Emotional Styles: Seemly and Unseemly Passions in Indian Courtly Settings, 15501750

AHA Session 70
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Clinton Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Samira Sheikh, Vanderbilt University
Samira Sheikh, Vanderbilt University

Session Abstract

The pioneer study by Norbert Elias pointed to the role of courts as settings for the contained and ordered expression of powers, taste and emotion. He framed this in general terms, writing in a 1968 postscript that it was obvious that standards and patterns of affect control varied across societies and that the western idea of ‘civilized behavior’ was not even universal in western Europe. Later historians pointed out that western rational self-control was often contrasted to the irrational emotionality of other societies during the age of empire. The field is still an active one as evidenced by an American Historical Review round-table in December 2012. This panel takes up this question in a larger comparative setting by studying both control of affect and breakdown in control in courtly settings in regional kingdoms of pre-colonial India ranging from Golkonda in south-eastern India, the neighboring Marathas in the western Deccan, to the Bikaner Rajputs of northern India.  Our explorations of royal expressions of affection, sexual passion, and anger extend Elias's formulations by applying ideas from recent research on the history of emotions to the understanding of courtly culture.  Of particular interest are the ways in which emotional styles and norms can articulate and contest political relations, a new topic of investigation in the study of early modern South Asia.

Talbot's paper examines the political uses of royal rage in a chronicle commissioned for the Rajput warlords of Bikaner dating to ca. 1600.  Because the only instances of anger come from kings – the Mughal emperor Akbar and the local Bikaner king – and are directed at underlings, this text seems to sanction royal rage in a striking departure from classical norms. 

Beverley’s paper will move south to consider the political valance of kingly emotions in Golkonda-Hyderabad in the eastern Deccan, c. 1580-1675. Royal poetry by Qutb Shahi kings Muhammad Quli and Abdullah narrate the rulers’ amorous relations and sensual enjoyment. The paper considers how narratives of kingly emotion elucidate notions of royal comportment and courtly ethics, and articulate expansive visions of political alliances.

Guha looks at an episode of familial tensions around the liaison the Maratha Peśvā Bajirao with a Muslim courtesan in the 1730s. While such relationships were part of the kingly style of the era and usually passed unnoticed, their emotional closeness as well as his efforts to integrate their son in the lineage caused a serious family rift which has left a considerable documentary record. These offer a rare glimpse of the invocation and manipulation of familial feeling in an Indian courtly setting.

The three papers thus cover a range of cultures and sources across Islamicate South Asia in the early modern period.

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