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Transformations of Piety and Patronage in the Classical Urdu Marṡiyah

In: Journal of Urdu Studies
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  • 1 Assistant Professor of Hindi-Urdu, Middle East and South Asia Studies Program, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, USA
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Abstract

This paper examines the changing roles and status of marṡiyah poets within hierarchies of political and religious authority during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A direct link between the marṡiyah tradition and these institutions was a system of patronage that bound poets to the brokers of power. Although in the early 1700s marṡiyah poets were often dismissed as “inept poets,” in subsequent generations marṡiyah poets were nurtured by the patronage of political rulers and counted among the masters of Urdu literature. The Navābs of Avadh in particular, with their promotion of Shīʿī ritual in their capital Lucknow, helped to widen the audience for the marṡiyah. Such temporal rulers appropriated the marṡiyah’s wide appeal as a strategy for fostering social and cultural cohesion among an otherwise diverse population. The Urdu marṡiyah gave expression to the localized concerns and novel self-understanding of the Navābs as they broke politically and ideologically from Mughal rule. These changes in the systems of patronage for the marṡiyah and the genre’s unique association with Avadh’s political and religious project resulted in marṡiyah poets’ growing status in both literary and religious circles. As marṡiyah poets began to feature prominently in the religious life of Avadh, their authority and pious personas came to strain relations with marṡiyah poets’ more worldly patrons. By the mid-1800s, the growing power and influence of the British had undermined the traditional systems of literary patronage for the marṡiyah. But as marṡiyah poets sought out new sources of patronage, they helped extend Urdu’s popularity to distant regional centers. Across India, marṡiyah poets were instrumental in establishing networks of patronage and creating models of language and performance that were influential in Urdu literary circles well beyond the marṡiyah genre, placing such poets as Mīr Anīs and Mirzā Dabīr at the vanguard of crafting the cosmopolitan orientation of Urdu literary culture.

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