When you embark to write on a certain aspect of culture by neatly isolating it from the rest, you run the risk of essentializing or stereotyping it from your vantage point, even when you do not intend to. And it gets riskier when you are dealing with a specific ethnic or religious identity from within a plethora of identities. Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema is an attractively produced book about Indian cinemas with Muslim themes, a subject that has been studied much less than the popular Hindi cinema itself. Thus, it can be considered a one of a kind book, although it does not come without problems.
When I first heard about the book and got to see it, I was uneasy about the use of the word ‘Islamicate’. Is this about some rare bunch of Indian movies that have missed my attention so far? No, it is about the usual Mughal-e Azam, Pakeezah, Chaudhvin ka Chand, Mere Mehboob, and so on. Just that a new term, Islamicate, has been used to cover a whole range of these films, which the older, industry term, Muslim Social could not cover as well. Films such as those with Muslim historical themes or the ones about Muslim courtesan culture needed a separate category. Hence, Islamicate, according to the authors, is a larger term used by them to cover a range of cinema that depicts Islamic ethos such as architectural motives, performance idioms like ghazal or qawwali, and other icons of tehzeeb or Muslim aristocratic civility, which may not necessarily be connected to Islam, the religion. The book is definitely not the first one to coin this term—Islamicate has been used, on the lines of Italianate, first by Marshall Hodgson, a historian from Chicago University, followed by many others, although it has remained a bone of contention—many scholars reluctant to accept the neologism.
Under normal circumstances, a mere title or terminology of such a well laid-out book should not warrant a discussion running into two or more paragraphs. But that is where a substantial debate lies. Before I talk about the book itself, let me briefly list out some reasons for my uneasiness with this word. According to Hodgson, Islamicate does not refer to ‘the Islamic religion per se, but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among ...
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