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16. Patterns of Composition in the Seventeenth-Century Bengali Literature of Arakan

Thibaut d’Hubert

© Thibaut d’Hubert, CC BY

vādya kavilāsa ādi yantra sulalita |
keha keha susvare gāhe gīta ||1

Alaol, Sikāndarnāmā (1671)

ānchi ū naw ast u ham kuhan ast
sukhan ast u darīn sukhan sukhan ast

Nizami Ganjavi, Haft paikār (1197)

The divorce between music and poetry is a fairly recent phenomenon and naturally not recognised by all, but it is usually widely accepted that poems are first and foremost texts that demand to be understood with the tools of textual analysis. In the case of premodern Bengali literature, however, neglecting the fact that texts were performed leads to a misunderstanding, not only of the way poems were composed, but also of the dynamics at work in the formation of the literary tradition as a whole. The texts I am dealing with in this article are panchalis, a type of Bengali narrative poem. Though the exact origin of the term remains unknown, panchali refers more to a kind of public performance than to a literary form or a genre.3 In this paper I propose to study the various levels of performance that shaped the compositional pattern of the Bengali panchali author Alaol.

Alaol lived in the kingdom of Arakan, in modern Myanmar, in the seventeenth century. His œuvre is constituted of translations from Awadhi (an eastern form of Hindavi) and Persian narrative poems and treatises. Short poems called padas have also been collected from several anthologies compiled in Chittagong in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.4 Even though Alaol had a deep knowledge of Hindavi, Sanskrit, and Persian literary cultures, his poems follow the rules of traditional Bengali literature, and all of his translations are panchalis. Born in what is modern central Bangladesh, he was brought by Portuguese corsairs to Mrauk-U, the capital of the kingdom of Arakan. He became a royal slave, enrolled in the cavalry, and was finally noticed by Muslim dignitaries for his intellectual skills. He then became a central figure of the artistic milieu of Mrauk-U and worked under the patronage of various dignitaries between 1651 and 1671.5

Major changes in the context of the composition and the performance of Bengali poetry occurred in the gatherings (Ben. sabhā) attended by Alaol in Mrauk-U. These took place in the houses of the Muslim dignitaries of the capital and, as the poet describes them in his prologues, were informal gatherings in which the etiquette of the court was partly reproduced. The hierarchy was less pyramidal than in royal courts and beside the patron who hosted the assembly, other individuals of similar ranks were present, such as other Muslim dignitaries or religious men. After Bengali, the regional culture language, Persian seems to have been the second language of communication.

Alaol’s texts contain several references to the audience that is strikingly present as compared to previous and contemporary panchalis. In the traditional panchali, the audience does not play an active part in the performance, whereas in Alaol’s poems it is clearly considered as a component of its complete realisation. The central feature of this common endeavor is speech (vachana) and the unfolding of its meaning. Thus the panchali provides more than a narrative: it conveys a speech that calls for “another speech”. Resettled in the context of the Indo-Persian assembly or majlis, the Bengali poetical speech (Pers. sukhan) became a subject of speculation and discussion (suhbat).

The topic of this article can be summarised in a comment pronounced by Alaol, before performing a scholarly digression on sangita (lyrical arts)6 found in his translation of Padmāvat (1540), the Avadhi poem of Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Worried about his reputation, Alaol declared:

alapa nā kahõ yabe / baliba paṇḍita sabe / ei kavi saṅgīta nā jāne ||

If I don’t give a short explanation [of this passage], scholars will say: “This poet doesn’t know anything about lyrical arts!”

In this verse, the poet uses some key terms—kavi (poet), pandita (scholar), and sangita (saṅgīta, lyrical arts)—that will set the tone for our reflection on poetry and public performance in Alaol’s texts. We shall see that, through the explicit use of the Sanskrit theoretical knowledge expounded in the sangitashastras (saṅgītaśāstras, treatises of lyrical arts), he provided his readers/auditors with analytical tools that allowed them to think of the compositional pattern of the existing regional literary tradition that lacked proper theoretical literature.7 The literary self-awareness displayed by Alaol is also accompanied by the broadening of the traditional paradigm of performance towards more textuality, a central place given to “speech” (vacana), and the metadiscourse it may induce.

Performance and Authorship
in Premodern Bengali Literature

Premodern Bengali literature was meant to be publicly performed, and performance shaped the very idea of literary composition and authorship. The Caryāgītis (c. eleventh century), allegedly the oldest texts of Bengali literature, were poems meant to be meditated and commented upon. The potential for speculation in the charyas is attested by the very sophisticated Sanskrit commentaries that were written on them. But they were also sung, and legends about their authors often provide a setting in which the poems have been originally composed.8 The manuscripts of the Caryāgītis contain indications about the ragas or musical modes and talas or rhythms used for musical performance. Similarly, the Śrīkṣṇakīrtana (c. fourteenth century CE) which, after the Caryāgītis, is considered the oldest Bengali text, was recited with specific ragas and talas and contains lots of theatrical features.9 We could go on like this up to the nineteenth century and even further, because modern palagan singers and patuyas are perpetuating this tradition and provide living examples of how premodern literature could have been performed.10

The Bengali literature that was produced after the fourteenth century may be formally divided into short and long versified texts.11 On the one hand, we find the padas—short poems composed on a variety of metres—that include the two foundational corpora just mentioned, and on the other hand there is the voluminous amount of versified narrative texts called panchalis.12 The lyrical and even dramatic dimensions of short poems or padas are systematically referred to by specialists of this literature, but the long narrative poems we are concerned with here are usually not thought about in their performance context by scholars. Yet it is vital to think about narrative texts in performance if we want to comprehend the way they have been composed and transmitted. Narrative texts were, and still are in some places in West Bengal and Bangladesh, recited by professionals called kathak, pathak, or gayen. Each term stresses one aspect of their style of recitation: the two first terms refer to a musically tuned reading-cum-commentary, and the second more specifically to singing.

