Literary history

How a 19th century Urdu play come to be translated in Hebrew script

This Judaeo-Urdu manuscript may have been created for (or by) the Baghdadi Jewish community.

The British Library’s sole Judaeo-Urdu manuscript is a copy in Hebrew script of the well-known Urdu theatrical work, the Indar Sabha, written by Agha Sayyid Hasan ‘Amanat’, a poet in the court of Vajid Ali Shah of Awadh.

Opening folio of the Indar Sabha (Or.13287, f. 7r). [Public Domain]
Opening folio of the Indar Sabha (Or.13287, f. 7r). [Public Domain]

Our manuscript seems to have been created in the early 20th century, perhaps by a member of the Baghdadi Jewish community of India. Originating in the Arabic-speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire, the Baghdadi Jewish community settled in India from the late 18th into the 19th century and was primarily centred in two major urban centres of India, Calcutta and Bombay [now Kolkata and Mumbai]. A printing industry in Judaeo-Arabic grew in both locations to cater to the religious needs of the community as well as its appetite for news and entertainment, producing devotional treatises, gazettes, and also the occasional historical novel, murder mystery and romance (Musleah, On the Banks of the Ganga, p. 522-531). The British Library’s collections are a rich resource for these publications and for the history of the Baghdadi Jewish community in India, and our Hebrew curator has previously written about a Judaeo-Arabic serial issued in Bombay for our blog.

The Emerald Fairy (Sabz Pari) at the heavenly court of Indar (Or.13287, f. 17r). [Public Domain]
The Emerald Fairy (Sabz Pari) at the heavenly court of Indar (Or.13287, f. 17r). [Public Domain]

As for the contents of the manuscript, while many elements of the play itself are reminiscent of fabulous Urdu dastaans or legends, such as the Sihr al-Bayan by Mir Hasan (1727-86), the plot itself is relatively simple, avoiding the complex story-within-a-story structure of its predecessors. The play opens with a sensuous depiction of the court of the king of the gods, Indar, populated by fairies bearing the names of jewels (Emerald, Topaz, Sapphire and Ruby).

Left (f. 18r): the Sabz Pari (Emerald fairy) and the Kala Dev; right (f. 19v): the Sabz Pari and her earthly lover, prince Gulfam (Or.13287). [Public Domain]
Left (f. 18r): the Sabz Pari (Emerald fairy) and the Kala Dev; right (f. 19v): the Sabz Pari and her earthly lover, prince Gulfam (Or.13287). [Public Domain]

As with many dastaans, a story of forbidden love ensues when the Emerald fairy (Sabz Pari) falls in love with a mortal prince, Gulfam, and conspires with the help of the Black Demon (Kala Dev), to sneak her beloved into Indar’s heavenly court. When this transgressal is discovered, the Emerald fairy’s wings are clipped, and she is ejected from the paradise of Indar’s court and falls to earth, while her lover is imprisoned in a well (Hason, ‘Indar Sabha Phenomenon,’ p. 83).

Left (f. 22r): the Sabz Pari, having been shorn of her wings; right (f. 26r): Gulfam is punished in a well for his transgression of entering the heavenly court of Indar (Or.13287). [Public Domain]
Left (f. 22r): the Sabz Pari, having been shorn of her wings; right (f. 26r): Gulfam is punished in a well for his transgression of entering the heavenly court of Indar (Or.13287). [Public Domain]

In addition to the echoes of Urdu dastaans, the multi-coloured fairies bring to mind the Haft Paykar of Nizami, in particular, the images of the main character’s fantastical adventures , and the Hasht Bihisht of Amir Khusraw, of which an example can be viewed online, while the unlucky prince hidden in a well as a result of his trangressive love is reminiscent of the story of Bizhan and Manizheh from the Shahnamah, creating a further layer of intertextuality and adaptation of visual motifs from the Persian epics from which the Urdu poetry of the 19th century clearly drew much of its inspiration. However, the story takes a more Indic turn when the Emerald fairy, ejected from heaven, wanders as a yogini or female ascetic, playing music that tells of her love and charms her way back into Indar’s court, wins his favour and secures her lover’s release.

The Sabz Pari wanders on earth as a female ascetic or yogini, charming the wild animals with her beautiful music (Or.13287, f. 26v). [Public Domain]
The Sabz Pari wanders on earth as a female ascetic or yogini, charming the wild animals with her beautiful music (Or.13287, f. 26v). [Public Domain]

Establishing a direct link between the Baghdadi Jewish community and theatrical production of the Indar Sabha has proven elusive. According to the gazette of the Baghdadi Jewish community from the early 20th century, social clubs in both Bombay and Calcutta staged events, such as films, plays and musical performances, and hosted amateur dramatic clubs from within the Jewish community (The Jewish Advocate, 1932, p. 425; 1933, p. 9). It also seems that Baghdadi Jewish female actresses took part in early productions of the play and other Urdu-language theatrical productions, establishing a possible connection between the Indar Sabha and the Jewish community. While such a conclusion is purely speculative at this point, it might be the case that this Judaeo-Urdu manuscript was created for (or by) one of the actors or theatre producers of the Baghdadi Jewish community.

Fortunately, due to the generosity of the Hebrew Manuscripts project, this unique Judaeo-Urdu manuscript will be digitised and made freely available online, which we hope will encourage further research into the language, cultural context, and history of this fascinating manuscript.

Nur Sobers-Khan, Lead Curator for South Asia.

This article first appeared on the 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.