Monday, October 02, 2006

the calligraphic state, and the tourist trap

Just finished reading Brinkley Messick's astounding book, The Calligraphic State.
Was reminded of, made to think about Delhi in immensely productive and complicated ways.
Any doubts as to why I am here have officially been dispelled.

...In Yemen, says Messick, in the absence of ‘colonial rupture’, it has appeared possible, as the preamble of the Constitution says, to “preserve… character, customs, and heritage”, while adapting to the standards of the community of “interlocked” nations. This seems, at first sight, to be too smooth, especially given the analytical depth of this book.

But then we all have subject positions. I come from a city, and a country where the ruptures with the past wreaked by colonialism, and then the specific ruptures from the Islamic(ate) past wreaked by the post-colonial state, are well known. Messick’s book is important to me in thinking about the strange survivals from those ruptures, of ‘texts loose in the world’, in order to place them again, and ‘embody’ them again, within evolving traditions of thought practice.

To give an example of a site/practise I am forced to think about. In India, ‘Islamic’ law and its practices have no legal standing, except in and as personal law. However, the process of shakwa (shikwa in Hindustani/Urdu), carries on in the strangest ways. In the ruins of a fourteenth century palace in Delhi, administered by the central Archaeological Survey, people write shikwas in the form of letters with standard salutations, and leave them in various alcoves and niches. These shakwas are not addressed to any temporal authority, but in the ruins of a ‘medieval’ polity, as it were, they are addressed to djinns, invisible spirits who are supposed to dwell here, with the standard form of ‘I/we are here in your court to ask for…’ However, like with all documents offered to government offices (Messick makes us aware of the ‘fragility’ of the original document and the necessity to have it in one’s possession) it is not the original handwritten letters that are offered, but photocopies. These are letters of intercession in a divine court, but the form not only remembers, the ‘pre modern’, as it were, but also current practice of approaching government offices. The practice, as far as I can ascertain, has a very recent history, dating back to the displacements of ‘The Emergency’, thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, older court records from the ‘princely states’ of what is now Rajasthan, in the Arabo-Persian Nastaliq script that very few read anymore, have become ‘loose in the world’. Those who make miniature paintings for tourists use these high quality papers to paint faux Mughal scenes over, keeping a few bands of calligraphy on top to simulate Mughal folios. It is not uncommon to discern the words ‘advocate’ and ‘appelant’ over amorous couples painted in an erotic register codified in the eighteenth century.

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