MESA Banner
The Mind-Bending Poets: the Aesthetics and Development of the khayālbandī Movement in Early Modern Persian Literary History

Session VI-15, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
In the late-sixteenth century, a generation of poets from Safavid Iran developed a new approach to Persian poetry that would be labelled by some later critics as khayālbandī—plausibly translated as mind-, thought-, or image-bending poetry. A divisive aesthetic mode, khayālbandī poetry embraced complexity and abstruseness in pursuit of the creation of highly-finessed poetic images, sometimes stretched to such an extent that critics would deem verses in this style to be effectively meaningless. Prominent and successful poets practiced khayālbandī across all the major genres of premodern Persian poetry, such that it became a recognized stylistic grouping within a diverse literary landscape. By the eighteenth century, its advocates were especially numerous in Persianate South Asia, where it would go on to be influential in the emergent Urdu literary tradition. Despite cutting a distinctive silhouette and casting a long shadow to those familiar with this period of Persian literary history, the precise aesthetics and history khayālbandī remain under-illuminated. Even basic facets of the movement, such as its canonical figures and texts and its core aesthetic principles, are still obscure to scholars of Persian literature. To address these and related issues, the papers constituting this panel will focus on the works and critical legacies of four major poets from Safavid Iran associated within and around this movement. One paper will examine the application of khayālbandī to the masnavī genre, through a close-reading of an extended vision sequence in the poet-philosopher Zulālī Khvānsārī’s (d.1615) narrative poem, Maḥmūd u Ayāz. The literary thought expressed by Ẓuhūrī Turshīzī (d.1616) in his influential prose collection Sih Nasr will be brought into conversation with the khayālbandī movement by another panelist, whilst our third paper will examine the use of metapoesis in the lyric poetry of a major pioneer of khayālbandī, Jalāl Asīr (d. ca. 1639), and its role in concretizing the principles of the movement. Our final paper will explore khayālbandī aspects in the lyrics of an early Urdu cohort led by writer Najm al-Dīn Ābrū (d. 1733) and its connections with the Persian verse of Ṣāʾib Tabrezī (d. 1676). In addition to signposting the landmarks and sharpening the contours of this misunderstood literary movement, a key aspiration of all the papers on this panel will be to generate fertile approaches to the critical study of khayālbandī in particular and emic stylistic terms in general.
  • The career of the Safavid poet Mīrzā Jalāl “Asīr” Shahristānī (d. ca. 1639) is remarkable in the history of Persian letters for a number of reasons, not least among them his pioneering of a new literary style and his apparent lack of formal patronage. The literary output of his short life took Persian lyric poetry in bold and experimental new directions, pushing meaning creation to its semantic limits. The approach to poetry he promoted went by various names (the “strange style” or ṭarz-i bīgāna, the “complex style” or ṭarz-i pechīda, or even “absolute poetry” or shiʿr-i muṭlaq), but perhaps came to be best known as khayālbandī, which I translate here as mind-bending poetry. His independent standing and self-indulgent poetry both came to exemplify a kind of “art for art’s sake” attitude central to the khayālbandī movement which spread across much of the Persianate world, becoming especially popular in South Asia. In this paper, I will discuss a central feature of Asīr’s poetry—his use of metapoesis—and argue that this technique helped shape the values of the khayālbandī movement and position Asīr as a figurehead for it. After drawing attention to Asīr’s penchant for writerly images and interlacing statements concerning the craft of poetry itself into the conventional images of Persian verse, the bulk of the paper will examine one ghazal which I infer to be a programmatic exploration of his ideas about poetry. Adopting the refrain of sukhan, a polyvalent word meaning both speech and poetry, and teeming with abstruse, grammatically ambiguous verses and abstract, metaphysical images, in both form and content I read the poem as a manifesto for the literary attitudes associated with khayālbandī. A close-reading of the poem will also reveal techniques by which conventional images of the Persian poetic universe—gardens, wine, and the coy beloved—were reworked by the mind-bending poets as analogies through which to contemplate what they considered to be the hidden subject of all poetic composition: poetry itself.
  • After two centuries of critical neglect and disparagement, Persian poetry of the early modern period has enjoyed increasing scholarly attention and appreciation over the last few decades. This revival has focused largely on the work of poets who emigrated from Iran to India and has left intact the historiographical truism that Safavid Iran was a doctrinaire literary wasteland. But even at the height of the great Indian migration between 1580 and 1625, not all the poets went to India. Biographical writing and the poetic archive alike attest that the Safavid realm was home to a dynamic literary culture, embracing many diverse conceptions of the nature and purpose of poetry. At the avant-garde end of this poetic spectrum lies the work of Zolāli Khvānsāri (d. ca. 1615). His work is marked by complex concatenations of image and metaphor, frequent word-play and neologism, and tightly compressed syntax, challenging the limits of both language and logic. Driven by the power of the imaginative faculty, his poetry reconfigures sensory perceptions and conventional topoi in an artistic enterprise that would come to be known as khayāl-bandi, “binding the imagination.” To show in detail how this poetics of the imagination shapes language, rhetoric, and narrative, this paper turns to a short passage from Zolāli’s longest narrative poem, Mahmud o Ayāz. At this point in the story, Mahmud has been abandoned by his beloved Ayāz, and for ten nights he fantasizes on one facet of Ayāz’s physiognomy, from his tresses and beauty mark to his neck and body. In Mahmud’s nocturnal khayāl-bāzi, “imagination games,” a single object becomes a vortex pulling in images from an expanse of semantic and experiential domains. Introducing this section and each of the ten episodes, the narrator presents the night of solitary vigil as the ideal setting for the play of imagination and weaves together the imaginative work of author and character. A variety of analytical tools, from traditional rhetorical devices to modern theories of metaphor, will help to show how a single image can serve to center the play of imagination even as it expands chaotically outward trough association and blending. This paper hopes to provide an entry point for understanding the artistic project of this challenging and little-read poet, whose impact would be felt in Persophone literature into the nineteenth century.
