ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Updating the Music in The Magic Doe: translation techniques from eighteenth-century Chittagong


Williams Richard David - SOAS University of London, London, United Kingdom


01 – Bengali Muslim Societies and Literatures, c.1600-1947


 Sometime in the eighteenth century, a poet from Chittagong named Karamullah prepared a Bengali version of the Mṛgābatī. His poem was an original treatment of the Sufi classic, inspired by Qutban Shuravardi’s well-known Hindavi tale (1503) (Behl 2012). In this paper, I will consider how Karamullah reworked this story, in light of recent studies, which have nuanced our sense of early-modern Bengali literary imaginaries and approaches to translation (Irani 2021; Stewart 2019; Stewart 2023; d’Hubert 2018). In particular, I examine the musical dimensions of his poem to interrogate how the story was edited and adapted for a new Bengali readership. These dimensions include the addition of lyrical laments; treatments of rāga and prosody throughout the poem; the updating of musical instruments named in the poem; and the poet’s different approach to scholastic musical knowledge. Strikingly, while Qutban Shuravardi outlined a digest of technical rāga taxonomy in his poem, which spoke to the aspirational connoisseurship of Sultan Husain Shah Sharqi’s court (Miner 2015), Karamullah appears to have skipped this section entirely. By considering what the Bengali poet retained, omitted, or updated in the musicality of the poem, I will ask what was specific to his telling, and how attending to music might shed light on approaches to translation.