South Asia Colloquium Presents: Tony K. Stewart

Thursday, September 11, 2014 - 11:45am

Van Pelt Library, Class of '55 Room (2nd Floor)

"The Subjunctive Explorations of Pīr Kathā: Fictive Sufi Discourse in Premodern Bengal"


Tony K. Stewart

Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities

Professor and Chair, Department of Religious Studies

Vanderbilt University


Abstract: One of the great ironies in the literatures devoted to the pīrs of Bengal is the fact that stories about Sufi holy men and women—warriors and saints who are attested in the Persian and Bangla chronicles and whose dargās dot the Bengali landscape—are subject to a constant revision and accretion prompted by ever-changing political needs, while the stories of the fictive pīrs have remained more or less constant over the last five centuries. Fictive pīrs originate in narrative, a legacy of a now-shared memory. There is no evidence that they were historical personages, though several have somehow managed to be blessed with tombs erected by their followers. Scholars of all types find them vulgar: Bengali literary historians eager to build a national literature dismissed the tales as folklore or women’s stories; linguists pronounced their language as not Bangla; Orientalists depicted them as evidence of the fantastical aberrations of a local syncretistic Islam; and of course reform-minded Islamists have savaged these stories as un-Islamic and heretical, a legacy of degradation that must be effaced. Yet somehow the tales of the fictive pīrs—such as Satya Pīr, Mānik Pīr, Baḍa Khān Gājī, and matronly figures such as Olābībī and Bonbībī—not only survived, but continue to circulate today with a wide-ranging popularity in all parts of the Bangla-speaking world, though most prominently in the southern reaches. Their stories are performed in jātrā plays and pāñcālī productions, their texts cheaply printed for easy circulation, and their pūjās (yes,pūjās) are performed regularly. With such persistence and popularity, just what is the secret of their persistent claim on Bengalis, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that allows them to flourish for so long and without change? What kind of work do these stories really do?