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Fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs: tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal.

Fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal. By TONY K. STEWART. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2004. Pp. xiv + 267. $24.95.

Tony Stewart is the expert on Satya Pir. He has worked on this figure, his corpus, and his community for over twenty-five years, and in the process has discovered about 750 handwritten manuscripts (a few of which were previously unnoted) and 160 printed works by over one hundred different authors writing throughout Bengal. The eight tales translated here find their closest literary parallel in the Urdu qissa; they are fixed narratives, printed in popular editions but orally performed, featuring fairies, animals that fly and talk, and corrupt ascetics. This is the first text to explore the Bengali form of the genre, and the eight stories are marvelously translated and enjoyable to read, introducing us to kings, merchants, princes, princesses, flower-sellers, ogresses, and talking birds, with a good dose of magic and illusion brought in through the machinations of Satya Pir.

This genre had its heyday in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries in Bengal, when Satya Pir was rivaled in popularity only by Krsna Caitanya. Stewart finds two distinct trajectories in the tales overall: one is sectarian, where the tales are doctrinally driven, with a focus on Satya Pir either as a Vaisnava figure or as a Muslim; and the other is "fabulous" and non-sectarian, with the dramatic action initiated more often by assertive heroines than by Satya Pir. Of the eight stories in fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs, none are of the sectarian type, six are of the fabulous type, and two straddle the borderline divide.

Stewart has three interpretive interests in this material: he wants to draw attention to the tales as literature, comparing them with other similar genres, such as legends, folk tales, fairy tales, and emergent fiction; he interprets the tales as undercutting gender stereotyping, since it is women who move the plots, rescue hapless men, challenge traditional roles by cross-dressing and parody, and act in pragmatic, if often unusual, ways to maintain order; and he is intrigued by the stories' conclusions, where he says women critique, comment on, and stretch traditional values, often associated with the male, the Brahmanical, and with royal privilege. About Satya Pir himself, we learn that he is guided by the light and power of Muhammad, that he is Krsna, and that he is both of the above. His chief "use" to the characters in the stories is practical, for people worship him for survival. Moreover, they do so as a community, not as competing religious groups: "overt religious divisions dissolve in the face of a palpable localized power dedicated to social good" (p. 13). As such, Stewart's work contributes nicely to his ongoing theoretical discussions, published elsewhere, on the problematic nature of the label "syncretism": Satya Pir is not a self-conscious melding of elements from two different sets of people and beliefs, but rather an example of an organic whole who appeals because of his serviceable utility.

The translations are the beauty and the strength of Fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs; they are also its center, and readers should not expect this text to be a Stewart-on-Satya-Pir omnibus. Buried modestly in endnotes (see pp. 235 n. 1, 236 n. 10, and 239 n. 37)--and not referred to again, even in the bibliography--are references to Stewart's other work on Satya Pir: three particularly salient pieces are "Alternate Structures of Authority: Satya Pir on the Frontiers of Bengal," in Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia, edited by David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence (Gainesville: Univ. of Florida Press, 2000), 21-54; "Surprising Bedfellows: Vaisnava and Shi'i Alliance in Kavi Aripha's 'Tale of Lalamon'," in International Journal of Hindu Studies 3 (1999), 265-98; and "Satya Pir: Muslim Holy Man or Hindu God," in Religions of India in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1995), 578-97. It is in these articles and chapters that one learns the answers to several contextual and theological questions that might arise from reading Fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs--for instance, about the authors of the fabulous stories, particularly Kinkara Dasa, author of three tales in the collection, and Kavi Arif, the one Muslim author; about the figure of Satya Pir, his fascinating dual theological persona and his whimsical, mischievous, and even punitive behavior to his would-be devotees; about the specific ways in which Satya Pir's cult provides a pragmatic alternative to that of Asim Roy's intellective model of syncretism (see The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal [1983]); and about how to read the subversive nature of the tales, given that several stories close with heroines requesting their husbands to take second wives, or heroines marrying baby husbands.

Stewart's intention in writing this book is clearly not to incorporate an elaborate commentary on each story or to rehearse what he has stated eloquently elsewhere. In choosing to foreground the literary aspects of this narrative genre, with attention to its allusions, terminology, and cultural resonances, he is letting the tales stand alone, as it were, the way tales usually do in their cultures of production, reception, and enjoyment. For readers who want more context, historical or theological, Fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs can point the way. In sum, for the scholar, this book is a tantalizing gem that should be read alongside Stewart's other work on Satya Pir.


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Author:McDermott, Rachel Fell
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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