Tuesday Talk - March 26, 2019

The Great Indian Epic that You've Never Heard Of

Speaker: Fran Pritchett, Professor Emerita of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies;
Special Lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies

Anyone who enjoys Tolkien or Harry Potter (or, for that matter, Marvel comics) has a kindred spirit in the first great Mughal emperor, Akbar (r.1556-1605). He so cherished his favorite Persian magical and romantic epic, the dastan of Amir Hamzah, that he not only told stories from it to the ladies of the harem, but also commissioned a spectacular set of paintings to illustrate it. By the nineteenth century this dastan had become widely popular in Urdu as well. Then in the 1880's something remarkable happened: the one-volume-sized story suddenly ballooned into a version of 46 huge volumes, a version so endlessly popular that the demand surprised even the publishers. How did the story-tellers accomplish such an extravagant narrative feat? What was the expanded story like?

Fran Pritchett has been working for years to rescue and preserve these 46 volumes, and the Columbia University Libraries are now bringing this project to fruition.