India in the Persian World of Letters


Arthur Dudney


March 1, 2024


This book traces the development of philology (the study of literary language) in the Persian tradition in India, concentrating on the influential eighteenth-century Indo- Persian philologist Sirāj al-Dīn ʿAlī Ḳhān, known as Ārzū. Besides being a respected poet, Ārzū was a rigorous theoretician of language whose intellectual legacy was side-lined by colonialism. His conception of language accounted for literary innovation and historical change in part to theorize the tāzah-goʾī [literally, “fresh-speaking”] movement in Persian literary culture. Although later scholarship has tended to frame this debate in anachronistically nationalist terms (Iranian native-speakers versus Indian imitators), the primary sources show that contemporary concerns had less to do with geography than with the question of how to assess innovative “fresh-speaking” poetry, a situation analogous to the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns in early modern Europe. Ārzū used historical reasoning to argue that as a cosmopolitan language Persian could not be the property of one nation or be subject to one narrow kind of interpretation. Ārzū also shaped attitudes about reḳhtah, the Persianized form of vernacular poetry that would later be renamed and reconceptualized as Urdu, helping the vernacular to gain acceptance in elite literary circles in northern India. This study challenges the persistent misconception that Indians started writing the vernacular primarily because they were ashamed of their poor grasp of Persian at the twilight of the Mughal Empire.


Arthur Dudney is Director of Cultural Programmes at the charitable fund Arcadia. He is currently an independent scholar and fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. He was previously a research fellow at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and a teaching fellow at SOAS. He holds a PhD in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies from Columbia University and an AB in Classics from Princeton University.