TAPSA: Letter writing is the mingling of souls not the drawing near of dust: Scholarly epistolography as companionship in eighteenth-century North India

Daniel Morgan, PhD Candidate in SALC, University of Chicago

Scholars of Persianate intellectual practices in early-modern South Asia generally argue that authoritative knowledge was “located primarily in persons not books” and that texts were thus transmitted in the context of oral recitals. Such transmission required the student to engage in companionship (ṣuḥbat) with a teacher to ensure correct comprehension of texts, as well as for the cultivation of suitable ethical comportment (ādāb). What such accounts disregard, however, is that letters – between scholars of equal standing, or between teachers and students – were themselves often considered to be a form of “companionship” (iṣṭiḥāb, dūstī) and could serve, therefore, as a medium for the remote transmission of authoritative knowledge and the cultivation of right action. Indeed, some letter writers refer to the superiority of the letter over physical companionship because it allowed for a meeting of souls without the intrusion of the material body.
This paper examines eighteenth-century letter-writing manuals, as well as Persian and Arabic letter collections by scholars of North India, to consider the ways in which epistolary communications served, in Deena Goodman’s memorable phrase, as “an absence made present”. The paper considers both the self-statement of eighteenth-century letter writers as well as their practices (the request and receipt of remote “authorisations” for certain textual genres, the circulation of unfinished manuscripts, and collaboration on long-distance book projects). The paper also considers the transmission of huṅdīs (financial promissory notes) within these networks, to think about how financial and scholarly “credit” was a key feature in the persistence of remote exchanges. The paper thus aims to nuance our understanding of the modalities of scholarly companionship in eighteenth century North India and thus to contribute to wider discussions of the role of epistolography and companionship in early-modern Persianate societies.

Dates: 
Thursday, February 27, 2020 - 5:00pm
Foster 103