ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Linguistic Fluidity and Literary Experimentation in Early Modern Shi’i Devotional Literature


Knapczyk Peter - Assistant Professor of Hindi-Urdu, Wake Forest University


32 – Dynamics of Language Diversity, Multilingual Identities and Linguistic Nationalism in South Asia


 This paper investigates the linguistic fluidity and literary experimentation that characterize Shi’i devotional literature composed in Delhi and Awadh during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The premier genre was the marisyah, which was composed in multiple North Indian languages and dialects, including Persian, Hindi, Urdu, Braj, and Awadhi. During this period these languages underwent profound changes in their literary roles and relative popularity. Today, these changes are often viewed through the lens of linguistic nationalism which assumes that language choice was determined by religious identity and rivalry. But the variety of language used in the marsiyah points to an acceptance of linguistic fluidity, an intentional crafting of literary languages, and a keen awareness of how language could evoke emotional and aesthetic responses.

Viewing the history of multilingualism through the lens of the marsiyah genre offers a fresh perspective on this period’s shifting literary landscape. A touchstone for this paper will be the poet Sikandar (fl. 1775) whose works remain largely unpublished. Sikandar migrated several times across North India and composed marsiyahs in Hindavi, Purbi, Braj, and Marwari. For Sikandar and his contemporaries, language choice was not limited by religious identity; rather they sought an elusive balance between Indic and Persian linguistic elements and cultural forms, one that would resonate with a range of audiences.