Amrita Chattopadhyay – Timely Histories

Light and Nocturnal-time: Materiality and Material Practices of Early Modern Nights in Mughal South Asia

Dr. Amrita Chattopadhyay
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow

As part of Timely Histories: A Social History of Time in South Asia, the unit focuses on early modern nights in Mughal South Asia as its principal theme of investigation. Existing narratives on early modern India predominantly treat daytime as the main temporal framework for exploring historical processes. Reassessing the familiar history of diurnality, the inquiry shifts the focus on nocturnality by situating it at the intersection of material culture and textual practices of the Mughal empire (16th-18th centuries).

It will explore night as a ‘social’ category where realms of power, technology of production, labour and object-practices coalesced in rendering the nightly functions of the expansive polity. Firstly, taking into consideration the spiritual and metaphoric domain of light and darkness, it would recast itself in the material preserve of the night-time by foregrounding the production and consumption patterns of pre-colonial lighting objects. A variegated range of Mughal illuminants, in their diversified physical and cultural forms would be examined for understanding objects’ deployment practices and circulatory mechanisms that became intrinsic to the nocturnal realities of the period. The role of imperial patronage and expanding commercial networks fostering the courtly ceremonies, religious gatherings, intellectual assemblies, social festivities, travel, economic transactions, hunting expeditions and military partaking would remain central in reevaluating early modern nights as unproductive or dormant. Secondly, it would focus on nights’ ecological dependence in growing and procuring of raw materials such as cotton, wax and oil. Charting the agricultural cultivation of oil-seeds, technology of oil-extraction and procurement-process of forest products such as beeswax, the unit attempts to recover the labour processes buttressing the nocturnal economy and craft-mechanism of Mughal illuminations. Colonial encounters and the role of local merchants as well as the European companies’ factors would also help navigate the demand-supply and circulation networks of the luminous objects.  The mutual dependence and reciprocity of night and objects would further earmark the inquiry. Amplifying the same, the material world of early modern nights would be further examined through reconsidering darkness and lightened nights as time-units where acts of theft, looting, highway robberies, fire-accidents belied their celebratory and sensorial character. Bringing a corpus of Indo-Persian sources and colonial records in conversation with each other, the unit attempts to demonstrate the material world of early modern nocturnal culture in Mughal South Asia through a close study of unpublished textual and archival records.