This year, the Sohaib & Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, in collaboration with the Center for South Asia and the Division of International, Comparative and Area Studies, launched a new postdoctoral fellowship in Literary Cultures of Muslim South Asia. Hajnalka Kovacs was selected as its 2013-2014 recipient. Kovacs holds an M.A. in Indian and Iranian Studies from Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary, and an M.A. in Urdu Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia, India. She received her Ph.D. in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago.
How did you become interested in the literary cultures of Muslim South Asia?
I began studying Indian languages and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary. My initial training included Hindi and Sanskrit, but when I travelled to India to study Urdu literature, I came across the works of the renowned literary critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, which opened my eyes to the poetics and aesthetics of pre-modern Urdu and Persian poetry.
Please tell us about your research.
My research explores the complex intersections between literary aesthetics and religious beliefs in Indo-Persian and classical Urdu poetry during the 17th and 18th centuries. In my earlier work, I explored the limitations of applying the notion of “Sufi poetry” to the lyrical output of a practicing Sufi such as the Urdu poet Khwājah Mīr Dard (1720-1785). In my doctoral dissertation, I focused on the Mirza Abd al-Qadir Bedil (1644-1720)’s Muhit-i Azam (“The Greatest Ocean”), illustrating the ways in which this complex mystico-philosophical poem radically transforms the saqinamah genre and embodies a unique synthesis of Ibn Arabi’s theoretical Sufism and contemporaneous Indian religious and cultural ideas.
How does your doctoral research contribute to the scholarship on South Asian literatures?
Literary aspects of Bedil’s oeuvre have been rather neglected in the scholarly literature. There has been a tendency among researchers to list themes recurring in his poetry and then illustrate them with excerpts. Bedil’s work has also been put in the service of various ideologies: He has been regarded as an enlightened Sufi in Afghanistan, as an advocate of religious pluralism in South Asia, and as a proto-socialist philosopher in Soviet Central Asia. In his work we can certainly find ideas which, when lifted out of context, can be used to support such statements. I however prefer not to forget that he is first and foremost a poet, and I seek to examine his works with the methods of literary criticism. For example, I always keep in view that although he explored the key issues of Sufi thought, he did it within the conventions of a particular genre. Therefore, I evaluate each thematic element in his poetry not in isolation but on the basis of its relation to the specific poem’s generic and conceptual framework as well as against the backdrop of the larger literary tradition. What emerges from such an intertextual reading is an extremely innovative and creative poet who consciously manipulated the linguistic, stylistic, and generic norms to express multiple layers of meaning.
How does the postdoctoral fellowship contribute to your career as a scholar of literary cultures of Muslim South Asia?
First of all, the fellowship gives me the opportunity to continue my research on Bedil and turn my dissertation into a book manuscript. It also allows me to diversify my teaching portfolio. I have substantial experience in teaching intermediate and advanced Hindi and Urdu. At Stanford, on the other hand, I will be teaching an undergraduate course on Urdu short stories from India and Pakistan, and an advanced reading course on Bedil’s autobiographical work, Chahār `Unṣur.