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Updated: November 27, 2012 02:43 IST

When cultures growl and negotiate

B. Surendra Rao
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COURTLY ENCOUNTERS — Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia: Sanjay Subrahmanyam; Harvard University Press, 79, Garden
Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. $ 29.95.
COURTLY ENCOUNTERS — Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia: Sanjay Subrahmanyam; Harvard University Press, 79, Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. $ 29.95.

A coming together of different religious cultures when the world was experiencing an early edition of globalisation

Most historians do not address with finesse or sophistication the problem of one culture making sense of another. They generally see it either in terms of crude differences or naïve similarities, and the readers too get indoctrinated into accepting them. But in historical analysis, as it is in our lives, the problem keeps teasing us. Do we or can we really understand another culture? Or, for that matter, do we understand our own? Here Sanjay Subrahmanyam makes a refreshing intervention by taking up ‘courtly encounters’ that involved various cultural forces of early modern Islam, the European currents of Catholicism and Protestantism and the representations of Hindu politico-cultural sphere when the world was experiencing an early edition of globalisation. The result is a splendid book of felicitous erudition and critical inquiry, which should make the readers think afresh.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam shows how the idea of “incommensurability” rendered famous by Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend in their discussion of scientific paradigms and of “indeterminacy of translation” by W.V.O. Quine impacted the attitude and practice of anthropologists and historians to believe in “largely impermeable cultural zones, perfectly coherent in and of themselves but largely inaccessible to those who look in from the outside.” But the book intends to demonstrate that commensurability had to be made by agents, and bridges between cultures had to be built rather than naturally existing in a state of nature. And similarly, translations are a two-way process, and “only an impoverished history will seek to ignore this fact.” The book brings out three instances of exchange as ‘Courtly Insults’, ‘Courtly Martyrdom’ and ‘Courtly Representations’, negotiating myriad literary texts and visual images and traversing a vast geographical and cultural canvas from Europe to India or even to Aceh.

Exchange of insults

The exchange of ‘courtly insults’ is linked to the much-advertised battle of Talikota of 1565, in which the confederate forces of five Deccani sultanates routed Vijayanagara army, killed its de facto ruler Rama Raya and put an end to the halcyon days of the Hindu empire. Going beyond the familiar terrain of historiography which variously fleshed out Robert Sewell’s thesis on Vijayanagara, Sanjay Subrahmanyam goes back to the contemporary or near contemporary sources such as Firishta, Ali bin Azizullah Tabataba, Hasan Shauqi and Aftabi and the Portuguese letters or works of Dom Antao de Noronha and Diogo do Couto to show how exchange of insults, “wide-ranging and non-sectarian,” particularly between Rama Raya and Husain Nizam Shah had precipitated the conflict. For all the invectives and perceived sense of insult, they are shown as suggestive of a deep sense of intimacy that existed among these courts, transcending the religious divide, and that Rama Raya was anything but a stranger to the sultans.

The ‘courtly martyrdom’ is prised out of the 17th century Portuguese work of Manuel Godinho de Eredia, who wrote on the services and martyrdom of Luis Monteiro Coutinho. A valorous sailor and a zealous Christian, Coutinho is shown as fighting Islam in its various manifestations: the Mapillas off the Kerala coast, the Mughals in northern India or the Acehnese off Singapore. The reckless valour of Coutinho, the intolerable travails he underwent in prison and his steadfastness in martyrdom which transformed him into the Soldier of Christ are brought out not only in words but also in reinforcing illustrations. Juxtaposing Eredia’s work with a few others, Sanjay Subrahmanyam argues that the work was intended to be a moral work to proclaim the ways of a good Christian in the face of polluting and seducing influences of Islam. It was also meant as a warning against too much truck with the enemy.

The third site of courtly encounter is one of ‘courtly representations’ in which the author explores the mutual artistic curiosities and indebtedness in Europe as well as the Safavid and Mughal domains. If the Archbishop of Canterbury received a collection of ragamala paintings, Rembrandt was not impervious to foreign influences. In fact, many Dutch painters like Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, Andries Beeckman, Willem Schellinks and others had absorbed the eastern cultures visually. Shellinks’ works on the Mughal court sought to rework Mughal miniatures into the vocabulary of Dutch naturalism of the 17th century.

Courtly Encounters does not give a naïve picture of cultural assimilation. Nor does it suggest that cultural encounters and transactions should only be located in courtly high culture. Instead, it provides certain historical contexts, in which cultures meet, collide, coalesce, growl at each other and negotiate with one another at the same time, and with easy conscience. Courtly culture is, historically, a more visible culture. The literary or the artistic productions which it sponsors or attracts, however, can unveil many contexts and tensions in which cultures are expressed or encountered. In the colonial framework encounters between cultures are often posited on their mutual incommensurability, and as defined by colonial arrogance, and Kipling’s oft-quoted assertion, “never the twain shall meet” has become its unfailing footnote. But, as Subrahmanyam rightly points out, one need not look for bridge-building initiatives to European agents alone. History playfully provides many instances of cultural encounters and dialogues. That history defies a single, simple narrative indeed constitutes its richness. This book decants it in full measure.

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