The venture of self-fashioning in Mughal India



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Individuality – both as a philosophical category and a way of living – forms the focal point of a resonance between our times and the 17th-century. Impelled by this haunting resonance, and in an attempt to understand it, my paper examines the literary history of biographical writing in both Europe and South Asia, from 560 BCE to 1700 CE. What is it about the 17th century that is so specific? Why do only these biographies strike us as records of the lives of true individuals? And why do individuals first appear in 17th century South Asia? To adequately comprehend this nomadic literary genre, we must abstract ourselves from the geography and examine the thematic aspects of our texts. I suggest it is imperative to look at modes of life as they are formed over time, across Europe and South Asia. That is, we most focus on the philosophically-rich questions of the categories that structured lives. Pausing in the 17th century, I examine the Viaggi of Pietro Della Valle (an Italian traveler in Turkey, Iran and South Asia) and the Ardhakathānaka of Banārasīdāsa (the first Indian autobiography, comprising the records of a Jain merchant roaming South Asia). For just one generation, from 1600-1650, autobiographical writing becomes an ethical practice by which they reflect on and build individuality.