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An Evocation and a Lament

Francesca Orsini

By Mushirul Hasan
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 281, Rs. 650.00


This is a passionate book on an important subject. It is at one time an evocation of north Indian qasbas, a history of the families and individuals who had their roots in the qasbas but played important roles on the wider stage of the nationalist movement and after, and a lament for the decline of the qasbas and their culture after 1947. The focus is on the Kidwai family of Masauli in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but interwoven with their personal vicissitudes are the histories of other famous qasbas like Rudauli, Sandila, Dewa, Amroha and Bilgram, of their more or less celebrated sons, and of the modern institutions which Muslim professionals and men of learning helped to create—the Muslim University in Aligarh, newspapers and political associations in Lucknow, Tibbiya College and Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi.   A qasba is ‘something between a village and a town’. As the officer compiling the report on the Permanent Settlement of Bara Banki district put it rather more precisely: “A Kasbah is a Muslim settlement in a defensible military position, generally the site of an ancient Hindu headquarters town or port, where, for mutual protection, the Mussulmans who had over-run and seized the proprietary rights of surrounding villages resided, where the foujdar and his troops, the parganah kanungo and chaudhuri, the m’afti, the kazi, and high dignitaries lived, and as must be the case, where the wealth and power of the Moslem sect was collected in one spot, a large settlement of Syuds [Sayyids], mosques, dargas, & C., sprung up” (quoted pp. 11-12). In other words, a qasba is distinguished from a village by its concentration of people of wealth and social and religious standing. Visually, it is marked by pukka houses and havelis, by mosques, dargahs and other religious buildings, and by walled gardens, groves and gates. Socially, it consisted of ashraf families, comprising landowners, soldiers, administrators, scholars, theologians and Sufis, and of local officials and craftsmen.   Far from being distant and backward outposts, Mushirul Hasan argues in this book, qasbas in north India were centres of rural power as well as of learning and piety, in direct and constant traffic with urban centres and with each other. At the same time, qasbas fostered ‘an awareness of the cultural uniqueness of a specifically local domain’ (p. 17), manifested in the pride with which scholars, poets and Sufis attached toponyms to their names, in ...

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