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  • In the Age of Non-Mechanical Reproduction:Manuscript Variation in Early-Modern South Asia
  • Arthur Dudney and Neeraja Poddar

Manuscript studies, South Asia, early-modern, transmission, copying, reproduction, circulation, pothi, codex, book history, manuscript variation, plagiarism, Persian, intertextuality, manuscript, painting, illustration

Humanistic scholarship on South Asia has become increasingly interested in examining culture not as a monolith but as a field where the actors, objects, and ideas are mobile and frequently altered by interactions with each other.1 Recent publications in art history, literary studies, history, and religious studies have taken notice of this dynamism and concern themselves with the "circulation of culture—its [End Page 1] producers, products, and practices."2 As opposed to privileging an "original" avatar with a fixed meaning, which has been the fate of many itinerant objects and texts that have previously been studied, scholars have begun to probe the layers of meaning acquired by texts and objects that move across time, place, and contexts, their mobility forming them into hybrid products shaped from myriad points of contact.3 These objects and texts are frequently treated as sites where the interface between cultures can be traced; a large proportion of new scholarship on such questions is focused on the encounter of Indic artistic and literary idioms and practices with Islam.

The introduction and articles in this special issue, which began as a panel we organized at the European Conference on South Asian Studies at the University of Warsaw in 2016, add to this literature on circulation. But they shift the emphasis away from mobility and cross-cultural exchange and concern themselves primarily with "multiples"—the multiple iterations, versions, interpretations, and uses of a text or artwork that facilitate circulation. Concentrating on works in transit, they explore the themes of copying, repetition, and reproduction in the context of early-modern South Asian manuscripts. Included are works in the pothī (loose-leaf), codex, and scroll format, with and without illustrations, and ranging in genre from literature and religious treatises to dictionaries and other reference works. Common to them is the fact that multiple versions and editions of each were made through copying by hand.

Taking into account the somewhat unpredictable nature of human agency, the articles examine the tangible impact of transmission processes on the meaning of a particular work. The result of non-mechanical reproduction is that copies might not be "perfect" because of variations introduced by artists, scribes, and editors, either deliberately or inadvertently, into illustrations and texts. Our purpose is to consider the significance of [End Page 2] such variations to understand how books were valued, used, and disseminated. Rather than thinking of variations as merely discrepancies or mistakes, we regard them as junctures where the authors' or artists' engagement with contemporary sectarian concerns, literary trends, artistic strategies, and popular culture may be manifest. The questions that have guided our contributors include: What is the core of a text? Which viewpoint is preferred at a particular historical moment? How are narratives transformed as they are copied? What is the impact of scribal error when such an error becomes sanctified by usage? To what degree was a pre-modern author thought of as the owner of his or her work? What purchase does our understanding of intertextuality and plagiarism have in the past? Woven through the articles is a deliberation on agency—how do we ascribe agency to copyists, editors, scribes, and other persons who are not the "creators" of a work but nevertheless have an impact on its meaning?

In its exploration of the mechanics of transmission, we see this issue as contributing to a broader understanding of circulation in early-modern South Asia. The approach adopted by most of our authors—combining a grasp of the contexts in which specific versions were making meaning, with detailed analyses of texts and illustrations—is applicable to multiples produced in a variety of formats and across modern academic disciplines. The different case studies demonstrate similar concerns, stressing the need for and advantage of interdisciplinary dialogue. Moreover, they all advocate a return to objects (in the plural), rather than relying on a single, standardized, published, or original one, as the means to a...


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