South Asia

Organized Panel Session

4 - Praising the Merchant: The Imaginaire of Mercantile Patronage in Tamil Muslim Literature

Saturday, July 7
2:40 PM - 4:10 PM
Location: Casuarina, Lower Ground Floor

For centuries, patronage of Tamil literature was located primarily at royal courts and religious institutions like temples and monasteries. Literature has been identified as one of the means through which the “inner makeup of the people at court” (Ebeling) or at religious institutions was constituted. Consequently, the imaginaire of literary patronage evoked the liberality and “consumptive excess” (Narayana Rao, Shulman & Subrahmanyam) of the patron, his martial and erotic prowess, and his religious devotion. These images persisted well into the colonial period, as princely states, zamindaris, temples, and monasteries continued to extend their patronage to traditional poetic forms.


However, from the late-sixteenth century onwards, Tamil literary patronage also began to spread among social groups that had hitherto played no role on the “economy of praise” (Ebeling) constituted by Tamil literature. This transformation is nowhere better observed than in the production of Muslim literature. Muslims had no role to play in Hindu religious institutions, and while they played vital roles for local states as financiers and soldiers, they remained ‘commoners’ on the fringes of courtly life. Nevertheless, the more affluent among them began patronizing the composition of Tamil poetry on Muslim themes. This forced poets to engage with the task of adjusting established imaginaires of praise to the new reality of merchant patrons. In this paper, I aim to trace the development of that engagement from the first references to the mercantile acumen of patrons around 1700 to the development of a full-fledged imaginaire of mercantile success by the late-nineteenth century.

Torsten Tschacher

Free University Berlin, Germany

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