Imperial Landscapes, Imperial Archives

Fatima Burney


As W. J. T. Mitchell has compelling argued in his essay “Imperial Landscape”, landscape thinking had forceful impact on eighteenth and nineteenth century historiographies and, as such, on the systematization and codification of historical records. This paper illuminates the organizational strategies employed in Indian Romantic historiographies and modern conceptions of community formation through Mitchell’s conception of the ‘landscape’.1 In particular, my research tracks the reframing of literary material through the rubric of ‘nature’ in Urdu poetry and literary history.2 The rise of landscape-thinking in nineteenth century Urdu record-keeping was partly engendered by its encounter with British colonial administrative methods but it was also responsive to wider socio-economic shifts that, I argue, have shaped the normative view of an ‘archive’. I will sketch the nineteenth century transformation and reconstitution of premodern Persianate traditions of record keeping in North India by highlighting the reformation of two types of records; the tazkirah (a Persianate tradition sometimes translated as poetic anthology and/or biography) and the ghazal (a poetic form comprised of a series of couplets with a shared refrain).3 As I will demonstrate, these premodern forms of literary compilation offered more ‘kaleidoscopic’ and ‘anthological’ structures for documentation which were particularly suited to the manuscript, rather than print, culture in which they had circulated for centuries. In contrast, late nineteenth century cultural reformists imagined (and succeeded in implementing) a more ‘streamlined’ and subject-oriented organization of poetic material that particularly served the function of articulating a ‘national history’ as the (re)collective memory of ‘the people’. By highlighting the shifts in record keeping that the influence of British colonial ‘landscape thinking’ had on Persianate record culture, this study considers how these disparate cultures of penmanship differed in their understanding of the function and nature of the ‘document’ and, indeed, its archive.


Fatima Burney is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her research at SOAS is part of a European Research Council funded project titled “Multilingual Localities and Significant Geographies”. She received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of California Los Angeles in 2017 and her Bachelor of Arts in South Asian Studies from Wellesley College in 2010. Fatima’s research examines ‘reading’ and aesthetic practices from the eighteenth century to the present with specific interest in the differences and interactions between oral and written practices. Her dissertation project, “The Inside Outdoors”, traced the relationship between Urdu and Anglophone poetry through the introduction and integration of new forms of literary representation and organization such as the reclassification of the ghazal as a ‘lyrick’ in discourses of World literature and British Orientalist Philology. More broadly, Fatima’s research on British Colonial India examines the role of archiving in the conceptualization and management of native populations and highlights the particular challenges of classifying and organizing materials from an ‘alien’ culture. Her forthcoming research engages with more contemporary issues on the circulation of poetry in new media, such as film and television.

1 Mitchell understands the landscape “not [simply] as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but as a process by which social and subjective identities are formed”. He writes “landscape is a dynamic medium, in which we ‘live and move and have our being,’ but also a medium that is itself in motion from one place or time to another. In contrast to the usual treatment of landscape aesthetics in terms of fixed genres (sublime, beautiful, picturesque, pastoral), fixed media (literature, painting, photography), or fixed places treated as objects for visual contemplation or interpretation, [we must] examine the way landscape circulates as a medium of exchange, a site of visual appropriation, a focus for the formation of identity.
W. J. T. Mitchell. “Imperial Landscape.” Landscape and Power. 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 1-2.
2 I will illustrate that the very translated understanding of ‘nature’ in these writings can best be understood as a form of landscape thinking.
3 As I will explain more thoroughly in the paper, the Urdu literary tradition was significantly influenced by cosmopolitan Persianate literary traditions that pervaded much of the Middle East, Central Asia, India and, of course, modern-day Iran during this period. We can argue that the modern Urdu literary tradition ‘emerges’ at the intersection of British Colonial and Persianate language practices.