As against the self-representation of the state found in the Mughal archive, how was the state perceived by ordinary subjects residing in Mughal cities and qasbas? Of course, there is no easy answer to the question, not least because the subjects were socially divided along lines of class, caste, and region. However, the question I ask here is slightly more nuanced and complex: how was the state discussed and debated in spaces of dialogic communication where social actors could, despite their social differences, institute and reproduce shared norms of rule and understandings of sovereignty? While consensus has expectedly been elusive, historians of early modern South Asia, me included, have been inclined to see these spaces as constituting a ‘public sphere’. I seek here to explore the personality and distinctiveness of the early modern public sphere in South Asia, but in doing so I focus on the representation of the state, in particular the critique of rulers, ruling classes, and petty local officials, in poetic assemblies, recitations in market-places, and the literary culture.
Political critiques and the development of the early modern public sphere: somatic articulations in the literary culture
I wish to look at the nature and peculiarities of the South Asian early modern public sphere, and draw attention to the extent to which discourses relied on embodiment and sensoriality to represent and critique the state. In an important study, Christian Lee Novetzke has argued that a kind of nascent public sphere had emerged in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with the vernacular movement in western India, and one of its achievements was that it attacked and undermined caste and Brahmanical ritual. Given its imbrications with shifting perceptions of the body, he views it as constituting a ‘quotidian revolution’. Of course, I am referring here to quite a different social formation, but the early modern public sphere did have a distinct sense of embodiment about it, and debates and positions were often defended through invocation of both intense emotions and embodied experiences, and logic and rationality. I argue from my study of the language of literary protest and the semiotics of emotions that the public sphere in the eighteenth century was also quotidian, and could, perhaps, be seen as constituting ‘the second quotidian revolution’. My study draws attention to the shared expectations of rule that these literary assaults on the ruling elites and petty officials represented, and served to reproduce within a shared but conflictual arena. Language was crucial, and while there were, perhaps, a richer vocabulary and a more elaborate system of metaphors, allusions, and symbols in the vernacular literature with which to attack state officials, the public sphere was indeed a multilingual space, and was not quite segregated along language boundaries. As it is, ideas and symbols easily moved from one language to another within a linguistic culture marked by incessant boundary-crossing.
In the last several decades, historians have recovered a wide range of vernacular sources in which the locally rooted literati composed poems in praise of their rulers and patrons. In some cases, these patrons happened to be local chieftains, but in several others, a Mughal king, a prince, or a high official.