In many cases the poet is presented as a kind of original performer rather than an “author”.13 For instance, a common motif in mangalkavyas regarding the creation of the book is that of the “inspired poet”.14 One day the poet, usually a Brahmin, while attending to his everyday affairs, or in a dream, sees the Goddess appear before him. She then gives the order to compose a poem whose text she will fully provide, or for which she will bestow the boon of eloquence on the poet who presents himself as ignorant and unfit to fulfill such a task.15 This primeval inspiration originating from the Goddess herself is afterward reinitiated through the performance by the ritual gesture of the gayen before he starts the recitation of the text. Before the performance begins the gayen grasps a chamar (flywhisk), and it is from this moment only that he remembers what he will have to recite during the next several hours.16 In this creative process absolutely no place is left for the poet’s role as a composer. He is first and foremost presented as a devotee, and it is through an act of devotion, represented by the holding of the chamar, that the poem will come into existence. In terms of representation of the literary activity, it is not only that performance is the main way to share the content of a written text; rather it means that no text is ever able to come into existence without a setting of ritual performance.

The Bengali poetic tradition does not openly stress the poet’s skills as a composer. But the performer who recites the poem is expected to be able to provide commentary and improvise new elements, either in verse or prose, in order to highlight a special point regarding the characters’ behaviour, to add humorous elements in due time, or to beautify a specific episode.17 Unfortunately, this part of the performance, which is known from the observation of modern palagan representations, was not written down. As a consequence the only reminders we have of this metatextual practice appear here and there through the numerous variant readings found in the manuscripts of very popular texts. The best example in this regard may be Krittibas’s Rāmāyaṇa (c. fifteenth century) that has proved to be an unsolvable philological puzzle due to its countless variant readings and fragmented transmission.18

Bengali literary texts were part of a larger performing tradition that included music, dance, and dramatic improvisation. The production and transmission patterns of literary texts were thus totally dependent on the way they would be performed. This close connection between performance and literary composition appears clearly in the first adaptation into Bengali of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata by “Kavindra” Parameshwar Dasa. Kavindra’s patron, Paragal Khan, Sultan Husain Shah’s (1493-1519) officer in charge of the Chittagong area, made the following request regarding the composition of the text:

ehi saba kathā kaha saṃkṣepa kariyā | dineka śunite pāri pāñcāli baliyā ||

Summarise this story and tell it, so that I can listen to this panchali in a few days.19

The point here was not only to shift from the Sanskrit to the Bengali literary tradition but rather to provide Paragal and his courtiers with a more performable version of the story, which in its original form and in this court milieu, was hardly fit to be publicly performed.20 What should also be kept in mind is that, unlike Sanskrit texts, Bengali panchalis were not at first linguistically sophisticated. Unlike Sanskrit kavyas, they were not “ornate” (alamkrita), and no commentary was needed to unfold the meaning of the verses and release the rasa. The aesthetic pleasure derived rather from the performance as a whole. Panchalis were heavily narrative, and it was the theatrical setting that provided the ornamentation.21 That is why, textually speaking—and, as I suggested before, through the relative absence of the figure of the author as a craftsman of speech—the story was central, not the word. We will see that things seem to be different in the case of Alaol.

Performance in Alaol’s Texts

What material do we have to study performance in Alaol’s poetry? To answer this question we need to make a distinction between three kinds of sources that the Bengali poet’s texts provide: the description of the sabha (assembly), paratextual indications, and the mise en abyme, inside the story narrated in the poem, in which performance is present. Mise en abyme indicates a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself. Often applied to paintings that contain a smaller image of themselves, I use it to denote the description of performance inside the text (see also Miner, Orsini, and Busch in this volume).

Descriptions of the Sabha

Alaol included many contextual features in his poems, such as descriptions of the assemblies he attended, or his patrons’ interventions during the reading of his poem. The first we notice is that poetry is presented as one pleasurable activity among others in the society parties organised by the Muslim notables of Mrauk-U. According to Alaol’s account, sabhas were held at night and included a dinner, games, dances, music, and discussions on various topics related to some books that had been previously read aloud to the audience.22 The poet seems to have performed his own poem, and there is no mention of professional storytellers in his prologue. He does mention dancers and musicians, though not in relation with the poem he is about to declaim. Alaol does not give any details regarding the precise setting of the sabha, such as the way people were seated, the presence or not of a stage,23 etc.

Paratextual Elements

The paratextual elements found in the manuscripts concerning the musical modes (ragas) do not leave any doubt regarding the musical aspects of the recitation. Another clue furnished by the panchali tradition itself is the bhanita, that is the poet’s signature line marking the end of a narrative section or a song. These can contain a short praise of the patron and the name of the poet, and sometimes they are used to introduce questions and comments made by the poet or even the patron about the episode that was just narrated or on some point of vocabulary.24 The bhanitas hint at the performed dimension of Alaol’s texts because they address the audience directly and help structure the narrative sequences of the poem.25 They provide a lively tune to the recitation, and it is not rare to find copyists who, carried away by the flow of the poem, added their own bhanitas where they deemed it appropriate.26

Performance also surfaces in Alaol’s texts in the mise en abyme that mirrors the actual recitation of his own poems in the sabha. As compared to his models, Alaol lays special emphasis on the episodes that involve some kind of performance. This is often an opportunity for Alaol to provide his knowledgeable audience—the gunigana—with very precise technical information (see also Miner in this volume).27

Among the topics Alaol discusses, sangita and its subsidiary sciences are particularly important to define the poet’s view of artistic composition. Moreover, fragments of what seems to have been a treatise on music composed by Alaol are found in later works called Rāgamālās and Tālanāmās.28 The fragments of Alaol’s Rāgatālanāmā partly deal with the myth of the creation of ragas, talas, and musical instruments.29 The work appears to be framed around the story found in the Nāṭyaśāstra about the origin of Drama, combined with elements of Puranic stories such as the birth of the Ganga (the river Ganges), but it does not match exactly with any version known to me.30 Alaol also provides lists of the kalas, ragas, raginis, talas, and talinis, the way they may be combined as well as the directions, colours, and, for the four kalas, the elements—fire, earth, wind, and water—they are associated with.31

In the bhanitas of this technical text the Bengali poet often addresses the assembly in different ways from his narrative poems and he never refers to the name of any of his patrons.32 This suggests that the fragments were parts of the teaching he delivered to the children of the local elite.33 Alaol clearly states that he is using the shastras in order to explain the science of sangita when he states:

avagata pāiyā śāstra-pustaketa |
bhāṅgiyā kahiba saba bujhaha paṇḍita ||

I learned in the books of the treatises
And I will explain everything, so that you, knowledgeable audience, may understand.

raciluma ei kathā ādye lekhā pāi |
I composed this discourse after obtaining [the knowledge] from the scriptures.

