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Wknd exclusive: Ira Mukhoty writes of purdahs and the pandemic – art and culture

At the oppressive dawn of a monsoon morning in Calcutta in 1780, two angry Britons stood fourteen paces away, preparing to resolve their bitter and long-standing differences through a duel. One of the men, aged, pensive and with rheumatic eyes, seemed an unlikely candidate for the somewhat disreputable sport of dueling. But Warren Hastings, Governor General of Bengal, had been embroiled in an increasingly bitter enmity with another member of the Bengal Supreme Council, Philip Francis.

Although Francis was injured in the duel, he not only recovered almost immediately, but went to England and mounted a campaign against Hastings that would lead to an impeachment trial of the latter for corruption and excessive use of coercive methods against leaders. natives.

Hastings would eventually be acquitted, but several scandalous revelations were made during the lengthy trial, one of the most damning being Hastings’s alleged brutal handling of the Begums of Awadh.

In the 21st century, during the nine long months of a pandemic, in the lethargy of sunny days as spring turned to summer, I found myself obsessively wondering about these Begums, the subject of my next book. How did these women, always in purdah, kidnapped and separated, exert so much influence in North India in the late 18th century that they almost brought about the ruin of the most powerful man in the British East India Company?

As my own life grew closer and closer, a presence crawling behind the walls of my house in a crowded but suddenly silent megacity, I chose to travel (in my mind) to Faizabad and Lucknow, to understand the ambiguous world. of these Begums, gloomy yet gleaming.

The answer, as always, was money. The two most important women in Awadh at that time were Sadh-ruh-nissa, known as Nawab Begum, and his daughter-in-law Unmatuzzohra Bano, known as Bahu Begum, wife of Shuja-ud-Daula. These women were fabulously wealthy, at a time when opulence and extravagance were a specialty of the North Indian courts. Bahu Begum, the beloved adopted daughter of Mughal Emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur himself, brought a dowry in 1745 that was the stuff of legend. She spent approximately 46 lakh rupees on her wedding, making it the most expensive ceremony in Mughal history.

The enormous treasure that Bahu Begum possessed enabled him to make a most courageous and profitable gesture in 1764, after the disastrous defeat of Shuja-ud-Daula by the East India Company at the Battle of Buxar. The British had demanded from Shuja-ud-Daula a huge sum of money to restore their lands and titles, a sum that Bahu Begum scrupulously collected from his own possessions, including the pearl-studded nose ring, an eloquent symbol of her. . civil status.

“If he [Shuja-ud-Daula] stop living, all these things would also cease to be of value to me, ”he is said to have declared to a concerned relative. His generosity earned him the eternal gratitude of Shuja-ud-Daula, who moved permanently to Faizabad, where he entrusted his treasure and state seals to his wife.

In Faizabad, Shuja-ud-Daula and Bahu Begum created a luminous court culture to rival the Delhi court of the Mughal emperor. They sponsored architecture and attracted poets, artists, musicians and dancers, who transformed the provincial backwater of Faizabad into a legendary city of culture. Even widowed, after her son Asaf-ud-Daula became a Nawab in Lucknow, Bahu Begum continued to preside over the rival Faizabad court with panache.

He maintained control over Shuja-ud-Daula’s personal wealth and remained the center of a huge network of patronage and power in which he is said to have employed more than 10,000 people. All of this, the Begums accomplished while circumscribed by a purdah that was completely opaque. The palace in which the women lived was guarded by the Mewati infantry, day and night. Inside the palace were powerful Kashmiri female guards and near the entrance were about 25 eunuchs, guarding that liminal space between the outer world and the shadow world within. In fact, these eunuchs were not only guardians of the life of the Begum, but also their agents, their ambassadors, and their spies, who walked that jagged line between the zenana and the world of men.

In many ways, life in the pandemic began to mirror the isolated life of the Begums of Awadh. Like the Begums, we were also masked, our eyes peering from behind the “veils” and face covers. Shops, school and restaurants remained closed to us, forcing us to a form of kidnapping. During the endless summer months, we snuggled indoors, out of bounds. The past became direly present when my third book was published amid the pandemic and I struggled to interact with the insubstantial new world. How, I wondered, did the Begums manage?

The Begums maintained their mighty prestige through total control of their wealth and through the visible and expert manipulation of symbols. When they left the palace walls, they did so in an elaborate procession that included assistants with maces, elephants, runners with flags and drums, symbols of royalty also used by the Mughal emperors.

The Begums also used their wealth to ostentatiously celebrate their Shiite heritage. Since the Shiites were a minority in Awadh, the grandiose celebration of Shiite festivals became a symbol of the Begum’s elite status. Nawab Begum began the construction of Imambaras while Bahu Begum sponsored the singing of funeral songs during the month of Muharram. Within the confines of Zenana, his high-voltage expressions of Shiite piety through songs and recitations increased his prestige.

In the 1780s, Bahu Begum would come under relentless pressure from both the British East India Company and Asaf-ud-Daula to hand over his fabulous wealth first time, but “if I lost the country to myself” , the Begum wrote threateningly to the English resident, “will be lost to all. I give you this hint; note. ”

Bahu Begum was completely true to his word. She remained undaunted, counting on a fragile claim to immunity based on the respect due her as a pious Shiite noblewoman. In the end, it was Hastings whose reputation would suffer for his perceived violence towards the Begums, and it was Asaf-ud-daula whom posterity would remember as the wasteful son of an indomitable mother. It was Bahu Begum, invisible but omnipresent, who kept his treasure and reputation intact until his death.

As this endless year draws to a close, I realize that we too have used sideways to be seen and heard. In this happy world, we have found a healthy space, cyberspace, through which we have exchanged ideas, goods and services. We told our stories, we sold our books, our poems and our art. In disembodied Zoom meetings and pixelated Instagram Lives, locked against fierce sun and nameless fear, we’ve transcended our abduction to find a way to be human, once again.

(Ira Mukhoty is the author of Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire, Akbar: The Great Mughal and Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History)

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