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Home / Books / Royal misses: lost and found

Royal misses: lost and found

Women writers have uncovered surprising new details about India’s women who made history, but whom history forgot

books Updated: Jul 22, 2019 12:10 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
‘Nur Jahan is the story of India, the history of India. Once you know Nur, you turn your head and see India differently. A place full of creative, living, dynamic, proactive women,’ says author and professor, Emory University, Ruby Lal.
‘Nur Jahan is the story of India, the history of India. Once you know Nur, you turn your head and see India differently. A place full of creative, living, dynamic, proactive women,’ says author and professor, Emory University, Ruby Lal. (Photo courtesy: Empress (Penguin Random House India) )

It’s widely agreed that the French queen, Marie Antoinette, died early because she had too many frocks at a time of social unrest . History places her the way she was: her contribution to France was in lace and ruffles. In India, on the other hand, many women who made significant history, have just been projected as domestic goddesses; their exercise of political power considered overreach, or been simply sidelined.

Authors, policy influencers, patrons of artists, wedding planners, in other words, alliance makers, city builders among Timurid women have, for instance, been lumped under ‘Mughal women’ in our textbooks after ‘Mughal art and architecture’ have got their due. That is, 214 years of varied achievements by women, overwritten by blocks of marble.

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Women writers have recently been looking at the past with new glasses. They are examining the role women have played in the power structures of the day and are questioning the grand narrative of empire building as being the only story worth telling. In non-fiction, Ruby Lal’s Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, Ira Mukhoty’s The Daughters of the Sun, Archana Garodia Gupta’s The Women Who Ruled India: Leaders, Warriors, Icons, Parvati Sharma’s Jahangir, Deepa Agarwal and Tahmina Aziz Ayub’s book, The Begum, on Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first First Lady who was born Indian, all fall in this category..

In fiction, two upcoming titles, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s Mahal, and Amita Kanekar’s Pride of Lions, have prominent women figures with the Mughal era as backdrop. The latter is a thrilling story of an unlikely revolt. A group of peasants led by women fight the might of Aurangzeb’s rule. Who would not want to be drawn into that world?

Ira Mukhoty and Parvati Sharma call Ruby Lal’s book crucial for a new kind of historical scrutiny. Empress showed the Mughal harem, unlike what colonial and then nationalist historians had flagged it to be, was not the imperial fleshpot, but a power centre; it was a refuge for many women, elderly relatives, generals’ widows, with whom the ruler had no sexual connection; and man-woman relations in Mughal times, as in all times, was a work in progress. The harem untied many knots; each of its rooms was occupied by women with opinions; they were sounding boards for the emperor after he had met the public at court in whose proceedings the women, too, participated.

“Lal’s description of the harem as a sacred space within which women exercised both freedom and power, a notion completely different from the concept of the Oriental harem as a site of debauchery and degradation, made me question the way in which we approach history, the male-centric aspect of it if you will…there is a thing called soft power and we have so far neglected it,” says the author of The Daughters…. “Why, for instance, is Jahanara Begum, who built parts of an entire city, who wrote biographies, had Sufi mystical experiences, created a courtly etiquette, patronised art and music, of less consequence than her brother Dara Shikoh, or, indeed, her father Shah Jahan?”

Gulbadan Begum, biographer of the early Mughals. She wrote Humayun-nama, a biography of the early Timurids, Babar and Humayun, on her nephew Akbar’s request.
Gulbadan Begum, biographer of the early Mughals. She wrote Humayun-nama, a biography of the early Timurids, Babar and Humayun, on her nephew Akbar’s request. ( Photo: Wikimedia Commons )

Mukhoty, in turn, peeled off the layers that concealed the indirect power that lay within the domestic space by showing that key decisions, political and social, were made here. The mothers’ and grandmother’s campaign to rehabilitate Jahangir and get him to succeed Akbar after his fallout with his father was crafted and launched from inside the home, not from the court; Gulbadan Begum, Akbar’s aunt, wrote a biography of the early Timurids, Babur and Humayun, in her quarters; women organised themselves and left the harem to set out on a pilgrimage throwing into disarray -- Abul Fazl, Akbar’s friend and court intellectual, had a word for it, ‘chaos’ -- the best laid plans of their men for their security.

The moon has spots

Women writing on history also shed new light on the big guys of India’s first ruling dynasty – they dare to show Akbar’s skew. Liberal and communitarian, yes. The darling of modern-day historians as a nation-builder, yes. But it was in Akbar’s time that the harem’s role became restrictive, brought on partly by the sensitivities of his Rajput wives who were used to leading veiled lives far from the court. And he was the first emperor who saw his son as competition that led to the first serious threat to the empire’s stability. Parvati Sharma reveals in her book that there was “an odd imbalance” in his relationship with Jahangir, “and the fissures” this might have created in the imperial family, and therefore the Empire, when “there was place for only one shah-baba, king-father, and that was Akbar; the grand-children would refer to their own father as shah-bhai, king-brother”.

As for Nur Jahan, says Sharma, she has been turned into a ‘vamp of history’, defined only by being the object of a king’s attentions. “How many know she was Jahangir’s co-sovereign, that she once conducted a military campaign to rescue him, that she could fell lions with a single shot, and that Jahangir was proud and not embarrassed by her power?”