āgama vicāri kahe hīna Alaola ||
The humble Alaol speaks after reflecting upon the treatises.34

Alaol, like other Bengali poet-translators, used the verb bhāṅgiyā kah-, which literally means “saying after breaking”, to talk about the process of translation. Without going into the details of Alaol’s approach regarding translation, let us just notice the didacticism of the poet, who presents himself as an intermediary between his source and the audience. We shall see that he was not only an interpreter of texts, but also of the performance in its various artistic dimensions. In this case it seems that his source-texts were Sanskrit sangitashastras.35 The didactic dimension of these fragments further appears in Alaol’s answer to the audience:

hīna Alaole kahe śuna guṇigaṇa |
uttarera padduttara śunaha ekhana ||

The humble Alaol says: “Listen connoisseurs!
Listen to the answer I now give to [your] question”.

Shastras and the Panchali Tradition

We saw that performance is present in Alaol’s texts through conventions connected to the panchali tradition. Yet by writing a treatise he also expressed a more specific interest in sangita (lyrical arts). What did the term sangita mean for the poet and his milieu? We will see that this technical term borrowed from Sanskrit treatises provides the relevant epistemological tools to define Alaol’s paradigm of performance. Shubhankara, the author of the Saṅgītadāmodara, one of the explicit sources of Alaol on lyrical arts, gives the following definition:

tālavādyānugaṃ gītaṃ naṭībhir yat tu gīyate |
tyasyānugataṃ raṅge tat saṅgītakam ucyate ||37

The song performed by female artists accompanied by rhythmical instruments38
and dance is called sangita.

The term sangita provides the widest artistic paradigm—it contains the arts of instrumental music (tala-vadya), dance (nritya), and gita. Gita is further divided into two elements, dhatu and matu (music and text), providing another useful theoretical tool.39 Dhatu and matu also appear in another important definition, that of the vaggeyakara (the author and composer).40 It is worth pointing out that by using shastric technical terms to talk about performance, Alaol did not demarcate a “high” tradition separate from that of the regional panchali but rather applied the science taught in Sanskrit shastras to the regional artistic domain.41 We therefore witness the rapprochement of the regional Bengali medium with the Sanskrit epistemological framework in the context of performance. This move becomes clear when Alaol states it himself in the digressions that follow some of the performance scenes depicted in his poems. Damodara in his Saṅgītadarpaṇa (Bnf Sanscrit 771, f. 32a) provides the following definition of the author and composer:

vāgvarṇasamudayas tu mātur ity u[cya]te budhaiḥ |
geyaṃ dhātur dvayoḥ kartā prokto vāggeyakārakaḥ ||

The combination of the letters of words is called matu by wise men, what ought to be sung is dhatu, the one who composes both is called “author and composer”.

According to this definition, Alaol was a panchali vaggeyakar, a panchali author and composer. Even if he used the regional medium for his compositions, he declared himself a specialist of lyrical arts as taught in contemporary Sanskrit treatises, and he analyzed his own activity of Bengali poet with the tools provided by the Sanskrit tradition. Hence it is legitimate in his case to study his poems using the terminology of the Sanskrit treatises he was familiar with.

I will now try to demonstrate that the above-mentioned performance paradigm obtained from the definition of sangita and gita can help us define the three kinds of poetical performance present in Alaol’s texts. The first kind of performance combines instrumental music, dance, and singing, the second one is the musically tuned declamation of a narrative part, and the third kind of performance is the commentary on a text that has been previously read to the audience in the sabha.43 These three categories are refered to by Alaol himself when he declares that he taught patha (reading), gita, and sangita to the children of the nobles of Mrauk-U.44 According to this paradigm, the musical aspect (dhatu) dominates in the text or in the various episodes contained in a panchali when, for example, a gita is inserted inside a narrative section, while the textual element (matu) will be dominant in highly ornate sections, such as the nakha-sikha, and even more in scholarly digressions. The bulk of the narrative parts constitute the middle of this paradigm in which the text is central but requires a musical tune when performed. Here is a pattern using this framework and the technical terms used by Alaol himself to designate the lyrical, narrative, and speculative dimensions of his literary compositions:

Table 16.1: The performance paradigm of Alaol’s poems

[dhatu, music]

lacari song

katha/vrittanta/vivarana/prasanga tale, narrative, description, episode



Traditional panchali

Alaol’s panchali



bakhana commentary


nitishastrakatha on kavya, knowledge, ethics]


patha reading


The terms used in this Table are found in Alaol’s technical vocabulary. Similarly to any other panchali, it includes both the sangita, involving text, music, and dance, and the narrative part characterised by a musically tuned declamation. Alaol adds the scholarly digressions and other sophisticated parts in which he stresses eloquence and technical aspects of “speech”. Bakhana means “commentary”, and the three compounds indicated underneath are the three main themes of the refined discourse as conceived by Alaol—on the savour of poetry, the essential principals, and mundane ethic.

Mise en Abyme of Sangita:
Alaol as a Gandharp

In Alaol’s texts we find illustrations of the three kinds of performance of panchali: complete theatrical performance, narrative performance, and technical speech or didactic discourse. By analyzing one description of a sangita performance from Alaol’s Padmāvatī, we will see how the poet blurs the limit between the performance that is depicted in the story and the panchali that is actually taking place in the sabha of his patron. In this mise en abyme, Alaol also plays the role of an artistic mediator between the show and the audience. In the following passage in lachari, that is to say a song composed in the tripadi metre which is accompanied by dance steps performed by the gayen, Jayasi’s text is the model for Alaol’s poem and gives the Bengali poet the opportunity to describe a sangita performance:

|| rāga dīrgha chanda lācārī ||
tabe rājā ratnasena / vicāri bujhiyā mane / vaśya maraṇa āche tattve |
yedina ānande yāya / jīvana suphala pāya / sukhabhoga bhālamanda śarte ||
bhavitavye thāke yei / avaśya haiba sei / vidhi-bale nāhika eḍāna |
ajñāne bhāvaya dukha /
[jñānete bāriba sukha]45 / sadānanda [sārete] pramāṇa46 ||
eteka bhāviyā citte / ratnasene ānandite / rājadvāre raci n
tyaśālā | 5
haraṣita sarvajana / nācaya nartakīgaṇa / pañcaśabde kari eka melā ||
chaya rāga hāṅkāriyā / chatriśa rāgiṇī laiyā / madhusvare kaila ālāpana |
[ty]a aṅga bālā / nānā kāce nāce bhālā / sādhanā hastaka sulakṣaṇa ||
kahite n
t[y]era kathā / bahula bāḍaya pothā / nā kahile śānta nahe mane |
alapa nā kahõ yabe / baliba paṇḍita sabe / ei kavi saṅgīta nā jāne || 10
maneta kariyā kalpa / kahimu kiñcita alpa / bujhaha rasika dhīra jane |
rasasindhu guṇīśvara / śrīyuta māgana vara / ājñā pāi Alaola bhaṇe ||

