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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