 380) © Fitzwilliam Museum

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Join me and harpsichordist Jane Chapman as we retell the story of the entangled lives of these two extraordinary women musicians, Khanum Jan and Sophia Plowden, in the “Courtesan and the Memsahib” podcast —of a world in which an Indian courtesan could be treated like a celebrity London opera singer and an Englishwoman made a Mughal Begum by none other than the Emperor Shah ‘Alam II himself. Throughout, we explore the question—philosophically and practically through our own musical experiments—of whether it is possible to reconstruct the songs of the Lucknow court as both Sophia and Khanum may have performed them in the 1780s.

The images in this blogpost accompany the podcast, and will help guide you in your journey with us to the underworld of the Indian musical past, as we seek to discover whether or not it is ever possible for Orpheus to bring Eurydice back from the dead. A larger version of the images is available by clicking on each individually.

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Left: the dress of a Lucknow courtesan. Plowden Album f. 25, detail. Lucknow, 1787–8. (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 380) © Fitzwilliam Museum
Right: Sophia’s letter to her sister Lucy describing in detail the dress made for her to appear as a courtesan in a Calcutta masquerade. Calcutta, 4th April 1783 (BL MSS Eur B 187)  noc

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Detail of the royal farman (order) from Emperor Shah ‘Alam II making Mrs Plowden a Begum (BL IO Islamic 4439)  noc

Saqi’a
Above: anonymous Persian rubaʻiSaqi’a fasl-i bahar ast: mubarak bashad” (see also above: Air no. IV, “Sakia! fuſul beharuſt, by Chanum”). Plowden Album f. 8 and below: Tunebook f. 14v. Lucknow, 1787–8 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 380) © Fitzwilliam Museum

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Above: anonymous Urdu khayal “of the snake charmers” “Sun re ma‘shuqa be-wafa”. Plowden Album f. 8, and below: Tunebook f. 14v. Lucknow, 1787–8 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 380) © Fitzwilliam Museum
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Asafuddaula is entertained by musicians at court. Lucknow, c.1812. (BL Add.Or.2600)  noc

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Entry in Sophia’s diary for 23rd December 1787: her first encounter with Khanum Jan (BL Mss Eur F127/94)  noc

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Painting of Colonel James Skinner’s nautch troupe, given as a souvenir to a European visitor. Delhi, c. 1838 (BL Add.Or.2598)  noc

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Colonel William Blair and his family in India with his daughter Jane at the pianoforte.  Johan Zoffany, 1786 (Tate Britain, T12610)  ccownwork

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An upright piano in the ghusal-khana (hammam) in the Red Fort, Delhi, by a late Mughal artist c. 1830–40. Traditionally, the ghusal-khana was where the Mughal emperors held their most intimate musical gatherings. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louis E and Theresa S Seley Purchase Fund for Islamic Art, 1994 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, 1994. 71)  noc

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Illustration for James Skinner’s entry on the “bazigar” or conjurors. Tashrih al-Aqwam. Delhi, 1825 (BL Add.27255)  noc

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Crotch’s specimen no. 336, “the song with which the natives charm the snakes.” London, 1807. (BL Music Collections h.344)  noc


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Above: Persian ghazal by Hafiz (1310–79) “Mutrib-i khush-nava be-go: taza ba taza no ba no” Plowden Album f. 1 and below: Tunebook f. 12r. Lucknow, 1787–8 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 380) © Fitzwilliam Museum

air

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Mutru bekhoosh nuwa begofurther transformed into Air IV from Biggs & Opie A second set of Hindoo airs (BL P/W 98)  noc

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“A dancing woman of Lucknow, exhibiting before an European family,” by Charles D’Oyly. Plate from Thomas Williamson, The costume and customs of modern India. London, c.1824 (BL X 380)  noc

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Lucknow artist Mihr Chand’s painting of a fantasy courtesan, modelled on a European nude. Awadh, c. 1765–70 (BL J. 66,2)  noc

Surwi ruwani kisti
Above: Persian ghazal by or in homage to Khaqani (1122–90) “Surwi ruwani kisti”. Plowden Album f. 11 and below: Tunebook f. 19r. Lucknow, 1787–8 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 380) © Fitzwilliam Museum

Surwi ruwani kisti

“The Courtesan and the Memsahib” was written and performed by Katherine Butler Schofield with harpsichordist Jane Chapman. Additional voices were: Georgie Pope, Kanav Gupta, Priyanka Basu, and Michael Bywater. Recordings of vocalists Kesarbai Kerkar and Gangubai Hangal, and sarangi player Hamid Hussain, are courtesy of the Archive of Indian Music and Vikram Sampath; selections from Jane Chapman’s studio recording “The Oriental Miscellany” are found on Signum Classics.

Katherine Butler Schofield, King's College London
email: katherine.schofield@kcl.ac.uk
 ccownwork