Mirzā `Abd al-Qādir “Bīdel” (1644-1720): Poetry, Prose and Prosopography

Conspicuous in the recent scholarly rehabilitation of the literatures of Mughal India is the legacy of the Indo-Persian Sufi poet, ⊂Abdul Qādir “Bīdel”. Discredited for his stylistic complexities in Iran by the Neo-Classicism of the late 18th century, in Soviet Central Asia by early 20th century “progressive” poetics and increasingly unread in South Asia with the fading there of Persian itself, Bīdel’s prodigious oeuvre has, through critiques of nationalist literary historiographies, attained a new legibility. However, interpretations of his works that engage them in their formal specificity and thus renegotiate his canonicity remain a desideratum. Our panel adumbrates three distinct responses to this need.

The first presentation, titled ‘The Fifth Element? Pervasive Bleakness in Bīdel’s Ghazals’, asks why Bīdel’s ghazal poetics of failure contrasts with the vector of spiritual progress in his works in other genres, discerning the specificity of Bīdel’s interventions in a history of the ghazal.

The second--‘“The Foundation of the Universe Rests on Sound:” The Problem of Speech and Silence in Bīdel’s Muḥīṭ-i A`ẓam’ --studies the earliest of Bīdel’s masnavis, showing how he deployed the convention of meditations on the art of speech/poetry to address, by way of a unique, poetic approach to Ibn ‘Arabi’s ontology, the dilemma of the ontological necessity of speech versus the epistemological problem of the ineffability of Reality.

The third-- ‘Bīdel’s Portrait’ --reads an ekphrastic episode from the last part of Bīdel’s autobiography, 'Chahār ‘Onṣor' (The Four Elements), as an autobiographical interpretation, playing on understandings of visuality in Persian literature and painting, of Ibn ‘Arabi’s theory of the imagination. Among the questions that will be pursued are: what understandings of self and self-transformation did Bīdel renew by this interpretation? How is this episode a compression of concerns that pervade all of 'Chahār ‘Onṣor'? What kind of reader and reading practices did this autobiography assume? And, finally, does an understanding, turning on this episode, of Bīdel’s iconoclastic self-transformation prepare us to better understand his works in other genres?

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Prashant Keshavmurthy
McGill University

Chair

Sunil Sharma

Presentations

by Jane Mikkelson / University of Chicago

The vast and variegated collection of ghazals by Mīrzā ⊂Abdol Qāder Bīdel (1644-1721) possesses a certain complement of qualities, which have been variously charactarised as “the apex of untoward image-creation, an overcrowding of the imagination” , and, with a bit more charity, as “a highly intricate cerebral formalism” . These observations indirectly address what this paper will refer to as the quintessential bleakness of Bīdel’s ghazals, an element not all that readily found in his other works.

How does this minor key of the ghazals harmonise with the rest of Bīdel’s corpus? What can we make of the contrast between these ghazals and the exuberant confidence of his autobiography, Chahār ⊂Onṣor (The Four Elements), or the steady Sufi-philosophical dispensation of Moḥīṭ-e A⊂z̧am (The Greatest Ocean), discussed by my co-panelists? What was it about Bīdel that made his ghazals turn sour? Or, to invert the question, what was it about the seventeenth-century Indo-Persian ghazal that caused one of the greatest Sufi poets of the time, known for spilling the banks of Persian, to run aground? Is it possible that Bīdel’s lyric bleakness ¬¬¬¬is not so much a wavering of his theological commitments as it is his aesthetic response to an aesthetic problem posed by the
Indo-Persian ghazal itself?

Relying on close readings of Bīdel’s ghazals that are especially representative of this bleakness, and paying particular attention to the unexpected use he makes of certain stock Sufi metaphors, this paper will attempt to present some possible answers to these questions, while also keeping in view a larger quarry: the elucidation of Bīdel’s role in the development of the increasingly complex Indo-Persian ghazal.

by Hajnalka Kovacs / University of Chicago

In the Muḥīṭ-i A`ẓam (“The Greatest Ocean,” 1667), his first long mystico-philosophical poem, composed in the form of a sāqīnāmah (poem to the cupbearer), the Indo-Persian poet Mirzā `Abd al-Qādir Bīdel (1644-1720) describes how the pre-eternal divine essence comes, like wine, into fermentation and results in the creation of the universe through a stage-by-stage ‘outpouring,’ or emanation. In the eight chapters of the poem, called dawrs, or “rounds,” the Unity of Being behind the multiplicity of the phenomena is described with the symbolism of wine within the framework of the conventions of the sāqīnāmah genre.

While meditations on the nature of speech/poetry have long been a conventional part of the Persian masnavīs as well as sāqīnāmahs, in Bīdel’s thought the problem of speech versus silence assumes a cosmological-ontological dimension and runs through the entire Muḥīṭ-i A`ẓam. For Bīdel, speech is not simply a human ability, but, in analogy to the Divine command “Be!” that brought the universe into existence, is inherently linked with the world of multiplicity, while silence constitutes the means to realize the unity behind multiplicity. Drawing on Bīdel’s meditations in dawrs 4, 7, and 8 of the Muḥīṭ-i A`ẓam, as well as in a prose composition of his titled “Favā’id-i Khāmūshī” (“Benefits of silence”) that forms part of his prose autobiographical work Chahār ‘Onṣor, I discuss Bīdel’s various approaches to the problem of “to speak or not to speak,” including his attempts to reconcile his poetic efforts to describe the “Tavern of Realities” with his belief that Reality cannot be expressed.

by Prashant Keshavmurthy / McGill University

In 1704 the Indo-Persian Sufi and poet Mirzā ‘Abdul Qādir ‘Bīdel’ completed an autobiography entitled 'Chahār ‘Onṣor' (The Four Elements). Into the fourth “Element” of this text he set an account of a portrait of himself painted around 1677 by Anūp Chhatr, a painter famous for his portraits in the imperial Mughal ateliers of the time. Initially refusing his painter-acquaintance permission to paint him, Bīdel finally yields and is astonished at how the resulting portrait duplicates him like a mirror. After marveling at it for a decade, he falls ill. His friends visit him in his sickbed and one of them, leafing through his anthology of texts, comes upon the painting. He exclaims at how faded it is. Bīdel himself can barely make it out on the page. When he recovers his health, he opens the anthology to examine the faded portrait and is astonished and shocked, as his friends are, to see that it has recovered its brilliant colors. He tears the painting up.

This essay reads this ekphrastic account of self-transformation as an autobiographical and iconoclastic interpretation, playing on scientific, philosophical, literary and painterly traditions of visuality, of Ibn ‘Arabi’s theory of the imagination. Among the questions that will be pursued are: what understandings of self and self-transformation did Bīdel renew by this interpretation? How is this episode a compression of concerns that pervade all of 'Chahār ‘Onṣor' ? What kind of reader and reading practices did this autobiography assume? And, finally, does an understanding, turning on this episode, of Bīdel’s iconoclastic self-transformation prepare us to better understand his works in other genres?