Crafting the cosmopolitan elegy in North India : poets, patrons, and the Urdu mars̤iyah, 1707-1857



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This dissertation examines the literary and socio-religious development of mars̤iyah, a genre of Urdu elegiac poetry associated with the ritual life of Shiʿi Muslims in South Asia. I use the mars̤iyah tradition as a touchstone for investigating the rise of Urdu literary culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the North Indian centers of Delhi and Avadh. In the early 1700s, mars̤iyah poets were among the first to shape Delhi’s local vernacular into the Urdu literary language. By the mid-1800s, Urdu would assume many of Persian’s literary roles and become North India’s foremost cosmopolitan literary culture. This study focuses on the genre of mars̤iyah and the lives of mars̤iyah poets, while providing a unique perspective on this period’s shifting literary and cultural landscape, and offering a corrective to the discourse of linguistic and religious nationalism that has obscured Urdu’s history. In the first part of this dissertation, I argue that the experiments of mars̤iyah poets to develop the genre’s form, literary language, and aesthetics were instrumental in creating Urdu’s translocal appeal and composite cultural orientation. Among the genres of Urdu literature, mars̤iyah was exceptional in its ability to synthesize Persianate and Indic literary sensibilities, and traditional and contemporary worldviews. These innovations helped to make Urdu a viable alternative to Persian as a cosmopolitan literary culture, and made mars̤iyah a model for later reformist poets as they crafted a response to modernity and colonialism. The second part of this dissertation examines the changing roles and status of mars̤iyah poets within systems of patronage and hierarchies of political and religious authority. Although in the early 1700s mars̤iyah poets were relatively marginalized and even dismissed as “inept poets,” in later generations mars̤iyah poets became celebrated as masters of Urdu literature and revered as religious functionaries. Despite mars̤iyah’s association with Shiʿi sectarian ritual, temporal rulers such as the Navābs of Avadh patronized mars̤iyah poets and promoted the genre among their diverse population as a strategy for fostering social cohesion and a shared cultural ideal. In the mid-1800s, as British rule began to undermine traditional systems of patronage, mars̤iyah poets were at the vanguard of seeking out new sources of patronage in distant centers, advancing the ideals of Avadh’s mars̤iyah tradition, and establishing Urdu as the new cosmopolitan literary culture across India.