Then Raja Ratnasena intensely reflected
upon the undeniable power of death.
When time passes in joy and bliss, one plucks the good fruits of life;
the experience of pleasure depends on the good and bad things [that we do].
What is part of our destiny will surely happen;
there is no way to escape the power of Fate.
One worries in ignorance, whereas knowledge increases happiness;
testimony lies in Sadananda’s [Vedānta]sāra.
Thinking thus in his mind, Ratnasena in order to enjoy his self
built a dance hall at the door of the royal palace. 5
Everyone was cheerful and the dancers danced
accompanied by the festive harmony of all kinds of instruments.
Striking up the six musical modes with their thirty-six raginis,
they started singing the prelude with sweet voices.
Beautiful young women from the South skillfully danced in various fashions,
displaying their mastery of hand movements.
If I talk about dance, the book will expand too much,
If I don’t, I won’t find peace in my mind.
If I don’t give a short explanation, scholars will say,
“This poet doesn’t know lyrical arts!” 10
Hence I decide to explain all this briefly;
O wise connoisseurs! Listen carefully!
Alaol speaks on the order of this Ocean of sensibility, the master of all qualities,
the noble and excellent Magana!

In these lines, Alaol exposes various aspects of an artistic performance—from the motivations of the patron to set up a nrityashala to the critical preoccupations of the court poet who must show his erudition in order to remain credible in front of the assembly.48 Again, Alaol slips from text to context. The courtly performance described in the poem mirrors what is actually taking place in the sabha of Mrauk-U. The shift from the narrative to the lyrical form, or from prasanga to sangita, concretely takes place through the metrical change from payar to lachari tripadi; thus when a sangita performance is described in the poem, it is also actually performed in Alaol’s sabha.

The evocation of dance in the original poem impels Alaol to intervene and provide the assembly with his comments. This attitude is a specific feature of the gandharva (Sk.) (>gandharp/gandharb in Pers.), a key figure of artistic performance dealt with somewhat differently in Sanskrit and Persian treatises.49 For instance, in the Saṅgītaratnākara, composed by Sharngadeva in the thirteenth century, one of the most influential treatises on sangita frequently referred to by the Saṅgītadāmodara and the Saṅgītadarpaṇa, the gandharva is briefly mentioned as one type of vaggeyakar (author-composer) who masters both deshi, i.e. regional, mundane technique, and marga, i.e. eternal, divine technique. No further precision is given regarding his role in the sabha during the performance. The definition of the gandharva as a knowledgeable intermediary between the performers and the audience is furnished by the Ghunyat al-munya, a Persian treatise on Indian music and dance composed in fourteenth-century Gujarat.50 Though Alaol never refers either to the function of gandharva/gandharp or to this treatise, typologically speaking this definition seems to match perfectly Alaol’s function in the sabha as it transpires in his poems:

mu‘arrif-i surūd ki ānrā gandharp gūyand ; waẓīfa-yi ū ān ast ki har rāg u surūd u raqṣ̄ ki malūb-i āib-i majlis bāshad, istifsār kunad, wa bar51 awā’if-i mazkūr bagūyad, wa dar athnā-yi surūd u raq chūn bāngī yā shaklī nīk ādir shawad tasīn kunad, wa nām-i ān bāng u shakl bagūyad ki īn rā īn chunīn gūyandū bāyad ki bar majmū‘-i anwā‘-i surūd wa ashkāl-i raq muṭṭala‘ bāshad.52

He is the conductor of music,53 also called gandharp. The duties assigned to him are to inquire about the specific raga, the type of music and the type of dance the Master of the Assembly desires to have, and to tell the above mentioned group [of musicians and dancers]. In the course of song and dance when any tonal flourish or a beautiful dance-figure is accomplished, he approves it and specifies [what has been performed]. He is expected to know everything about all forms of song and all figures of dance.

Now let us come back to the excerpt of Padmāvatī quoted before. The poet says he will highlight some topics related to sangita, and in the verses that immediately follow he provides a detailed exposition of technical features related to the subject. The first thing he mentions is the organisation of a performance with its inaugural benediction and the invocation of Ganesha and other deities. He also indicates that the name of the musical mode should be pronounced (rāga ucāriyā) and the various things performed described by their name (yateka sādhanā hena kahi nāma laiyā).54 One cannot fail to recognise here the figure of the gandharp defined in the fourteenth-century Persian treatise from Gujarat. This is not an isolated case: Alaol does a similar exposition regarding sangita in Saptapaykara. There again he uses the pretext of a dance performance in the narrated story to display his mastery of the subject and fulfill his function of gandharp.55


Alaol’s care in displaying his knowledge on sangita shows that the topic was an unavoidable part of the courtly culture of his time. In this essay I have argued that thanks to the context in which Alaol’s poems were performed, the paradigm of performance and composition of his texts extended simultaneously towards greater textuality and increased attention to the lyrical parts. One of the consequences of this move was the insertion of scholarly comments by the author. The author acted as an intermediary between the audience and the text performed. This feature is salient in the scenes of sangita performances that occur inside the story Alaol is rendering into Bengali.

