Dr. Jyoti Gulati Balachandran is a historian of medieval and early modern South Asia with a focus on the history of Muslim communities in Gujarat and the wider Indian Ocean world. She is an Edward J. and Eleanor Black Nichols University Endowed Fellow in History and Associate Professor of History at Penn State University. She also serves as the Penn State faculty liaison for the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum, a Mellon-funded initiative through which Big Ten universities share courses via video-conferencing technology.
Dr. Balachandran is the author of Narrative Pasts: The Making of a Muslim Community in Gujarat, 1400-1650 (OUP, 2020), a finalist for the British South Asian Studies Association Book Prize 2022. Her current research focuses on reconstructing scholarly connections between Gujarat and the Red Sea region in the sixteenth century through a variety of Arabic textual materials.
We talk to Jyoti about her journey into academia, research, Sufi heritage and history in Gujarat and how understanding our past helps our future.
You have a love and passion for history, growing up did you always have a connection to history and cultural heritage?
I grew up in Delhi, a city rich in history and cultural heritage. However, as a Delhi resident, I took much of it for granted – the ruins and historical buildings were a mere backdrop as I went about my daily life. I do remember hearing bits and pieces of familial history while growing up. My great grandmother would sometimes share stories of the horror her family had gone through during the 1947 Partition, but I was too young to fully comprehend those stories. My parents never really talked about growing up in newly independent India and I didn’t have the maturity to ask them those kinds of questions. My school education where the approach to history was largely geared towards memorizing facts and performing well on exams wasn’t particularly helpful in developing a love for the subject. My path to history was very happenstance and coincidental. I didn’t think too much about long term career trajectory, but each step led to another, and I haven’t looked back since then. It continues to be a journey of immense growth and learning that I hope never ends.
Did you study history and/or heritage? What was your learning journey?
In part thanks to my high school history teacher, I decided to pursue history as my primary field of study at Delhi University. By the end of college, I was pretty sure that I wanted to specialize in the medieval period of Indian history – I just wasn’t satisfied by how much I knew about this period compared to the attention the ancient and modern periods of Indian history had been given throughout school and college. I suppose on some subconscious level, I had wanted to make sense of the past that surrounded me, particularly the historical buildings that are the towering landmarks of my city – from the Qutb Minar to the Red Fort. I was fortunate enough to have teachers who guided me in the right direction – from learning Persian and Arabic right after graduation to providing a rigorous training in critical reading and writing. The ability to read and engage with fourteenth-century Persian texts written by Sufis in Delhi, the focus of my M.Phil. dissertation at Delhi University under the late Dr. Sunil Kumar, has remained one of the high points of my journey. I was able to build upon this training in Delhi University as a Ph.D. student at UCLA. Indeed, I spent the first several months at UCLA completely in awe of the resources and infrastructure available to facilitate my growth as a scholar, not to mention the opportunity to learn from historians who worked on different geographical areas outside of South Asia. The research for my Ph.D. took me to several archives and libraries in Gujarat and over the years I have spent significant amount of time in Ahmedabad which feels like a city I know better than Delhi in some ways! One of the most incredible parts of this journey has been the kindness of people I’ve met during my travels in Gujarat – people willing to share their knowledge, eager to support me in my endeavors, offer advice and encouragement. Working in the archives can be such a solitary experience so these social connections have really sustained me in important ways. I finished my Ph.D. in 2012 which then became the foundation for my first book that came out in 2020.
You have a desire and dedication to document the heritage and the culture in India. Why is this important to you?
I’m not sure if I would define what I do in those terms! But, yes, I’m certainly interested in researching and writing about a certain period of the past that concerns the Indian subcontinent. And it is important to me because it is something that challenges me intellectually. However, I do recognize that there are bigger stakes involved in relation to what I study, especially in the current political climate in India where India’s medieval past is continuously erased and mischaracterized to justify the Hindu right agenda. I still remember how one of my extended family members reacted to the fact that I was interested in the history of Muslim communities; he asked me why I study “their” histories and not “ours”. It is an ongoing struggle to explain, especially to family members, how deeply problematic such understandings of South Asia’s past are. And it is my hope that through my work I’m able to make a small contribution to show how incredibly rich and diverse the history of the region is.
Your research focuses on social and cultural histories of Muslim communities in Gujarat and the western Indian Ocean. Can you tell us why it is important for us to develop our understanding of these communities?
