Sunil Sharma, “Comparative Persianate Aesthetics Symposium,” Boston University, September 28-29, 2017

The “Comparative Persianate Aesthetics Symposium” was held at Boston University on September 28-29, 2017. It was organized by Professors Emine Fetvaci and Sunil Sharma. For the complete program, see: http://www.bu.edu/wll/comparative-persianate-aesthetics-symposium/.

Middle Eastern and South Asian studies in the last decade have been energized by the idea of the “Persianate” cultural realm, also discussed in scholarship as the “Persian cosmopolis” and “Persian republic of letters”, in which the Persian language and courtly conduct (adab) played a central role in societies from the Balkans to Bengal, creating a transnational Muslim cosmopolitanism. This intellectual framework has enabled scholars to examine modes of cultural exchange between powerful polities such as the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires, as well as with Europe. Gift-giving between the different courts resulted in a unprecedented movement of objects in this cultural region. Until today important paintings and manuscripts of literary and historical works are preserved in far-flung libraries from Sarajevo to Patna as scholars retrace their early modern itineraries. Almost half a dozen conferences and workshops in the last few years, as well as a steady body of scholarship in print, have engaged with the parameters of the idea of “Persianate”. However, aesthetic criteria grounded in classical Persian forms have almost always been privileged as the normative position in these investigations. This symposium focused on the changing relationship that literary and historical texts and paintings had to Persian cosmopolitan models in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and how they themselves became starting points for distinctive traditions that drew inspiration from local and regionally-specific cultural practices, including the non-courtly. We also examined the ways in which vernacular production in turn transformed Persian culture. Despite the interest in the unifying designation of Persianate among scholars of history, literature, and art history, there has been little comparative and cross-cultural research to understand the varying degrees of this influence on the literatures and arts in the three major empires. This topic was approached through a variety of conceptual frameworks: translation, imitation, hybridity, and innovation, across the disciplines of history, literature, and painting. The individual papers discussed textual genres such as epic and love lyrics, images in illustrated manuscripts and albums, practices and performances, in their cultural contexts, but also comparatively.