It’s widely agreed that 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.
But 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 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 titles, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s ‘Mahal’, and Amita Kanekar’s ‘Pride of Lions’, have prominent women figures with the Mughal era as backdrop.
‘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. 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 Mukhoty. “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?”
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 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, communitarian, and 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.
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
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.”
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 ninth 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.”
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 roughly the same size of population.”
More recent subcontinental women, who have enjoyed
political power – or being married to men who did – have had better luck. Books
have been written on Indira Gandhi and 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
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,” she says.
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 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.