Queens and queens consort: India

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An overview

Sep 8, 2019: The Times of India

When it comes to the Revolt of 1857, the heroic exploits of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi are pretty well-known but not those of a feisty Avadh queen who escaped to Nepal in the hope of fighting the enemy on another day. But that chance never came, and Begum Hazrat Mahal died in Nepal in 1879, unloved, uncared for, and poor.

“She never surrendered and paid a high price for it, dying in penury. And yet she is forgotten and instead we remember her husband, Wajid Ali Shah, and recite his poetry with fondness and nostalgia even though he obeyed the British and abandoned Lucknow to live a life of indulgence in Calcutta,” says author Ira Mukhoty.

Mukhoty, who studied natural sciences at Cambridge, isn’t a professional historian. She says she started with the sole motivation of finding Indian female role models for her two daughters to emulate. But as she started digging, she realised the extent to which women have been written out of history. “The more I discover the extent of the neglect of women’s voices, the more I feel it is essential to retrieve their histories. For so many centuries, we have privileged the spread of a certain type of history — the one about kings, about conquests, about territories and battles. Surely it is time now to question the very fundamental premise of what constitutes history,” says Mukhoty, whose first book ‘Heroines’ was on powerful Indian women from myth and history. Her latest is on lesserknown Mughal women whose tales were buried in the harem. Professor Ruby Lal, who teaches South Asian history at Emory University in the US and has recently authored a biography of Empress Nur Jahan, says that once she began to insert “she” into history, Mughal history began to turn upside down. “There emerged many more complex characters. History began to feel more vulnerable, more human, not fixed,” she says.

“It is the stringent and narrow politics in history writing — and an imagination that certain (read male) texts are somehow ‘sacred’ and ‘legitimate’ — that leaves out vast historical moments, experiences and actors,” Lal adds.

Filmmaker Saba Dewan has written ‘Tawaifnama’ to put the tawaif or courtesan back into the historical narrative. With the coming of the British with their Victorian morality, the tawaifs were seen as prostitutes and markers of the inherent decadence of Indian society. “Even Gandhians internalised much of the Victorian morality, and while going out to prove that Indian society was not decadent, pushed the tawaifs further away from public life and historical record,” says Dewan.

However, she disagrees with the characterisation that authors like her are ‘feminising’ history. “Including women’s voices is a way to make history more wholesome. It is a process of making women more visible in the historical narrative. You see, histories were mostly written by men. To capture women’s voices was not part of any written tradition. The history of the tawaifs was even more invisible as there was so much stigma attached to them,” Dewan says.

Author Manu Pillai, who has also written about courtesans of the past in his latest book, ‘The Courtesan, The Mahatma, and the Italian Brahmin’, agrees with Dewan. “Women have always made profound contributions to history, but found themselves written out. In my new book, I highlight the work of courtesans — the poetry of Muddupalani, the business venture of Balamani, the journey of Begum Samru from dancing girl to protector of the Mughal emperor. These are women who made history, but because their bodies did not feature wedding lockets, and because they existed outside the framework of family, they have not been given their due,” Pillai says. He adds, “We have enshrined Mirabai as a Krishna bhakta but often forget her challenge to Rajput patriarchy. Or Janabai who was a kitchen maid but whose verses convey a frustration with women having to endure domestic shackles. Yes, their voices are couched in the rhetoric of religion, but these women were also radical thinkers. Their stories and their work deserve attention, devoid of moral judgement and on their own terms.”

One wonders, though, about the fundamental problem: if women’s voices were not recorded, how do we retrieve them? Authors have to rely on generalisations and even conjecture at times.

Author and entrepreneur Archana Garodia Gupta points out that often one has to rely on folk tales and legends to flesh out the stories, with all the attendant pitfalls. “Often women’s stories are deliberately erased. For instance, Ferozeshah Tughlaq removed Razia’s name from the lists he had compiled on Delhi’s sultans. One has to visit many sources to retrieve very scant mentions and bring it all together. For the story of Velu Nachiar, the sources I found were in Tamil — it was quite a task translating them,” says the author of ‘The Women Who Ruled India’.

Lal says she had to study closely the complex iconography of art history, architectural histories and early-modern maps in the writing of her biography of Nur Jahan. “It’s not just about different sources: it’s also about the language of those sources, and what such languages can unfold for a historian. Mughal records were replete with discussions of Nur Jahan’s fabulous hunting. I had to ask what hunting meant in that time, particularly hunting of tigers. In the early modern monarchical world, it was a central symbol of sovereignty,” says Lal, the author of ‘Empress — The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan’.

Gupta, though, warns about the temptation to produce hagiographies of women. “The characters and achievements of these women varied as much as any similar group of men. Many of these women made wrong decisions and were ruthless and cruel. We do not need to hide their faults — it is possible to be significant in spite of many failings, as any history about men demonstrates. I have a trio of queens who were really not very ‘nice’ people, but were very successful, and effective rulers — Queen Didda of Kashmir, Tarabai the Maratha, and Begum Samru of Sardana. Gupta can’t however, find fault with Rani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, even in the modern terms of political correctness. “She ruled the best governed state in India in the 18th century, in really very uncertain times,” Gupta says. 

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