This ambivalence has also been extended to Harkha Bai, Jahangir’s mother,a Rajput princess from Amber, whom popular culture, even till 10 years ago, was calling by some other name. Harkha Bai aka Jodha Bai aka Maryam-uz-Zamani was also a puzzle for historians. “‘Who is Salim’s mother?’ was a big question in the history congresses of the ’70s. It is only in the 21st century that we are certain [of the name],” says historian Harbans Mukhia. “The history of medieval India was essentially about ruling families with the king at the centre. The women were not ignored, but it is true that they were mentioned mainly as mothers and wives and were part of the general narrative. These new books are defining the entire range of women’s power, seeing them as powerful individuals in their own right.”

Nur Jahan: the co-sovereign, not the power
Nur Jahan: the co-sovereign, not the power ( Photo courtesy: Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal (Juggernaut) by Parvati Sharma )

Too many unknowns

What traditional history-writing also has, says Mukhia, is a north-Indian focus. This is a gap that new writing on historical figures has sought to fill. Editor-in-chief, Hachette, Poulomi Chatterjee, who has published both historical fiction and non-fiction, lists the learnings from Archana Gupta’s book: “How many of us know about the line of Attingal ranis of the Kolathiri dynasty in Kerala, whose rule passed down from mothers to daughters; or the succession of Odisha’s Bhaumakara queens, who defied patriarchal norms and ruled successfully through the 9th and 10th centuries? Were the stories of Rani Karnavati, Chennamma of Keladi or the warrior-queen Chand Bibi, who resiliently fought the invasions of Mughal rulers of different generations into her territories, ever a part of our history books or stories that found their way into popular literature? Or, of the feats of Velu Nachiyar and Rani Abbakka of Ullal against colonial forces?”

What’s interesting is that many of these women were people made complex enough by the pulls and pressures of history to be worth a historian’s study. “These women were certainly no saints, they had frailties. Tara Bai was power-hungry, Queen Didda was ruthless and promoted her lovers to important positions,” says Gupta, “but they took longer to consolidate their power than men.” But they were people with ambition; these were princesses with a plan.


And many of them, Gupta points out, “actually controlled territories which would make a good-sized European nation. Elizabeth I had historians as her chroniclers. Chand Bibi didn’t and doesn’t. And yet in the 16th century, Great Britain and Bijapur had almost the same area and both ruled over roughly the same size of population.”

‘Rather ambitious’

More recent subcontinental women, who have enjoyed the privilege of holding political power - or being married to men who did - have had better luck. Books have been written on Indira Gandhi, Mrs Jinnah, and, now, Ra’ana Liaquat Khan. In The Begum, co-author Deepa Agarwal details the life of Ra’ana, who was born Irene, into a Christian family of Almora; she married Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, and later became a minister and then governor and an ambassador for her country.

“Her legacy is equally, if not more, enduring,” says Agarwal. “The problem is that traditional attitudes die hard in our part of the world. The importance of the task women perform as caregivers is glossed over and even when they perform efficiently in the political arena, they are perceived as being ‘unwomanly’ or ‘rather ambitious’. I think when Irene turned into Gul-i-Ra’ana, she had to negotiate a fine balance. Once she draped that fine net dupatta over her head, she had to assume a persona more in keeping with sub-continental traditions.”

Minister, governor, ambassador, Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first First Lady, was of Indian origin. She was a public figure who was discreet, observant and a woman of wit.
Minister, governor, ambassador, Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first First Lady, was of Indian origin. She was a public figure who was discreet, observant and a woman of wit. ( Photo: Penguin India )

Public figures

Due to the lack of material -- there are at least five biographical works in English on Liaquat Ali Khan -- Agarwal relied on anecdotes to sketch the development of Ra’ana’s personality. Many of these details map her ‘instincts’ as a woman but they also equally shed light on her as a public figure who was discreet, observant and a woman of wit. As the governor of Sind in the ’70s, at a Karachi gathering, she had this to say about ‘Why the Computer is Feminine?’: “…in an office argument about the sex of a computer, it [was decided] that computers were definitely feminine, since . . . they are admired for their configurations, have the ability of total recall, correct all mistakes, predict man’s future foolishness, and of course are always right.”

So, is it happy days for women’s histories in publishing? And is popular history the place where one should hope for some justice done? And what explains the flurry of books on Mughal ladies? Priya Mirza, a Zakir Hussain College lecturer who researches the princely states of pre-Independence India, says the medieval period has been synonymous with the coming of the Muslims, their glory days but also the beginning of the “downfall” and the us vs them debate that has been “integral to shaping Hindu nationalism. It’s a prickly, unsettled and provocative area. In addition, there have been few popular histories on women outside royal families. The most known historical women are those who do not disturb the way we look back at our past -- the past must be comforting, right? No radical women upturning thrones here. Popular history by virtue of being a modern mythology has to be simplistic and acceptable. But it can co-exist with very detailed micro-histories backed by academic research,” she adds.

Popular and academic histories say the same things about Ms Antoinette. Had she not made that remark about cakes and bread, she just might have kept her head off the guillotine. In India, few queens have had their heads severed by a falling blade. But there have been other sacrifices.