Organized Panel Session
Persian language historical writing—comprising works like chronicles and memoirs—flourished in South Asia between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. These works are commonly associated with the courtiers, elite scholars and service figures who were dependent on imperial and aristocratic patronage. How then are we to understand the appearance of Persian historical writings in the late-eighteenth century that were produced at a distance from courtly settings—for instance, by itinerant soldiers? This talk focuses on Qāsim ‘Alī Khān Āfrīdī (d. 1825), a prolific Afghan mercenary based in North India who wrote collections of poetry and a historical account of his lineage centered on their encounter with a range of political regimes. I will argue that three factors—the context of Mughal decentralization, changes in the military service culture, and conditions unleashed by the early conquests of the East India Company—made it possible for figures like Āfrīdī to become autonomous observers of political change. The implication of my claim is to show how the Persianate culture of South Asia developed a much broader social constituency than the courtly world and retained a dynamism across the early-modern/colonial divide, generating a new social location for a new kind of writer: the non-elite historian.