Rasa and Romance: The Madhumalati of Shaikh Manjhan Shattari

Behl, Aditya

     A problem in viewing pre-modern Indian cultural history is religious syncretism, a term used by colonialist and nationalist critics to explain texts and practices which combine elements of Hindu and Muslim religious cultures in forming a Sufi community. One of the major genres of Hindi poetry is the Avadhi Sufi premakhyan or love-story. The genre includes the Padmavat of Malik Muhammad Jayasi and the Madhumalati of Shaikh Manjhan Shattari. The central argument of this thesis is that these works are part of a distinctive religious culture, and redefine the canons of Indian literature to create a sophisticated Avadhi poetics and narrative grammar for Sufi metaphysics.
     Chapter One discusses the evidence for looking at the premakhyans and examines the reading communities for these texts. Chapter Two isolates a distinctive narrative logic for the genre, focusing on the triangular love-relationship which is repeatedly invoked by the poets. Chapter Three examines the courtly addressees of the Madhumalati, and sets the text within the sixteenth-century struggles between Afghans and Mughals for control over northern India. The Shattaris sided with Babur and Humayun, and Humayun arranged his court according to a planetary scheme which is part of Shattari cosmology. Rather than a popular syncretistic movement, the Shattaris represent one group among many competing religious movements.
     In Chapter Four, the forms of beauty referred to in the premakhyan are shown to be a translation of Shattari Sufi metaphysics. Madhumalati the heroine, becomes an emblem for the descent of divinity into the world. The poetic description of Madhumalati's body is set within the gender politics of the male-authored romance. In Chapter Five, the fantastic landscapes described by the poet are linked to the different stages of the descent of the soul from a heavenly realm. The conclusion places the Madhumalati as an example of religious and literary canon-formation in premodern India. The literary dynamics of the genre refer both to a generic poetics and to a wider system of Sufi practice, helping us to redefine the stereotype of religious syncretism.