Towards a South Asian, Not Western, Queerness!

Scott Kugle's article, "Sultan Mahmud's Makeover" reconstructs the various contemporary images of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, an important ruler in South Asia who is often popularly cited as "opening the way for waves of invasion by Muslim rulers from the Khyber Pass to the northwest" (42). The current received view of Muslim dynastic rule is very much related to the polarization of Hindus and Muslims in a postcolonial, partitioned South Asia. Therefore, it becomes important to construct a ruler such as Mahmud in particular ways that suggest particular religious and ethnic histories of the subcontinent.

Kugle argues that the erasure and suppression of homoerotic and romantic elements from Mahmud's life and personality functioned as a necessary response to the violence of British colonialism (37). Intellectuals and other members of the Muslim educated class were "forced to remake their cultural orientation in order to survive, find employment, and create meaningful lives in the new colonial regime" (37). In the struggle to contest or transcend the colonial critique of South Asian culture, poets such as Altaf Husayn Hali and Muhammad Husayn Azad had to cater to western standards of civilization and cultivation (37). They "transformed the violence they experienced and the terror they internalized into a self-generated critique, as if their culture 'deserved' the harsh treatment it received from the British due to its own prior decadence and fall from Islamic norms" (38).

These Islamic 'norms' were themselves reformulated and reimagined in the colonial context. Hali, for example, "tried to reject 'Persianate' models in order to revert to an imagined earlier, 'purer' Arabic poetry" (39) that did not contain 'corrupt' influences of homoeroticism. As a result, all traces of Mahmud's love affair with Ayaz, his cupbearer and slave, were erased from canonical representations of the Sultan in poetry. If these references were not erased, and certain terms, phrasings and words repressed (for example, any indication of the genders of the two lovers), as Hali says, " 'we will all be adjudged guilty according to the [British obscenity] law' " (40).

In the nationalist era, representations of Mahmud and Ayaz shifted even further, because it was no longer necessary to deny their love affair, as it had already been erased and could now simply be pronounced obsolete and/or nonexistent (42). Mahmud and Ayaz were now important figures in poetry not because of their love, but because their master-slave relationship was transformed "by Islamic piety into brotherly equality" (42). Such a pronouncement was important to poets of this generation such as Muhammad Iqbal, whose "ideology of modernity .. tried to wrest Islam from the framework of love and refashion it into a metaphor for existential struggle and political activism" (42).

In the postcolonial (current) modern context, as stated earlier, the polarization and fragmentation caused by partition, etc, gives rise to a communalist representation of Islamic rulers like Mahmud. Kugle argues that "communalist narratives do not simply suppress the homoerotic content of Mahmud's image; they convert its sexual energy into the violence of domination and castration" (43). In both the Muslim and Hindu fundamentalist ideologies, emphasis is placed on a virulent, aggressive manhood that "emasculates the other" (43).

While reading this article, I was struck by how extraordinary Mahmud and Ayaz's relationship seemed. On the one hand, I wondered how much of their relationship was idealized in the tradition of Persian/Urdu poetry as Indrani Chatterjee argues in her article, "Alienation, Intimacy, and Gender". Chatterjee says that the posing of the (actual) master as the slave of the (actual) slave is contradictory "because the speaker is always a free adult male while the beautiful boy is usually an 'idealized' slave," but this is a necessary paradox that is maintained in this type of poetry (61). When the master-slave relationship is truly overturned, it gives rise to social disapproval. In a lot of ways, the relationship between Ayaz and Mahmud seems extraordinary because it does seem to overturn the master-slave dynamic, and yet it is important to remember that this is suggested by the very nature (and authorship) of the poetry. I am also reminded of the fact that master-slave dynamics worked very differently in the premodern South Asian context, compared to the contemporary understanding of slavery that I have, as both Kugle and Chatterjee reiterate.

It seems to me that what is most important about Kugle's text is the implications such a reexamination of homoerotic desire in South Asian history has for current queer liberation movements. He seems to suggest this as well, saying that "to acknowledge the homoerotic past of Mahmud and Ayaz would give the movement a well-known historic prototype and also show how recently the communalist portraits of Mahmud were invented, and how far they are from capturing an 'authentic' historical reality" (44). He goes on to say that "reviving the abjected image of Sultan Mahmud as lover of Ayaz could make him a symbol for rejecting the communalist constructions of culture that carefully control sexuality and gender" (45). To realize that the history of queerness in South Asia is very different from that popularly suggested and (post)colonially appropriated would signify a grand shift in activist movement politics.

Works Cited:

Indrani Chatterjee, “Alienation, Intimacy, and Gender: Problems for a History of Love in South Asia,” Queering India: Same-sex love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. Ed. Ruth Vanita. Routledge, 2002. 61-76.

Scott Kugle, “Sultan Mahmud’s Makeover: Colonial Homophobia and the Persian-Urdu Literary Tradition,” Queering India: Same-sex love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. Ed. Ruth Vanita. Routledge, 2002. 30-46.

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