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Detail from 1890 Sihr ul-bayan manuscript. Image depicts the first meeting between Benazir and Badr-i Muni.

Like the Moon Surrounded by Stars: Classic Poetry from South Asia in the Library’s Collections

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This is a guest post by Charlotte Giles, Reference Librarian in the Asian Division‘s Scholarly Services Section.

On Friday September 29, the Asian Reading Room will be hosting a partial day display and talk celebrating the diversity of our collections through textiles, with support from the African and Middle Eastern, Prints & Photographs, Geography & Maps, and Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Rooms.

South Asia and the Middle East are home to a multitude of poetic traditions in many languages, each with their own worlds of aesthetics and forms. The Asian Reading Room and African and Middle Eastern Reading Room in the Library of Congress are entry points into these worlds, with stunning examples of some of the creative geniuses from these parts of the world. These traditions, however, do not exist within a bubble, but rather reach out across space, time, and genre to impact authors and poets across the world.

The Library gathers many examples of these permeable borders of poetry from this region, one of them being the Urdu masnavi, Sihr ul-bayan, by the Indian poet, Mir Hasan. The word masnavi (mathnavi) may sound familiar to those who are otherwise unfamiliar with literature in this part of the world, but have, perhaps, heard of the Persian mystic, scholar and poet Jalal-al-din Muhammad Rumi. The Library’s own manuscript of Rumi’s six-volume Masnavi (the opening page depicted below) dates back to the 15th century. The Urdu masnavi showcased in this blog post is considerably shorter and differs greatly in form and content. So, how did a Persian poetic form make its way to India? What is a masnavi?

Alt text: Page of manuscript depicting gold and blue painted illuminated rectangle text box with two columns of Persian writing.
Opening page from Jalal-al-din Muhammad Rumi’s six-volume Masnavi.

From the 13th to the 19th centuries, Persian was the lingua franca of the Indian subcontinent, leading to the intermingling and sharing with the hundreds of other languages and dialects in South Asia. The Urdu language is deeply embedded in Persian’s rich literary history, and that very much includes the crossover of Persian poetic forms such as the masnavi, the ghazal, ruba’i, and qasidah. To learn more about Persian poetics, particularly the concept of ‘ishq, check out Junior Fellow 2022 Ghazal Ghazi’s StoryMap Unraveling ‘Ishq: Love in the Poetry, Miniature Painting, and Calligraphy of the Persianate World. Each of these poetic types differ in their rhyme, meter, syllable, and theme, among other restrictions, regional differences, and changing preferences across time. The mathnawi (Arabic) or masnavi (Persian) is typically a narrative format of everyday stories, composed of rhyming couplets (AA, BB, CC, DD, etc.) with no restriction on the number of lines. The poetic form (along with its alterations) is present across linguistic literary traditions including Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish.

Mir Hasan was a significant Urdu poet of the eighteenth-century, borni n Delhi (1736/7-1786). He completed the over 2,000-couplet work in 1795. The Library holds multiple copies of this famous epic poem. During Mir Hasan’s time in the mid-18th century, the Urdu masnavi tended to be a longer poem with an emphasis on romantic and fantastical themes. This is not to say that there were no short masnavis about other topics, but this was the general trend at the time. This particular masnavi, Sihr-ul bayan, is but one of eleven (albeit the most famous) which Hasan wrote during his lifetime.

Pink and gold brocade cover of 1890 Sihr ul-bayan manuscript

The manuscript depicted above and below was created in India in 1890 and is bound with what appears to be a woven Banarasi silk brocade, and contains illustrations of middling quality and skill. This brocade binding is depicted below. The manuscript was gifted to the Library of Congress by John Davis Batchelder, along with many other rare items, in 1936.

Image depicts two manuscript pages. One page shows two columns of Urdu text with illustration of a young man and young woman seated across from each other in a garden setting. Second page shows two columns of Urdu text broken up by image of young man in a whole with two demon creatures guarding the hole.
Two pages from 1890 Sihr ul-bayan manuscript. Left image depicts the first meeting between Benazir and Badr-i Muni. Right image depicts when Benazir is thrown into the desert hole by other fairy people on behalf of Mahrukh.

