An Unruly Persianate

Reflections on the special issue: The Late Persianate World: Transregional Connections and the Question of Language (Philological Encounters, 8, no. 2-3, 2023)

By Purnima Dhavan

As the special issue on the late Persianate world edited by Maryam Fatima, Alexander Jabbari and Mehtap Ozdemir, and recently published in Philological Encounters demonstrates, studies of the Persianate continue to flourish. Early studies of the Persianate world defined it as an ecumene forged through exchanges in literary Persian across a broad Eurasian zone. The concept has undergone much critical scrutiny and redefinition by scholars. Marshall Hodgson, the first to use the term in scholarly work, viewed the Persianate as a distinct historical formation in the premodern era with a beginning and an end. More recently, Mana Kia and Afshin Marashi have rightly questioned this premature assumption of its demise. The special issue of Philological Encounters extends and complicates Kia and Marashi’s argument about the long life of the Persianate. One hesitates to call it an afterlife, as it seems the “death” of the Persianate never happened.

Why? Early studies foregrounded the role of educated poets, scholars, bureaucrats, and their networks in the medieval and early modern periods. These studies suggested that imperial formations, like that of the Mughal, Safavids, the Central Asian Khanates, and the Ottomans created important sites for such exchanges but were not the sole drivers. Socialization into adab (which encompassed etiquette, ethical conduct, and social norms) preserved larger trans-imperial networks and dug deep into local communities. Certainly, from this perspective, the growth of colonialism and the rise of nation-states with much narrower definitions of national languages and national cultures would seem to splinter the Persianate ecumene by the late 1800s. But scholars of Persianate modernity argue for a very different trajectory for the Persianate, in large part because they no longer conceive of it only as an ecumene.

This is an important shift. This special issue of Persianate Encounters explores the ways colonial intellectuals and nation states sought to either claim or disown Persianate traditions, reshape their meaning, and disrupt existing forms of education, socialization, and normative behavior. Authors in this issue uncover the very messy work of self-making and world-making by extending their focus not just to elite discourse but also to its popular forms. Reformers of this period attempted to create a new modernity through mass communication using the tools of modern media towards ambitious projects of social engineering. As Alexander Jabbari argues, for modern Iranian nationalists, the eradication of the elite register of Persian pronunciation and the gendering of its sonic frameworks created Iran as a synecdoche for the Persianate. Yet, older forms persisted, and refashioned into a new Persianate resisted nationalist reform all through Eurasia. If a new turn to eradicate the lyrical taghazzul forms in Turkic languages was seized by nationalist reformers, as Samuel Hodgkin demonstrates for Central Asia, those reviled forms continued to be prized in Sufi lodges and were also reclaimed as their own newly-discovered forms of Persianate heritage by educated poets as a “sort of Eastern poetic drag.” Long after very different nationalist trends in India and Pakistan attempted to eradicate the seemingly “feudal” and trite Persianate forms from modern Hindi and Urdu, popular poetry and Bollywood songs kept alive the old trope of the vagabond rind (libertine), not only for South Asian audiences but also for a larger global audience which could appreciate the resonance of the Chaplinesque vagabond rind of Hindi-Urdu cinema. These examples indicate that Persianate modernity harnessed very unruly forms which could encompass both narrow forms of xenophobic chauvinism as well as more inclusive, trans-regional cultural poetics. Thus, a new formation, Persianate fandom, also emerged among those who lacked formal education in Persian. But is this unruliness new?

After all, even in its premodern forms the Persianate was not simply the genteel site of courteous poetic exchange. The savage satires lampooning poetic and political rivals of the earlier period parallel the roasting of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan described by Maryam Fatima and Andrew Amstutz. However, the global reach of modern critiques was certainly new to the nineteenth century. The romanticized image of the drunken, but kind-hearted rind, and his open flouting of all social and religious convention was at the heart of the earlier Persianate’s lyrical world.  It shared a similar level of socially-sanctioned rebellion against convention, but its reclaiming in popular cinematic and modern musical genres targeted the older trope towards new critiques of modern society. Even the staged debates in which the same author ventriloquized all aspects of an argument through different personas, which show up in modern print culture, were rooted in older forms of the Persianate munazarat.

With its focus on Persianate modernity, this special issue invites scholars to revisit the earlier formations of the Persianate, not simply to trace the construction of adabi conduct, but also of behaviors judged be-adabi (uncivil), as a socially sanctioned space of dissent. Put within this framing, debates about the wide-ranging forms of Persianate modernities remind us that the emerging forms discussed in this special issue were not simply the trace residues of obsolete “feudal” notions, as modern reformers would claim, but deeply rooted ideas that continued to shape debates and formulate new aesthetic forms even as scholars, poets and, increasingly, a growing global audience signaled their reclaiming, rejection, or reform of those very cultural trends. Cultural forms of the Persianate remained central to continuing debates about nationhood, citizenship, inclusion, and piety in the Eurasian zone of its origin, and increasingly, in widespread global diasporas.

If the Persianate has not just survived but continued in both familiar and radically different forms, the new scholarship on the Persianate forces us to contend with a different set of issues. One is a closer inquiry of its asymmetric power in shaping participation, even access to its shared forms in its different historical contexts. Another is the portability of the Persianate as a trans-historic concept. Even if the communities of the early Persianate had no term for what we now call the Persianate, its attractive utility to a whole range of cultures of dissent, inclusion, and exclusion invites further scholarly scrutiny of our own contemporary times.

About the author

Purnima Dhavan is the Giovanni and Ann Costigan Endowed Professor in Department of History at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her publications include When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition, 1699-1799 (OUP 2011) and essays on Mughal and Sikh History. She is currently working on a new monograph exploring the ways in which literary networks created new identities and notions of public good in Mughal India, The Lords of the Pen: Self-Fashioning and Literary Networks in Mughal India.

Citation: Purnima Dhavan, The Unruly Persianate, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.12.2023,

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 14. Dezember). An Unruly Persianate. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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