In the broader historical and cultural context, this interest in the technical aspects of sangita in a court milieu promoting vernacular literature was not restricted to Mrauk-U. Two leads have to be further explored in order to understand the cultural atmosphere in which this literature came into existence. The first one is the Jaunpur and Indo-Afghan courtly cultures of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. More than any other branch of Sanskrit knowledge, sangita was actively investigated by the scholars of this period who worked at royal and secondary courts. The Lahjāt-i Sikandarshāhī is a good example of the thorough scholarship of Indo-Persian authors in the field of lyrical arts. Similarly, Jaunpur became a major centre of patronage during this period. In the Awadhi romances from the same eastern region that were composed from the early sixteenth century, like Qutban’s Mirigāvatī (1503), performance was an aspect of the poetry itself, and the authors frequently included passages in which the technical vocabulary of sangita was used.56 Alaol testifies to the continuity and transformations of this literary tradition. He went further into the explanatory details and he cited his sources. The treatises mentioned by the Bengali poet of Mrauk-U are extremely relevant in the context of the courtly culture of the regional kingdoms of Northeast India. To mention just a few examples, Shubhankara was quoted very often by authors in Mithila, Nepal, Assam, and Bengal, and Narada’s Pañcamasārasaṃhitā is said to have played a central role in the formation of the lyrical tradition at the court of Manipur in the late eighteenth century. The king of Orissa Sarvajna Jagannatha Narayanadeva (r.1648-1664) also quoted from both treatises in his Saṅgītanārāyaṇa.57

The next step will be to observe how the poets put the content of these technical texts into practice and combined the Sanskrit ethos with their regional tradition. The technical literature circulating in the regional courts was very specific, and it is possible to identify this corpus with great accuracy. In Alaol’s case we saw how one can describe the pattern of composition of his poems with the technical vocabulary provided by the handbooks available to him. The complex relation between the content of the Sanskrit treatises, the fragments of Alaol’s own technical texts, and the information provided by his poem still await further study.

1 “Some gracefully [played] the kavilāsa and other instruments, while others were singing songs with their beautiful voices”. The kavilasa, also called kapinasa, is a stringed, probably plucked, intrument (Sk. tata-) which does not seem to be clearly identified by specialists. It is mentioned very often in Bengali and Assamese premodern literature as well as Sanskrit treatises (e.g. Shubhankara, Saṅgītadāmodaraḥ, ed. by Gaurinath Sastri and Govindagopal Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta: Sanskrit College, 1960, p. 51). Sukumar Sen gives the following definition for this term: “a kind of lute. Ts. Lit. poetic performance. Ts. (*kavilāsa) or sts. (*kavilāsya); cf. kavilāsikā. Pada”; An Etymological Dictionary of Bengali, c.1000-1800 A.D (Calcutta: Eastern Publishers, 1971), p. 115.

2 “What is both ancient and new is speech, and in this speech dwells another speech”.

3 See infra for a discussion of the origin and meaning of the term panchali.

4 See Alaol, Alaol racanāvalī, ed. by Muhammad Abdul Qayyum and Razia Sultana (Dhaka: Bangla Academy), pp. 607-10. Some padas (e.g. pada n. 6, 9, 10) found in the anthologies of Chittagong are also present in Alaol’s narrative poems (Padmāvatī and Saptapaykara). These padas were first edited by Ahmed Sharif, ‘Rāgatālanāmā o padāvalī’, Sāhitya Patrikā 7.1 (1370 BA), 1-48; see also Yatindramohan Bhattacharya, Bāṅgālāra vaiṣṇavabhāvāpanna musalmāna kavira padamañjuṣā (Calcutta: Kalikata Vishvavidyalay, 1984), pp. 38-42. For a study of Alaol’s short poems inserted inside the narrative texts, see d’Hubert, Histoire culturelle et poétique de la traduction. Alaol et la tradition littéraire bengali au XVIIe siècle à Mrauk-U, capitale du royaume d’Arakan (Paris: École Pratique des Hautes Études, 2010), pp. 284-351.

5 For a presention of Alaol’s life in English, see Satyendranath Ghoshal, Beginning of Secular Romance in Bengali Literature (Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati, 1959), pp. 63-65. For a reappraisal of the data available on his life and historical context, see d’Hubert (2010), pp. 99-149.

6 My translation of sangita as “lyrical arts” rather than “song” or “music” (e.g. the entry ‘Saṅgīta’ in the Samsad Bengali-English Dictionary) is based on the definition of this term given by the theoretical literature studied by Alaol. See below.

7 The first treatise on poetics that was written in Bengali was probably the Rasakalpavallī (1673) by Ramagopal Das. Though a treatise on poetics and aesthetics mainly based upon the works of Rupa Goswamin (Ujjvalalīlamaṇi and Bhaktirasāmtasindhu), the author also quotes from Shubhankara’s Saṅgītadāmodara (see below) regarding topics as central as bhava (sentiment) or nayika-bheda (the types of heroine). For an overview of the history of technical literature on poetics in premodern Bengal, see Ramagopal and Pitambar Das, Rāmagopāla Dāsa-viracita Rasakalpavallī o anyānya nibandha, Pītāmbara Dāsa-viracita Aṣṭarasavyākhyā o Rasamañjarī, ed. by Harekrishna Mukhopadhyay, Sukumar Sen and Praphullacandra Pala (Calcutta: Kalikatha Vishvavidyalay, 1963), pp. 8-10.

8 See Abhayadatta, La vie merveilleuse de 84 grands sages de l’Inde ancienne, trans. from Tibetan by Djamyang Khandro Ahni (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2005), and compare with the mise en scène of the poetical compositions of the ashtachhap in Hariraya, Caurāsī vaiṣṇavan kī vārtā, ed. by D. Parikha and G. Shukla (Mathura: Shri Govardhana Granthamala Karyalaya, 1970).

9 See Wakil Ahmed, Bāṃlā kāvyera rūpa o bhāṣā (Dhaka: Khan Brothers & Co., 1994); Kshudiram Das, Bāṃlā kāvyera rūpa o rīti (Calcutta: Desh Publishing, 1994); Selim Al Deen, Madhyayugera bāṃlā nāṭya (Dhaka: Bangla Academy 1995); Chaya Chatterjee, Śāstrīya Saṅgīta and Music Culture of Bengal Through the Ages (New Delhi: Sharada Publishing House, 1996), pp. 32-40; and Saymon Zakaria, Bāṃlādeśera lokanāṭaka: viṣaya o āṅgika-vaicitrya (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 2008), pp. 5-15. For the text and a translation of the Śrīkṣṇakīrtana, see Baru Chandidasa, Śrīkṣṇakīrtana, ed. by Vasantaranjan Ray Vidvadvallabh (Calcutta: Vangiy Sahitya Parishat, 1361 BA), and Singing the Glory of Lord Krishna: The Śrīkṣṇakīrtana, trans. by M.H. Klaiman (Chicago: Scholars Press, 1984).