  • This paper addresses the issue of literary influence and emulation in 1720s and 1730s Delhi, during a phase in which Persianate literary styles were shifting. My foremost question is twofold: how did the khayālbandī style of Muḥammad ʿAlī “Ṣāʾib” Tabrezī (d. 1676), one of the most popular Persian-language writers for eighteenth-century Delhi, impact rekhta goʾyān (Urdu writers) of the emergent vernacular poetry scene, and how did rekhta writers impact Persian-language composition, the more popular approach of the time? To consider these questions, I focus on three poetry gatherings in which both Persian and rekhta (Urdu) verse circulated, hosted by Bindrāban Dās “Khvushgo” (d. ca. 1756), Sirāj al-Dīn ʿAlī Khān “Ārzū” (d. 1756), and Saʿdullah Khān “Gulshan” (d. 1728); except for Gulshan, these hosts kept detailed taẕkiras which provide much of the critical, narrative, and literary evidence for this inquiry. In addition to contributing their own Persian-language verse, the salon hosts welcomed the words of three rekhta-goʾī poets now held to be canonical founders of Urdu literature today, though their style, which indulged amphibology or īhām-goʾī, would fall out of favor in the 1740s and 1750s. The three poets were Najm al-Dīn “Ābrū” (d. 1733), Ẓuhūr al-Dīn “Ḥātim” (d. 1791), and Sharaf al-Dīn “Mażmūn” (d. ca. 1735). Initial findings reveal Ābrū’s, Ḥātim’s, and Mażmūn’s ghazals have suffered from nearly three hundred years of neglect as inadequate labels applied in the 1740s propagated themselves with little critical engagement among analyses of subsequent literary historians. By examining the literary speech of Ābrū, Ḥātim, and Mażmūn within the context of 1720s and 1730s salons we witness that verse produced in this cohort was vital to Delhi’s literary scene and would remain so beyond its supposed fall from favor in the 1750s. One of the foremost reasons for this concerned Mażmūn, Ḥātim, Ābrū’s emulation of Ṣāʾib. Mażmūn wrote famous rekhta ġhazals based upon models from Ṣāʾib, Ḥātim considered Ṣāʾib a teacher in absentia, and Ābrū was held be a rekhta reincarnation of Ṣāʾib and was otherwise known as “the Ṣāʾib of the Age.” Ābrū, Ḥātim, and Mażmūn constructed a sociable form of literary modernism based on vernacular idioms and aesthetics, emulating the khayālbandī for which Ṣāʾib was famous and favored among Delhi’s literati. In turn, a historically informed reassessment of Persianate associational and emulative connections during 1720s and 1730s literary society helps to reconfigure the scale and scope of Indo-Persian and Urdu literary histories.
  • This paper focuses on the ornate prose style developed by the sixteenth-century Iranian poet Nūr al-Dīn Muḥammad Ẓuhūrī Turshīzī (d. 1616), who spent most of his career at the Niẓām Shāhī and ʿĀdil Shāhī courts in what is today south-central India. Ẓuhūrī’s corpus includes ghazals, rubāʿīs, and qasīdas, in addition to his influential Sāqī-nāma (Book of the Cupbearer) and Sih Nas̱r (Three Essays). Later biographers group him under the general categories of shīva-yi tāza (“fresh style”) and shiʿr-i bīgāna (“strange poetry”). Seventeenth-century writer Munīr Lahawrī even makes the case that in his poems, Ẓuhūrī pushes meaning’s boundaries further than many of his contemporaries. Despite Ẓuhūrī’s prominence in literary histories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—and the extensive reception histories of both the Sāqī-nāma and Sih Nas̱r —his work has received relatively little recent scholarly attention. My paper will address the question of what considering works of ornate prose can contribute to present understandings of the literary movement termed khayāl-bandī by some critics. I will focus on Ẓuhūrī’s use of abstract imagery in his prose works, centering my analysis on the third and most complex of the three essays: Khwān-i Khalīl (The Table of Khalīl). By considering how the author incorporates familiar images and tropes in surprising and often challenging ways, I will argue that the form of the ornate prose treatise served as an arena for the theorization and exposition of literary virtues also visible in his poetry. In the form of a work in praise of his patron Ibrāhīm ʿĀdil Shāh II of Bijapur, Ẓuhūrī composed an exemplary text of a new kind of prose writing in Persian, layering poetic devices and employing increasingly abstract images to the point of near incomprehensibility. To better understand the role of these abstruse passages, I will turn in the final section of my paper to expositions of Ẓuhūrī’s use of abstraction in an eighteenth-century commentary on the Sih Nas̱r. By doing so, I seek to develop a more specific vocabulary for describing the “new style” promoted by Ẓuhūrī and many of his contemporaries, as well as the relationship between poems and works of prose that served as sites for literary experimentation.