Islam in all its diversity has been an integral part of how cultures in the Indian subcontinent developed, and Gujarat in particular has been home to some of the earliest Muslim communities in the region given its trading connections across the western Indian Ocean. So on one level, an understanding of these communities demonstrates that the history of India cannot be confined to the modern boundaries of the nation state. Gujarat, and South Asia more broadly, has been historically connected to other geographies through the circulation of a variety of people, ideas, and commodities. My focus on the social and cultural aspects of Muslim communities is an attempt to shift away from the conventional focus in modern historiography on military histories – “the rise of Muslim power” -- to explain the growth of Muslim communities. The social and cultural aspects were more enduring than the political fortunes of the sultans who ruled Gujarat, and I focus on one such aspect relating to the significant role the sufistic community – sufi masters, their descendants, their texts, and tomb shrines played in defining the region and its history. Expanding our understanding of Muslim communities in all its socio-cultural complexity is important to break away from the very narrow state-centered approach that tends to privilege the historical records created by and for the rulers.
Can you tell us about your book Narrative Pasts, what was the intention behind it?
One of the main intentions behind the book was to make sense of the corpus of texts from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries that narrated the lives and teachings of three fifteenth-century Sufis who arrived in Gujarat around the same time as the independent sultanate of Gujarat was taking shape. Since I had previously worked with Sufi literature for my M.Phil. thesis, it was a genre that I was interested in exploring further in other regional contexts. However, it was not only texts. As I conducted my fieldwork in Ahmedabad, I discovered that there are significant tomb-shrine complexes that had marked the burial sites of these Sufis as well. Yet, there was very little systematic historical engagement with this time-period or these historical texts and buildings. By tracing the ways through which fifteenth-century Sufis acquired such a prominent space in contemporary historical imagination, and how the memory of their role in local communities changed over time, thus became a primary line of inquiry for me to analyze broader historical processes.
What are some of the themes that come through your research within the book?
One of the main themes in the book concerns the intersections between the Sultans of Gujarat and the Sufis who settled in and around Ahmedabad in shaping the history and identity of the Muslim community in the region. Even though there is comprehensive inscriptional and architectural evidence of the presence of Muslim communities prior to the fifteenth century, it is only with the establishment of the Gujarat Sultanate that we begin to see the production of a greater variety of Persian texts – not just those that narrated the victories of the Gujarat Sultans, but also those that centered Sufis and narrated their lives, travels, and teachings to the expanding Muslim community in central Gujarat. These texts are often read separately from each other and my book attempts to read them together to demonstrate the conjoined processes of community formation. Another theme relates to the way Sufi texts can be used to write broader social histories of an expanding multi-generational network of Sufi disciples and descendants in Gujarat. And as the historical context of these texts changed between the fifteenth and the seventeenth century, it also becomes possible to discern the confidence with which the descendants were able to reflect upon the nature of their ancestors’ interventions in the prospering of a Muslim community as well as a long-standing attachment to the region of Gujarat.
The Sufi heritage and history is prominent to the historical identity to Gujarat. Can you tell us more about this history and what that tells us about today?
Yes, that’s right, Sufis and their practice has played a tremendous role in Gujarat’s historical identity. It is no surprise that many of the Sufis that I’ve looked at are recognized as the “awliya’ of Gujarat”, irrespective of their varied geographical ancestries. And of course, this phenomenon is not unique to Gujarat as Sufism has historically been a prominent part of South Asian Islam since the thirteenth century. The spiritual practice of charismatic Sufis encouraged the cohering of local Muslim communities whose members could seek guidance from the Sufis with respect to Islamic belief and orthopraxis. The fifteenth-century Sufis that I discuss in my book continue to be very relevant today as their tomb shrines are prominent centers of pilgrimage where anyone can seek the blessings of the buried Sufis. There is one exception though in the case of the shrine complex of Shaykh Ahmad Khattu (d. 1442) that has evolved into more of a tourist attraction than a busy pilgrimage site. This Sufi did not have a clear line of spiritual succession unlike his contemporary Suhrawardi Sufis and that in part explains the divergent fortunes of their tomb shrines. I should also add that there are many more Sufi shrines from different time periods present throughout Gujarat and their presence and popularity is a reminder of the ways in which Sufis have left an indelible mark on the history of Gujarat.
