Author Ira Mukhoty’s latest book is a feminist rewriting of Mughal history that focuses exclusively on the half-forgotten female protagonists of that era. She speaks to Bhumika Popli.
Q. In the introduction to your latest book, Daughters of the Sun, you have mentioned that this book “will draw…Mughal women out of the deep well of misremembrance they lie in”. How did you come to realise that Mughal women are misrepresented in history books?
A. When I began thinking about the women of the Mughal empire, I came to realise my understanding of them relied very heavily on what was actually a colonial interpretation of Indian history. So much was shaped by the lens of 17th- and 18th-century European interpretations that my understanding of the “Mughal harem” was one of the indolent women constantly competing for the sexual attention of a lascivious padshah. This was the attitude that the Europeans had, tainted by their violent interaction with Islam, the Crusades etc. In particular, it was when I was reading European accounts of the daughters of Shah Jahan—Jahanara Begum and Roshanara Begum—and their description of these incredibly talented and ambitious women in terms that demeaned them and reduced them to being objects of bazaar gossip and sexual misbehaviour, that I really began to appreciate the extent to which Mughal women had been misrepresented.
Q. Would it be fair to categorise this book as the first-of-its-kind feminist rewriting of Mughal history in India? Did you come across any precedents?
A. Professor Ruby Lal’s groundbreaking book, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, is the first academic exploration of the nature of the zenana at the time of Babur, Humayun and Akbar. My book, as far as I know, is the first text that deals with the Mughal zenana as a dynamic, changing space through 200 years of Indian history, in a way which is engaging and accessible for the lay public. So in the sense that women definitely occupy centre-stage and their influence is clearly demarcated, Daughters of the Sun is a feminist rewriting of Mughal history, and one of the first of its kind.
Q. For your research you chose not to consider texts on Mughal history that were written from a “European perspective”. So what exactly became the basis of your research?
A. Once I had deliberately chosen not to use European sources as my primary material, my challenge was to find alternative, reliable sources. I was delighted to find a very underutilised resource, Gulbadan’s biography of her father Babur and her brother Humayun. Gulbadan had been asked by Akbar, much later in his reign, to write a history of all she could remember of her brother and father, and Gulbadan’s is a unique document: a 16th-century Muslim woman’s first-person account of life in the zenana. I used this resource extensively for the first part of my book. I also used writings by less glamorous biographers—such as Humayun’s water-bearer Jauhar—as these accounts tend to be less self-consciously perfect, and are full of very truthful and insightful anecdotes. I used Akbar’s disgruntled biographer, Badauni, who, as an orthodox Muslim, disapproved of Akbar’s liberal policies which he blamed largely on Akbar’s Rajput wives. For me, this was again a way to see beyond the veil that Akbar’s official biographer, Abu’l-Fazl, had carefully placed on the zenana. I have also used Jahanara’s extensive biographies and her correspondence with her brothers and other rajas. In this way, I have tried to use lesser-known accounts and sources and, whenever possible, the words of the women themselves.
Q. Tell us more about Jahanara Begum, the eldest daughter of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz. What was her contribution to Shahjahanabad?
A. The more I learned about Jahanara Begum, the more fascinated I became by the intriguing complexity of her character. On the one hand, she was besotted with the “Sufi Way” and carried out extensive penances in her spiritual quest alongside her beloved brother Dara Shikoh. She was amazingly ambitious even in the scope of her Sufi claims. She wrote in her biographies that she was blessed by Muhammad and his disciples and deserved to become a Peer Murid. At the same time, she was very much a woman of the court, exercising almost unprecedented influence on Shah Jahan, Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. Despite her becoming involved in the bloody war of succession between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb, she was equally respected by both parties, clearly demonstrating a strength of character and personality that went beyond partisan politics. She had a very clear sense of her destiny as keeping alive the “Timurid flame” through her many carefully chosen works, including architectural works. The most extraordinary of these was her role in the building of Shahjahanabad. She was the single most important woman builder of the city, building a magnificent caravanserai, an extensive hammam, her palace within the qila, a garden which made up most of the centre of the city, and, of course, the marketplace of Chandni Chowk including the central chowk or square.
Q. What degree of freedom did women enjoy in general under the Mughal rule?
A. The early Mughal women especially show a considerable and often astonishing amount of freedom in their lives. They were physically unconstrained, travelling through all kinds of arduous countryside on all sorts of assignations; accompanying fathers and brothers and husbands on battles, on pilgrimages or on pleasure excursions. Their purdah was very cursory and they had all kinds of ways of influencing politics. I believe this was due to the semi-nomadic Timurid culture that Babur brought with him into Hindustan. Timur and his descendants were very respectful of the women in their family, especially the older matriarchs. Babur also revered his grandmother and mother, and constantly sought their advice.
Q. What was the role of women in the development of the arts and culture of the Mughal era?
A. We often don’t emphasise enough how unusual it was for women in the 16th and 17th century to be as educated as Mughal women were. Rajput women of the same time and indeed European women were only given the most rudimentary of educations, mostly on “womanly” crafts. Mughal women, on the other hand, were taught calligraphy, poetry, mathematics, history etc. As a result, they participated in the creation of Mughal culture, including writing poetry and books and being involved in the arts. This, again, was a part of Persian and Timurid tradition, and it continued with the Mughals, mingling with local Hindustani elements and resulting in the wonderful Mughal aesthetics. A great number of Mughal women were talented poets, and if it was not considered acceptable for a noblewoman to write under her own name, then she wrote under a pseudonym. Women patronised musicians, artists, writers and poets and thereby influenced the very tenor of courtly culture.
Q. Could you introduce us to the power and influence of Jahangir’s wife, Noor
A. Noor Jahan came from a very talented family, one that shaped the Mughal court at the time of Jahangir. What was extraordinary about Noor Jahan, among many other achievements, was her shaping of a certain aesthetics and sensibility that became synonymous with Mughal high taste and culture. In everything she did, from organising a banquet for a victorious Mirza Khurram (later Shah Jahan), to building a mosque for her parents, demonstrated her exquisite and impeccable taste and vision. She even designed new types of cloths, of the lightest cotton, and her mother discovered the attar of roses. The Itimad-ud-Daulah tomb she commissioned for her parents was the most perfect and lovely Mughal monument of its time, many of its features being groundbreaking and used later in the building of the Taj Mahal. In that sense, Noor Jahan was the perfect companion for Jahangir, who was enthralled by the depiction of beauty and elegance and sought to surround himself with refinement and grace.