story time

Pem Nem: A 16th-century Urdu romance goes online

The 34 miniature paintings tell the story of Prince Shah Ji and Princess Mah Ji.

One of the treasures of the Urdu manuscript collection at the British Library has been digitised and made available online. The Pem Nem (Add.16880) is one of the finest examples of manuscript illustration from the court of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II, who ruled the kingdom of Bijapur from 1580 to 1627. Containing 34 miniature paintings illustrating the Sufi love story of prince Shah Ji and princess Mah Ji, the manuscript was written by an author by the name of Hasan Manju Khalji, bearing the pen name of Hans.

The hero, Shah Ji, faints at his first sight of his beloved, Mah Ji.
The hero, Shah Ji, faints at his first sight of his beloved, Mah Ji.
The hero, Shah Ji is, enflamed with passion.
The hero, Shah Ji is, enflamed with passion.

While the author claims in the introduction that the manuscript was written in the year 999 AH (1590/91 CE), scholars doubt that this claim is more than an attempt to harmonise the year of the manuscript’s production with Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s fixation with the nauras, the nine rasas or essences/flavours art. The introduction tells us that the body of the poem contains 199 rhyming couplets (dohas, two lines of seven syllables) and 999 quatrains (caupais, four lines with the rhyme ABCB), and praises the 99 names of god, suggesting that the text is indeed structured around the ruler’s fixation with the number nine. Although the dating of the text to the exact year of 999 AH may be no more than poetic licence, the art historian and expert on the Bijapur court, Deborah Hutton, has identified stylistic and textual details that allow the creation of the manuscript to be safely dated to the period 1591-1604 (Hutton, ‘The Pem Nem’, p 45).

Originally mis-identified in Blumhardt’s Catalogue of Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani Manuscripts (1899) as a variation on the Padmavat of Jayyasi, the text of the manuscript was later studied by the eminent Urdu scholar, David Matthews, who describes the spiritual love story of the two main protagonists that differs from the Padmavat and is a unique work, although it shares the central feature of narrating a spiritual quest through the trope of a love story.

Convinced that Mah Ji is only a reflection of the image in his heart, he weeps a stream of tears.
Convinced that Mah Ji is only a reflection of the image in his heart, he weeps a stream of tears.
Mah Ji passing time with her companions during her period of separation and longing, playing board games and tending to pet birds.
Mah Ji passing time with her companions during her period of separation and longing, playing board games and tending to pet birds.

Not unlike other Persianate tales of spiritual awakening and the search for truth, the story begins with the hero, Shah Ji, encountering an image of his as-yet-unseen beloved, Mah Ji, brought to him by a tortoise, while Mah Ji receives a similar portrait-via-tortoise delivery. The two main characters fall deeply in love (Matthews, ‘Pem Nem’, p 174). This curious scene, quite unfortunately, is not pictured among the illustrations of the manuscript. The hero’s love for the heroine is uniquely depicted through the innovative visual metaphor of the princess’ image appearing on his breast throughout the illustrations. After falling in love, Shah Ji embarks on a journey to find his beloved, which takes him to an island where his paternal uncle rules as king, and where his daughter, Shah Ji’s beloved, resides. Upon finding his beloved, Shah Ji faints, and then later refuses to believe that Mah Ji is anything more than a pale reflection of the image on his chest, who he mistakes for the real beloved. In a case of mistaking the real for the reflection, Shah Ji abandons Mah Ji. At this point, the text integrates the Indic baramasa genre, which depicts the emotions of the different seasons as the 12 months of the year pass, into the Persian masnavi tradition, or Sufi love story of spiritual awakening written in narrative verse. During her period of abandonment, Mah Ji is depicted as aflame with longing – quite literally on fire – for her absent lover, just as the same striking visual metaphor was used to paint Shah Ji’s desire for his beloved before he encountered her. Mah Ji is painted in scenes of amusement with her companions in the garden of the palace, although she maintains an isolated and melancholy air, such as in the images of celebrations for Holi, in which she broods while a maid fans her, presumably to cool her passions.

The heroine is aflame with passion and longing for her absent beloved.
The heroine is aflame with passion and longing for her absent beloved.
While Mah Ji’s companions prepare fireworks and celebrate, she alone and is fanned by an attendant.
While Mah Ji’s companions prepare fireworks and celebrate, she alone and is fanned by an attendant.

After much solitary meditation, the hero of the story, Shah Ji, realised the spiritual error of mistaking the real beloved, the actual Mah Ji before him, for the reflection of Mah Ji in his heart, and returns to the palace to much rejoicing. The largest number of illustrations, 12 of the 34, in the manuscript represent the celebrations and rituals surrounding their union in marriage. As in other tales of the same genre, the union of the lover and beloved is a metaphor for the union of the soul with god after mistaking the image, the majaz or symbol (here the image of Mah Ji on the hero’s chest) for the haqiqa, or truth.

Realising that Mah Ji is the real beloved and not an illusion, Shah Ji returns, and then faints.
Realising that Mah Ji is the real beloved and not an illusion, Shah Ji returns, and then faints.
The lovers are now united in marriage, and Mah Ji offers Shah Ji paan.
The lovers are now united in marriage, and Mah Ji offers Shah Ji paan.

While the images of the manuscript have been studied by art historians, much research remains to be done on the text and its languages. David Matthews has commented that, “One of the most striking features of the work is its language. The gist of the text can be understood with a little patience; the grammar, syntax and meaning of many verses defy interpretation,” and he has also identified the use of many words borrowed from Marathi and Telugu into the Dakani Urdu verse of the manuscript (Matthews, ‘Eighty Years’, p 96), suggesting that a team of specialist scholars would have to examine the text of the manuscript together in order to make full sense of it. While the images have been studied, published and displayed, Marika Sardar in her description of the manuscript for the Sultans of the Deccan India exhibition, has observed that some of the paintings, undertaken by three separate artists, seem to date from a later period and serve the purpose of expanding the illustrative narrative without adding content. She also comments that the manuscript seems to have been dis-bound and re-bound slightly out of order, so much work remains to be done on both the text and the study of the images. While the gist of the story and the dating of the images have been established, further study of the linguistic and art historical intricacies are still needed, which should be helped by the availability of the digitised manuscript on the British Library’s website. Regardless of the mysteries surrounding certain aspects of the manuscript, the artists have given us the striking visual metaphor of the hero carrying an image of the heroine in his heart throughout the course of his spiritual quest, and also the flames of passion quite literally springing from the two main protagonists as they long to be together.

This article first appeared on British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.