Mir Hasan tells the tale of a beautiful slumbering prince, Benazir, who is stolen away by a besotted fairy, Mahrukh. After some time in her kingdom, seeing his continued unhappiness, she gifts him a magical horse for a few hours of amusement each night in exchange for his promise to never love another. One night, he flies by a garden and glimpses the princess Badr-i Munir, reclining in the moonlight with her handmaids. Here are a few lines from this section, known as the sarapa, or the “head-to-foot” description of the beloved, Badr-i Munir. It is this moment

برس پندرہ ایک کا سن و سال

نہایت حسین اور صاحب جمال

ویے کہنی تکیہ پہ اک ناز سے

سر نہر بیٹھی تھی انداز

خواصیں کھڑی ایدھر اودھر تمام

ستاروں کا جوں ماہ پرازد حام

One of them was fifteen years of age

Extraordinarily handsome and beautiful

One elbow on a pillow, coquettishly

She sat, head gracefully bent

Her female attendants stood all around

Like the moon surrounded by stars

After this first encounter they fall in love. Mahrukh hears of their meetings and throws Benazir into a hole in the desert. Badr dreams of this, and her friend, Najm-al Nisa, goes out in search of him. With the help of the king of jinn, Firoz Shah (who falls in love with Najm), she finds Benazir and returns him to his lover. Also pictured is the moment when Benazir is thrown into the desert hole by other fairy people on behalf of Mahrukh.

Two images depicted; one image shows a red leader, gold-embossed book cover with a partially torn label. Second image shows inner cream-colored page with a label in the top right corner with type and handwriting.
Left image depicts the red leather, gold-embossed cover of the 1912 manuscript of Sihr-ul Bayan. Right image depicts the inner page of the cover with a stamp from S. J. Tellery and Co.

The second manuscript of Sihr ul-bayan, created in 1912, is bound in red leather with a partial inscription on the cover. The inside cover bears a stamp from S. J. Tellery and Co. This stamp is depicted below. It reads: “Masnavi Mir Hasan with pictures. Persian book”. This company is known for its trade in art and crafts from India. Tellery both collected antiques as well as commissioned new “art manufactures” from artisans across the subcontinent. A note on the stamp claims this manuscript is an antique. It had a large showroom in Kolkata as well as stores in Delhi, Bombay, Shimla, and New York City. They were even present at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, exhibiting and selling art wares from India. Tellery is just one company of many taking part in the highly lucrative trade in artisanal items from the subcontinent (along with the rest of the British colonies at the time), ranging from illustrated manuscripts such as this, to furniture, silverworks, and fabric. This manuscript is an important item telling us the history of this trade, as well as the significance of Urdu literature beyond the subcontinent.

Image depicts two columns of Urdu text broke up by an illustration from the 1912 manuscript of Sihr-ul bayan. The illustration shows a sleeping figure on the roof of a white palace with a flying figure hovering over him.
Illustration from the 1912 manuscript of Sihr ul-bayan, showing the moment when Mahrukh comes upon the sleeping Benazir on the roof of the palace.

Also pictured above is an illustration depicting the moment when the fairy, Mahrukh, comes upon the sleeping Benazir. She falls in love with him instantly when she beholds his beauty under the moonlight.

For more information about the textiles display and talk on September 29, please visit this 4 Corners of the World blog post. The pink brocade-covered masnavi from this blog will also be on display! The event will take place in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, in Mahogany Row (LJ-110), starting at 11:00am and ending at 3:30pm. In addition to the display, Sylvia Houghteling, Associate Professor of History of Art at Bryn Mawr College, will be giving a talk about the intersection between texts and textiles in room LJ-119. If you are unable to make the talk in person, it will be broadcasted live on Zoom. There will be a Q&A session following the talk. To attend the talk on Zoom, you may register through this link.

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