ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Communicating the mystical truth: the Sufi kathās in North India’s popular culture


Bocchetti Annalisa - Ghent University, Languages and Cultures, Ghent, Belgium


29 – Travelling stories, bodies and genres and the making of communities


 This paper explores the performative tradition of the Sufi kathās as part of early modern religious and literary practices that influenced the growth of socio-cultural communities in North India. In spite of their ties to Central Asia, the Sufi poets used Avadh’s vernacular in their compositions. These mystical tales blend romantic and heroic elements of local folk imagery with imported Persian models, circulating in distinct, yet interrelated settings. As such, they were recited and sung in court, in Sufi lodges, at private gatherings, and at street markets (bāzārs).

This paper aims to show how these tales have been used as forms of polyvalent entertainment and religious education by itinerant storytellers, Sufi sheikhs, and other intellectual figures. In light of that, it draws on two specific texts of the tradition, Jāyasī’s Padmāvat and s Usmān’s Citrāvalī. Therefore, this paper will show how these tales reflect the dialogic world of storytelling of which they are part, as their authors depict bards adding new stories to their repertoire of traditional Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa epics.

In conclusion, this presentation argues that these compositions offer alternative perspectives on history and identity. Consequently, this paper will show how these tales resonate through contemporary debates on identity politics in India, primarily by examining the Padmāvat adaptation on screen and the controversy surrounding it, shedding light on Bollywood’s retelling of this complex epic.