On the grave of this poor stranger/Let there be neither lamp nor rose/Let neither butterflies’ wings burn/Nor nightingales sing.’
For the epitaph of an empress, these words sound rather ironical. Noor Jahan, the twentieth wife of emperor Jahangir and the woman who held the reins of the Mughal empire, lies dead in a mausoleum in Lahore, in a tomb that she had built for herself, with an epitaph that she herself wrote.
The irony of the epitaph apart, the story of the rise and fall of Noor Jahan is even more intriguing. A member of Jahangir’s royal zenana, Noor, in course of time, became his wife. Soon, she was making decisions on his behalf and running the empire.
Playwright and actor Avijit Dutt, whose play, Noor Jahan: An Empress Reveals will be staged this Sunday, says that when he found the character — through a friend who works with chikankari, and incidentally mentioned to him that chikankari was brought to India by Noor Jahan — he knew he had to write this period drama. “Noor Jahan was a designer making her living off designing clothes [before she married Jahangir]. She had designed gardens in Kashmir. Later, she emerged as a military leader and could even shoot. To me, it sounded amazing!” he says.
Jahangir, however, was not Noor Jahan’s first husband. She had been married to Sher Afgan Khan, a Mughal nobleman, and had a daughter with him. After his death, she had to fend for the two of them. She arrived from Persia with her daughter, was admitted in the royal zenana, and later became a favoured wife.
Dutt says that as he sat down to write, friends wondered why he was interested in a character who was no more than a “shyster” and had “jockeyed for power” all her life. “But I thought here was a widow, a refugee, who had no political advantage to begin with, no land, and yet, Jahangir fell for her,” he says. In contrast, Jahangir’s last wife (the one he maried before Noor) had brought him much land and political advantage. In these details — between the humble background and the power jockeying — Dutt found his characters. Many-layered personalities, Dutt could not have portrayed them as being “one-dimensional”.
A story of survival
History, he feels, has been unkind to Noor Jahan, who suddenly found herself among powerful people and was simply “building her skill-set” to survive, and flourish. And that too, in a male-dominated world. “There’s a particular scene in the play where Noor Jahan and Prince Salim (Jahangir) are talking, and he asks her why she couldn’t meet him at Meena Bazaar. To this, she responds that she didn’t wish to go to a place where even the ‘vegetables were mutilated’,” he says. Dutt says this dialogue helps establish that so tight were the controls on women that even the vegetables were cut so that they couldn’t be used for women to “pleasure themselves”.
On stage, the story of the rise and fall of Noor Jahan — who ran the empire through her trusted male aides, but lost out in the war of succession between his sons following Jahangir’s death — is divided into 26 scenes. One of these rebel sons was Shah Jahan, who, inspired by the tomb that Noor Jahan built for her father, built the Taj Mahal. But even in his research, Dutt says he couldn’t find the source for establishing how Noor Jahan discovered pietra dura (pictorial mosaic work that uses semi-precious stones, typically for table tops and other furniture) that she used in her father’s tomb, he says. Perhaps, some part of Noor Jahan will always remain an enigma.
Perhaps, some part of Noor Jahan will always remain an enigma.