“I was dreaming of learning all the languages that they mastered, and of traveling in Asia in their footsteps.” – 5in10 with Hajnalka Kovacs

Hajnalka Kovacs is currently Zukunftsphilologie Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien. Her research centers around Persian poetry of the so-called “fresh style” produced on the Indian subcontinent between the 16th and 18th century. She wrote her PhD thesis on Bedil (1642-1720), one of the most famous representatives of Persian poetry in India.

What was surprising to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

Hajnalka Kovacs (Photo: private)

When I was a child, I loved to read about people and languages of the world. I kept a special notebook in which I would note down the foreign words along with their meanings, classified according to language. In my teenage years, inspired by books about great scholars and travelers of Hungarian origin, such as Alexander Csoma de Koros (1784/8-1842), Armin Vambery (1832-1913), and Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943), my attention turned toward the Orient. I was dreaming of learning all the languages that they mastered, and of traveling in Asia in their footsteps. I started learning Sanskrit when I was in high school, adding a few more languages in the course of time. Although I think that in the present era of specialization we can no longer attempt what these great scholars did, the impetus that I got from my childhood readings has proven long-lasting.

How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator („elevator pitch“)?

I work on Persian poetry composed in the Indian Subcontinent in the 16th through the 18th centuries in a style popularly known as the “Indian style” – or, as we prefer to call it in recent scholarship, the “fresh style.” Characterized by a conscious breaking away from the aesthetic norms of the tradition of classical Persian poetry and by an experimentation with the poetic language in order to create new meanings, this type of poetry, instead of eliciting an emotional response, requires an intellectual effort on the part of the reader or listener in order to be appreciated.

Safina (anthology of Persian poetry, Kashmir?), Petermann II 138, Buchschmuck: ʽUnwān, 1830 (title page)

In my current research in Berlin, I examine the “fresh style” poetry of the period and the polemical literature on the competence of Indian poets in the Persian literary language. Is there a marked difference within the “fresh style” between the Iranian diction and the Indian diction? Or, could the “strangeness” of the style of Indian authors, such as Bedil or Nāṣir `Alī Sirhindī, be a result of poetic creativity taken to extremes? For the literary historian, the question of larger significance is then, did the same obsession with innovation that made the “fresh style” so popular in the Persianate world for over two centuries contribute to its ultimate falling out of favor?

Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?

A sample of Bedil’s poetry from “Safina” (anthology of Persian poetry, Kashmir?), 1830, Petermann II 138

My academic journey did not follow a straight path. I ventured into various languages and fields before arriving at Persian and Urdu poetry. Each step of my journey, however, has contributed significantly to what I am now: the training I received in Hungary in old-school European philology, the immersion in Urdu language and literature in India, and the interdisciplinary training at the University of Chicago.

My understanding of the poetics and aesthetics of premodern Persian and Urdu poetry, however, owes the most to Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the renowned “free-lance” Indian literary critic.

How is it to do research in Germany?

In Berlin so many research projects and seminars are going on that a scholar with interdisciplinary training and interest like me can benefit from. For my own research, the Staatsbibliothek has an amazing collection of Persian manuscripts from India, and they are doing a great job with digitization. Access to modern editions and scholarly works in my field, however, can be more difficult in Berlin.

If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?

In the past few decades several important works came out that have substantially contributed to the critical reappraisal of Indo-Persian literature. Still, the study of this field is several centuries behind, for example, the study of Latin or Greek literature. Tons of texts still lie in manuscripts, often in not easily accessible libraries; few have appeared in print, and even these are rarely up to the standards of critical edition.


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