10 See France Bhattacharya, ‘A propos d’une représentation du Caṇḍi Maṅgal au Bengale Occidental’, Adyatan “d’aujourd’hui” 3 (1984), 7-26; Philippe Benoît, ‘Quatre chansons de paṭuyā du Bengale sur le Rāmāyaṇa’, Bulletin d’Études Indiennes 10 (1992), 53-87 ; and Zakaria (2008), pp. 37-40.

11 We find this dichotomy in Sen’s general definition of “ancient Bengali literature” (purāno bāṅgālā sāhitya). Though he first makes the distinction between three formal types, he finally reduces it to only two: pratham gītikavitā, dvitīya paurāṇik geya athavā pāṭhya ākhyāyikā, ttīya a-paurāṇik geya kavitā-ākhyāyikā. śeṣ dui dhārār racanār rūp vā pharm prāy ek-i rakam evaṃ se pharmer nām-o ‘pāñcālī’. “First, there is lyrical poetry, second, come the stories drawn out from the Puranas that must be sung or read aloud, third, are the narrative poems meant to be sung. The last two trends of composition or forms are almost the same, and the name of this form is ‘panchali’” (Sen (2000), Vol. 1, p. 103).

12 The panchali type of representation assumed various forms through history. As regards prosody, the main features of a panchali are the alternation of narrative parts in payar verse and descriptive and more lyrical parts in tripadi. A panchali may also contain other shorter poetical forms such as git (“songs” composed on a variety of metres), baromasis (songs of the twelve months), or cautishas (acrostic poems based on the letters of the Bengali alphabet). The word panchali is found in several narrative poems to designate the text itself or its form. The actual features of panchali performances and the way they changed over time are not well known. The original panchali would have included puppet dance and would have afterward developed towards modern yatra representation (Shambaru Chandra Mohanta, Chandra, ‘Panchali’, in Banglapedia (Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 2006), CD ROM). But the clear demonstration of this evolution is still lacking. See Sukumar Sen, Bāṅgālā sāhityera itihāsa (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers, 2001), Vol. 1, pp. 103-04, Vol. 2, pp. 2: 6-8; see also Ahmed (1994) and Al Deen (1995), pp. 77-82; for contemporary panchali representations, see F. Bhattacharya (1984) and Zakaria (2008). About panchali as a model for jarigan performances, see also Mary F. Dunham, Jarigan: Muslim Epic Songs of Bangladesh (Dhaka: The University Press Limited, 1997), pp. 45-46 and 330.

13 On the subject of authorship in premodern South Asian vernacular literature, see J.S. Hawley, ‘Author and Authority in the Bhakti Poetry of North India’, The Journal of Asian Studies 47.2 (1988), 269-90, and Ali Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightment: The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia (London: Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2002), pp. 82-99. For a discussion about the author and the performer of oral poetry, see Paul Zumthor, Introduction à la poésie orale (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1983), pp. 209-27.

14 Mangalkavyas are narrative poems about the spread of the worship of a goddess among human beings. Regarding the inspired poet and performer see Y. Bhattacharya (2007), p. xi and F. Bhattacharya (1984), p. 8. For instances of “divine inspiration” see Krittibas, Kttivāsī Rāmāyaṇa, ed. by Harekrishna Mukhopadhyay (Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad, 2002), pp. 4-5; Ketakadas, Manasāmaṅgala, ed. by Akshaykumar Kayal and Chitra Dev (Kolkata: Lekhapad, 1384 BA), pp. 5-7; and Heyat Mahmud, Kavi Heyāt Māmud, ed. by Mazharul Islam (Dhaka: Agami Prakashan, 2009), p. 299.

15 The commissioned poet shows a similar humility in order to obtain the “compassion” (kripa) not from the divinity, but from his mundane patron. See also David Shulman, ‘Poets and Patrons in Tamil Literary Legend’, in The Wisdom of Poets: Studies in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 63-102, and T. d’Hubert, ‘Reading Persian Poetry in Seventeenth Century Arakan: The Sāqī as a Guru and the Figure of the Patron in Alaol’s Bengali Translation of Niz̤āmī’s Sharafnāma’, in Patronage in Indo-Persian Culture (New Delhi: Manohar, forthcoming).

16 See Bhattacharya (1984), pp. 10-11.

17 Zakaria (2008).

18 Regarding the manuscripts of the Kttivāsī Rāmāyaṇa see Amiya Shankar Chaudhuri, ‘Kr̥ttivāser puthi saṃvād’, in Kavi Kttivāsa saṃkalana grantha (Phuliya: Kavi Krittivasa Smaraka Grantha Prakashak Samiti, 1989), pp. 183-201. For an attempted critical edition by Nalinikantha Bhattashali, see Mahākavi Kttivāsa viracita Rāmāyaṇa, Ādikāṇḍa, ed. by Nalinikantha Bhattashali (Dhaka: Shrinath Press, 1936).

19 Kavindra Parameshwar Das, Kavīndra-Mahābhārata, ed. by Kalpana Bhowmik (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1999), p. 332.

20 One of Kavindra’s techniques was to drop the secondary stories found in the Sanskrit recensions, thus reistablishing the linearity of the narrative, which was one of the important features of the composition of Bengali panchalis. See the comparative tables given in the introduction of K. Bhowmik’s edition; Kavindra Parameshwara Das (1999), Vol. 1, pp. 129-308.

21 This approach is aligned with what P. Zumthor wrote about oral literature and the fragmentary nature of the text (1983, p. 56). The complete aspect of poetry is what he defines as the “œuvre”: “L’œuvre, c’est ce qui est communiqué poétiquement, ici et maintenant: texte, sonorités, rythmes, éléments visuels ; le terme embrasse la totalité des facteurs de la performance”; (1983), p. 164. In his article on Bengali and Maithili plays composed in Nepal, Brinkhaus makes the same comment regarding the poor literary value of those courtly dramas; Horst Brinkhaus, ‘On the Transition from Bengali to Maithili in Nepalese Dramas of the 16th and 17th Centuries’, in Maithili Studies: Papers Presented at the Stockholm Conference on Maithili Language and Literature (Stockholm: Department of Indology, University of Stockholm), pp. 67-77.

