Current researches on early modern economic history have already moved away from the long-drawn and circuitous debate on Mughal decline. Some recent works have further shown that an equally vibrant cultural capital—higher education, literary practices, and performing arts—needs to be taken seriously. The entanglement of religious contestations and political churnings also complicated the scenario, unleashing new questions of identity—sectarian, ethnic, and, even seemingly, communal. Previous generations of historians had confused weakening Mughal power and authority with all-round social, moral, and economic degradation. The old-fashioned historians not only needed new sets of sources, but also a new framework to look at historical processes in all their vitality than merely passing moral judgements, which is not a historian’s calling.
Take the case of the treatment of Urdu literature: at its height it is imaginatively romantic, sensual, and, even pornographic, which prudish and perhaps homophobic modern historians are not equipped to handle. Not mentioning here to what is referred to as perversion: a Mughal prince accused by the famous satirist, Ja’far Zatalli, of having intercourse with a goat, besides exploring other alternative possibilities of fun. Historians have tended to ignore the significance of reading the huge body of 18th-century Urdu literature on its own terms. A refreshing new approach to sources would further strengthen the arguments for cultural efflorescence in the 18th century. Even on the question of decline of patronage to artists in Mughal Delhi, literary sources actually reveal a vibrant cultural life, detailed in a text like Muraqqa-i Dehli of Dargah Quli Khan, a visitor from Deccan. Notwithstanding his political failures, the contemporary Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (1719-48), a cultural aficionado, certainly deserves a better treatment by historians from what has hitherto been the case. Besides, early in the 18th century, the enthusiastic reception of Wali Deccani’s widely acclaimed Diwan in Delhi is also a momentous chapter in the history of Urdu literature.
Thus, literary hyperbole of the poets who left Delhi for greener pastures should not be taken so literally, as Mir Taqi Mir desperately tried to convince those who heard him in Lucknow that he belonged to the world-renowned magnificent city of Delhi which had just been ruined: dilli jo ek shahr tha aalam mein intekhab…hum rahne wale hain usi ujde dayar ke. This is somewhat similar to Zatalli’s condemnation of the Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad as a veritable “Chaupatabad”. As a matter of fact, however, even though regional centres vied with Delhi, sometimes aggressively, in court cultures and patronage, old Delhi continued to flourish.
Further, recent researches are also showing that even at the height of Mughal power the vernacular literary scene was not as impoverished as it was made out by older historians. Expressed in local languages, regional aspirations were not only being powerfully articulated, but were also making their presence felt at the Mughal court. By the early-17th century, the Braj variant of Hindi came to occupy an influential position, both for its sensuous poetry of love and as a language of scheming court-politics.
Not surprisingly, despite all the pretensions to Persian sophistication, even the most powerful of the Mughal emperors, Akbar, would vent his occasional frustrations by mouthing expletives in Hindi. Those obsessed with Persian in medieval India must read, Allison Busch, Poetry of Kings: The Classical Hindi Literature of Mughal India (Oxford University Press).
Certainly by mid-18th century, questions began to be raised on why Mughal dynasty should continue to be in power if it was not able to produce strong and competent rulers anymore. Some dynamic Mughal officials were touted as more capable ruler-material, but for them to come to power meant a revolution, which did not happen on an all-India scale, though regions were getting transformed for better or worse. A drastic change awaited a truly British colonial intervention in the 19th century. For one of the finest analyses of late-18th-century struggles and further charting the political developments, one may certainly read Partha Chatterjee’s book, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Permanent Black). Surely, not everything was lost in the 18th century.
Indeed, Tilottama Mukherjee’s exhaustive new work richly illustrates a dynamic Political Culture and Economy in Eighteenth-Century Bengal: Networks of Exchange, Consumption and Communication (Orient Blackswan). Tabir Kalam has also pulled off an interesting new synthesis on Muslim religious and cultural practices, Religious Tradition and Culture in Eighteenth-Century North India (Primus). Anticipating, in this context, Saifuddin Ahmad’s comprehensive study of a vibrant Urdu literary culture as it emerged in the 18th century and acquired its classical form.
This was the period before Urdu was reduced to be the language of Muslims in the ghetto. Happily, Urdu poetry continues to be an important vehicle through which sublime emotions of love and longings are expressed in the best possible form. Can anyone with a heart have no taste and inclination for ghazal or qawwali?