Review: Attendant Lords by TCA Raghavan
The lives of two nobles, father and son, who lived through the reigns of four Mughal emperors, reveal how the empire viewed history, language and religion as aspects of nation buildingbooks Updated: Dec 15, 2017 16:51 IST
Can literary acumen act as a means to political ascendency in recent times? Alternately, is there scope for political prowess to be embellished by literary merit? Today, such questions would be frowned upon and the audacity of the seeker would evoke mirth. Contemporary political life is marred by a moral decline and there is little room for literary enterprise to flourish as electoral politics thrives on wooing a divided society with lofty promises. The acquisition of power is at the cost of everything humane, literature being an essential casualty.
The lives of two nobles, father and son, who lived separately through the reigns of four Mughal emperors, show that history, language and religion can be combined as aspects of nation building. Bairam Khan’s military acumen and Abdur Rahim’s literary prowess left their mark during the period of great literary and spiritual effervescence under the reigns of Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir and Shajahan in the 16th and 17th centuries. More than their unconditional loyalty, it was their political acumen and valour that helped both attain enviable positions in the royal courts.
In his painstakingly detailed account, TCA Raghavan captures the political jealousies and ideological controversies that these nobles were prey to. How they maneuvered their way through the muddle without compromising on their literary talents is both intriguing and inspiring. The ability to compose and recite poetry spontaneously came in handy for Bairam throughout his distinguished career. Adroit in expressing flattery in its subtlest form in his poetry, the decorated regent could push many crucial political decisions in favour of the empire. Sadly, it was close proximity to the throne that caused Bairam Khan’s eventual decline.
Attendant Lords is a vivid narrative of the most important period in Mughal history, when the rulers were not only consolidating power but also negotiating religious diversity through political upmanship. It was not just the Mughals who pulled diverse socio-cultural-religious narratives into a nationalistic discourse. History is replete with instances of rulers trying to reconcile such tensions in different ways. What made the Mughals different was their liberal behaviour towards the masses and their attempt to invoke sympathies from across cultures.
Bairam Khan’s dismissal and subsequent departure from court left a sense of residual guilt in the mind of Akbar, who showered kindness on the child Abdur Rahim, who was only five years old when his father died. Rahim grew up to be a well-regarded scholar of Persian, Turkish and Arabic. He owed these acquisitions, which had a lasting impact on his approach to life, politics, and power, to the liberal scholarly atmosphere at court. Subsequent to the ceremonious return of his abducted wife on the instructions of Rana Pratap, Rahim lost all desire to defeat so worthy a foe and requested Akbar that he be relieved of his command on grounds of ill health. On being questioned by the emperor, Rahim is believed to have responded: ‘his courage, pride, chivalry and patriotism distinguish him as one who should receive the emperor’s benevolence’. The campaign against Mewar was given up, suggestive of the sowing of the earliest seeds of Indian nationalism on Hindu-Muslim unity.
Raghavan uses a literary lens to delve into the historicity of the cultural efflorescence of the period. Persian poetry was ‘an important vehicle of liberalism in the medieval Muslim world (and) helped in no significant way in creating and supporting the Mughal attempt to accommodate diverse religious traditions.’ Language, poetry and politics were aligned under the patronage of nobles like Rahim, who had himself emerged as a poet of extraordinary brilliance. From decorative to devotional, Rahim’s moral aphorisms rest on simple verses in which everyday life resonates. His verse Rahiman pani rakhiye, bin paani sub sun (Always keep water, for without it nothing exists) has an immortal endurance.
A work of scholarship, Attendant Lords navigates the lives of these two nobles in history, literature, and later in cinema. Akbari dispensation of interfaith harmony would not have been possible without Bairam Khan. It was subsequently nurtured by Abdur Rahim. Raghavan aptly concludes the biography of these two important pillars of the empire by locating them in the present: ‘..it is their ambitions, accomplishments and flaws, interfacing with difficult choices, rightly or wrongly made, that give us the point of entry to use our own present to understand their long-past lives.’ In doing so we better understand our own times.