22 This matches the usual organisation of majālis-i shabāna as described in Mughal sources, where poetry and music often came late at night; see ‘Abd al-Sattar ibn Qasim Lahori, Majālis-i Jahāngīrī, ed. by Riza Allah Shah ‘Arif Nawshahi and Mu‘in Nizami (Tehran: Markaz-i Pizhuhishi-i Mirath-i Maktub, 1385S). Theatrical performance in the neighbouring kingdom of Bhulua also took place at night after dinner (Raghunath ‘Kavitarkik’, Kautukaratnākara, ed. and trans. by Dulal K. Bhowmik (Dhaka: Dhaka University, 1997), pp. 25-6. In Alaol’s case, the succession of the dinner and the recitation of poetry is the occasion to pun on the various meanings of the word rasa—“juice, savour” and “aesthetic emotion”; Alaol (2007), p. 457; see also Pellò and Schofield in this volume.

23 According to Zakaria (2008, pp. 38-39), performances took place directly on the ground and it is with the advent of the yatra in eighteenth century that stages were built. Gautier Schouten, who visited Mrauk-U in 1660, seems to suggest that stages were built to perform dramas: “Ensuite, le soir étant venu, les spectateurs finirent la journeé en faisant des danses sur des théâtres; on y joua des comédies: on y fit entendre de la musique; et une partie de la nuit se passa dans ces festivités”. Unfortunately, this short account does not allow us to ascertain whether these were Bengali panchalis; see G. Schouten, Voiage de Gautier Schouten aux Indes orientales. Commencé l’an 1658 et fini l’an 1665 (Amsterdam: Pierre Mortier, 1708), p. 194.

24 See for instance Alaol’s comments in Padmāvatī on the terms kākanucha (phoenix) and gamanā (new bride) (2007), pp. 43-44, 127-29.

25 The subject of the preceding or following section is often mentioned by the author in his bhanitas and helps the audience to follow what is going on in the poem.

26 See for instance the suggestions made by Kshudiram Das concerning the interjections that may have been added by later performers in the Śrīkṣṇakīrtana; quoted in Ahmed (1994), p. 8.

27 On music and courtly aesthetics in the Indo-Persian courtly culture, see Schofield in the present volume.

28 These fragments have been edited by Ahmed Sharif, ‘Rāgatālanāmā o padāvalī’, Sāhitya Patrikā 7.1 (1967), 16-17, 81-82, 92-93; and have been reprinted in Alaol (2007), pp. 595-606.

29 These treatises are to be understood in connection with the development of ragamala paintings in Indo-Persian courts treated by Miner in the present volume.

30 About the origin of theatre in the Nāṭyaśāstra, see Lyne Bansat-Boudon, Poétique du théâtre indien (Paris: École Française d’Extrême Orient, 1991), pp. 53-59. The author of the Saṅgītadāmodara summarises the myth in this way: “In this regard, we hear that in ancient times, Brahma made the fifth Veda from the [other four] Vedas on Indra’s request; that is to say that it was a secondary Veda, because the Vedas are said to be four by the Tradition. Then, Shiva [declared] to Brahma that this secondary Veda is called ‘Gandharva’. After that, he taught it to Bharata who spread it in the mortal world. That is why its instigators are Shiva, Brahma and Bharata”. The first two chapters of the Pañcamasārasaṃhitā of Narada deal with the spread of sangita from heaven to western Bengal (Radha) by the descendants of Bharata; Damodar Sen Narada, Pañcamasārasaṃhitā and Saṅgītadāmodara, ed. by Guru Bipin Singh and trans. into Hindi by Lalmani Tiwari (Calcutta: Manipuri Nartanalaya, 1984), pp. 1-4.

31 Alaol’s use of the term kalā differs from the Saṅgītaratnākara and seems to refer rather to the non-lexical syllables (commonly called nom tom) used as an aid to articulation in dhrupad alap, which are often embued with esoteric meanings and power; see R. Sanyal and R. Widdess, Dhrupad: Tradition and Performance in Indian Music (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 152-57. The fragment of sangita treatise bearing Alaol’s signature elaborates on the inner significance of kalas, their location, their dhyanas (cf. Miner in this volume), and their cosmological associations; the cosmological associations show a clear link with Shaiva tantric teachings, and templates for such cosmological associations can be found in early modern Bengali Qalandari Yoga treatises; Ālāol Racanāvalī, ed. by Muhammad Abdul Qayyum and Razia Sultana (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 2007), pp. 598-99; I am grateful to Allyn Miner for pointing me in the direction of dhrupad.

32 The expressions he uses are sabhā madhye, sabhā praṇāmiyā, sabhā sambodhiyā, sabhāra ālae; Alaol (2007), pp. 597-98, 600-06.

33 See below for reference to his teaching activity in Sikāndarnāmā.

34 Alaol (2007), pp. 593, 603, and 606.

35 In his narrative poems, Alaol explicitly names three of them: Shubhankara’s Saṅgītadāmodara (c. fifteenth century), Damodara Mishra’s Saṅgītadarpaṇa (c. 1625) and Narada’s Pañcamasārasaṃhitā (c. sixteenth century); see Alaol (2007), pp. 109 and 252. The editors of the texts mistakenly read saṅgita pañcama svara nārade kahila for saṃhitā pañcamasāra nārade kahila (compare with the text of the manuscript given in Alaol, 2002, p. 302) and Saṃkṣipta-darpaṇa for Saṅgīta-darpaṇa.

36 Alaol (2007), p. 606.

37 Shubhankara (1960), p. 16. On Shubhankara, his place in the history of sangitashastras, and the reception of his work, see Nijenhuis (1977), pp. 19-20.

38 The compound tālavādya can either be translated “rhythmical instrument” or “rhythm (tāla) and [melodic] instruments (vādya)”.