Narrative Pasts demonstrates that Gujarat was not only an important hub of maritime Indian Ocean trade, but also an integral part of the historical and narrative processes that shaped medieval and early modern South Asia. In what ways did this happen?
Much like its connections across the Indian Ocean world, Gujarat’s connections to other parts of South Asia were sustained by a variety of overland trade routes over which a diverse set of people circulated. To give an example, the Sufis who established their residences in the central plains of Gujarat in the fifteenth century came from urban and rural communities in the north and northwestern Indian subcontinent. Their personal journeys, often undertaken voluntarily but sometimes also forced due to political circumstances, brought them in contact with other scholars, political elites as well as Persian literary traditions increasingly used to communicate the lives and practice of Sufis in cities like Delhi. Similarly, the founder of the Gujarat Sultanate had longstanding ties to Delhi and its Sultans and actively participated in the extension of their political authority in north and northwestern India. In other words, the nature of historical developments that we see in Gujarat in the medieval and early modern period – from state formation, expansion of Sufi residences, production of specific kinds of Persian literary production – are better understood in relation to developments in north India and the Deccan because of Gujarat’s ongoing ties to those geographies, as much as its connections across the Indian Ocean.
What is the connection between Gujarat’s sultanate and Mughal past with the larger history of Islamic South Asia?
That’s a vast question and it depends on how we define “Islamic” South Asia. Very broadly though if by Islamic South Asia we mean that part of South Asian history that was embedded in and drew its inspiration from Islam and its attendant cultural and intellectual forms, then let me say that Gujarat’s sultanate and Mughal past are an indispensable part of the larger history of Islamic South Asia. For example, it is during this period that Gujarat’s historical maritime links across the western Indian Ocean expanded to include not only commercial connections, but also scholarly and intellectual ties to the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. The Gujarat Sultans were great patrons of Muslim scholars from the Red Sea region, many of whom settled in Gujarat and the Deccan and dedicated themselves to the cultivation of a wide variety of Islamic knowledge systems. The intellectual and pilgrimage ties continued into the Mughal period and places like Patan and Ahmedabad were renowned for their multi-generational scholarly families, their schools of learning and libraries. Gujarat was of course valued by the Gujarat Sultans and the Mughal Emperors for the profits that trade through this region brought to their realms, but Gujarat’s geographical location also made it a crucial hub for the movement of learned Muslim men of varying intellectual and spiritual persuasion that contributed to a robust Islamic cultural complex in South Asia.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a fascinating sixteenth-century Muslim intellectual from Gujarat, Qutb al-Din al-Nahrawali, who settled in Mecca and at the height of his career was appointed as the jurist of Mecca by the Ottoman Sultan. He is famous for writing a history of Mecca and a history of the Ottoman conquest of Yemen, but there’s much else that he wrote as well that hasn’t been fully explored. I’m interested in looking at al-Nahrawali not only as my guide to recover scholarly connections between the Hejaz and Gujarat, but also integrate Arabic historical materials to the modern historiography on early modern South Asia that is largely dominated by Persian textual materials.
Why do you think understanding our past helps our future?
That’s a hard question to answer as historians often reflect upon how our past informs our present or how our present informs how we view the past! I think if there’s one thing history teaches us, it is that it is neither linear nor teleological. Also, our knowledge of the past is always evolving and is never really complete. At the same time, to stay with Gujarat as an example, it has a diverse, complex history, and much like modern India itself, it has many pasts depending upon who’s perspective we privilege and what historical materials we engage with. Any attempts to homogenize these varied pasts to create grand narratives are usually historically—and factually—inaccurate. Understanding our past in all its complexity and messiness allows us to perhaps envision a future where we can resist the urge to define ourselves, our relationship to each other and to the world in singular ways.
What do you think the future of Islamic art looks, what are the opportunities and potential?
I must admit that I’m not well-versed in contemporary Islamic arts to answer this question in a meaningful way. Even my engagement with historical manuscripts and paintings often relies on the expertise of art historians to provide useful insights into their production and reception. I’m very grateful for the online platform of Bayt al-Fann that has introduced me to the immense creativity with which contemporary artists are reinterpreting historical Islamic art forms including calligraphy and painting. Clearly, the digital platform offers a huge space for Islamic art – historical and contemporary – to reach a wider audience. It’s been eye-opening for me, to say the least!
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