39 See the definition given in the Saṅgītadāmodara: dhātumātusamāyuktaṃ gītam ity ucyate bhudhaiḥ | tatra nādātmako dhātur mātur akṣarasaṃcayaḥ || (What contains dhatu and matu is called gita by wise men. In this concern, dhatu is made of sounds and matu is [the result of] a combination of syllables); Shubhankara (1960), p. 16.

40 For a Persian definition of the bayikār (< Sk. vāggeyakāra), see Ghunyat-ul-Munya: The Earliest Known Persian Work on Indian Music, trans. by Shahab Sarmadee (Bombay: Asian Publishing House, 1978), pp. 129-30, and for the Persian text Ghunyat’ul Munya: The Earliest Persian Work on Indian Music, ed. by Shahab Sarmadee (New Delhi: Indian Council of Historical Research, 2003), p. 109. The Lahjāt-i Sikandarshāhi, another Persian text composed in an Afghan Lodi milieu in the second half of the fifteenth century, gives a complete definition of the vaggeyakar that closely follows the Saṅgītaratnākara; ‘Umar Sama‘ Yahya al-Kabuli, Lahjāt-i Sikandarshāhī wa laā’if-i nā-matnāhī, ed. by Syeda Bilqis Fatema Husaini (Mumbai: Alhyat Research Center, 2001), Vol. 1, pp. 146-47. On the figure of the vaggeyakar in Braj literature during the Mughal period, see Françoise “Nalini” Delvoye, Tânsen et la tradition des chants dhrupad en langue braj, du XVIe siècle à nos jours (Paris: Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris III, 1990), pp. 127ff.

41 This contrasts with South Indian Dravidian literary traditions in which the epistemological frameworks of Sanskrit had been adopted and adapted very early; Sheldon Pollock, ‘The Cosmopolitan Vernacular’, The Journal of Asian Studies 57.1 (1998), 6-37, and The Language of Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit Culture and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). Even sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Brajbhasha literature openly integrated Sanskrit scholarship when reflecting on its own tradition; Allison Busch, ‘The Anxiety of Innovation: The Practice of Literary Science in the Hindi/Riti Tradition’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and Middle East 24.2 (2004), 45-59. But this was not the case at all in premodern Bengali, which was largely autonomous in its aesthetic and prosody from the prescriptions of Sanskrit shastras.

42 Damodara, Saṅgītadarpaṇa (MS Bnf Sanscrit 771), f. 32a.

43 This should be compared with the definitions given by Zumthor (1983, p. 164) of texte, poème, and œuvre.

44 Alaol (2007), p. 313.

45 The editor Debnath Bandyopadhyay reads: janmite bariba sukha.

46 Bandyopadhyay reads: sāhase. The reference here is to the Vedāntasāra of Sadananda (c. fourteenth century), a handbook that exposes the basics of Vedanta philosophy. This short text was widely read and has been commented upon by several authors; see Theodore Aufrecht, Catalogus Catalogorum: An Alphabetical Register of Sanskrit Works and Authors (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1891), Vol. 1, p. 607.

47 Alaol (2002), p. 300.

48 Actually the whole argumentation regarding Ratnasena’s attitude is Alaol’s comments. The Avadhi text only has: tabahũ rājā hiẽ na hārā / rāja pãvari par racā akhārā; Jayasi, Padmāvat, ed. by Mata Prasad Gupta, 2nd edn (Allahabad: Bharati Bhandar, 1963), p. 437. Alaol translated the first and last words of the caupai (tabe rājā ratnasena / [] rājadvāre raci ntyaśālā / l. 1-5), and glossed the Avadhi expression hiẽ na hārā (lit. “did not lose in his heart”). The additional “philosophical” explanation that Alaol gives may be understood as advice to encourage the patron to play his role of supporter of the arts even in difficult times. Compare with Satī-Maynā Lora Candrāṇī, when Alaol describes Lora’s pleasures in the Mohara kingdom: raciyā udyāna ghana / puṣkariṇī upavana / tathā [sajjā] kari [ntya]śālā | gīta nāṭa raṅge ḍhaṅge / candrāṇī loraka saṅge / paricaryā kare kulabālā || (“He made a complete pleasure garden, pools and groves where he adorned a dance hall. In the amusements of chants and dramatic performances, Chandrani with Lorak were served by well born young girls”); Alaol, Satī-Maynā Lora Candrāṇī, ed. by Muhammad Abdul Qayyum (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1992), p. 90. I have slightly amended Abdul Qayyum’s text śayyā to sajjā and nitya to ntya. These were obvious mistakes in the rendering into modern Bengali of the spelling found in the manuscripts.

49 See Sharngadeva, The Saṅgītaratnākara of Śārṅgadeva with the Kalānidhi of Kallinātha and the Saṅgītasudhākara of Siṃhabhūpāla, ed. by S. Subrahmanyam Shastri and V. Krishnamacharya (Madras: The Adyar Library and Research Centre, 1959), p. 153, and the Saṅgītaśiromaṇi, ed. and trans. by Emmie te Nijenhuis (Leiden: Brill, 1992), pp. 484-85. The Lahjāt-i Sikandarshāhī does not elaborate on the topic: “dar bayān-i gāndharb wa ānchunān ast ki har ki mārg u desī rā bā badānad, ān rā gāndharb nām khwānandsabab-i īn ma‘nī niwishta nashud tā kitāb dirāz nagardad. (“On the exposition of the word gandharb and its meaning: anyone who knows perfectly and completely the marga and the deshi is called a gandharb… I do not write anything about the reason of the meaning [of this word], so that the book does not become too long”); ‘Umar Sama‘ Yahya al-Kabuli (2001), see below for the definition of the Ghunyat al-munyā.

50 Regarding musicological literature and patronage in the Sultanate of Gujarat, see Delvoye (2000).

51 I suggest to read ba instead of bar.

52 Ghunyatu’l-munya (2003), Persian text, pp. 109-10, translation slightly modified from that given by Sarmadee (1978), pp. 130-31.

53 The term mu‘arrif usually means “herald”. He was the individual in charge of announcing anyone who would come to the Sultan’s court. See the article ‘Mu‘arrif’, in Dihkhuda (2002).

54 Alaol (2002), p. 300.

55 Alaol (2007), pp. 252-53.

56 See Miner in the present volume.

57 See Emie te Nijenhuis’s comments in the introduction of Delvoye et al., eds. (2010), p. 40.