Women in history

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 2 February 2019

Author Ira Mukhoty says it’s time we reclaimed our histories and different view points that come with them

Down the ages, in every historical period, there have been women who have broken the moulds and the prevailing society had made peace with them. How we look and judge these heroines and their contributions today is what the authors writing in history genre are discussing. We caught up with Ira Mukhoty at a literature festival where she was a part of the panel discussion on ‘Empress: Nur Jahan and the Women of the Mughal Empire’. Mukhoty has penned two books, Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire and Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History. 

Mukhoty’s aim while researching on the powerful Indian women, was to learn more about their characteristics and traits which would be inspiring for the contemporary women. “When I watched Draupadi on TV,  I thought she couldn’t be the way she is shown — this Punjabi fair girl, wearing gold jewellery. The original character of Draupadi is different from what she has become in the 21st century. There is this whole issue of colour. In the original text, she was dark and the gold looked nice on her because of the skintone. We have forgotten that. She was fiery, outspoken and she challenged her husbands. All that has been subdued in the recent literature. Rani Laxmibai was most famous of all our heroines, but what we know of her is the poem that we are taught in school. Who knows her back story? How did she become this great woman? I had a very bland idea, a uni-dimensional idea of who these women were. I started researching on her through primary sources — by reading what people of that period wrote about Laxmibai. Many people had written about her, but we have forgotten most of those sources, including one Brahmin priest, who was travelling across India, escaping the uprising. He meets Laxmibai in the court and he writes so movingly about it. I found it very interesting because this is from an Indian perspective. In popular domain, we only have what the British thought of her. They saw Laxmibai as brave, but a traitor,” says Mukhoty.

When we talk of Draupadi, it’s difficult to not broach the topic of Sita, who hitherto has always been held up as the ‘ideal Indian woman’. Mukhoty agrees and says, “We talk much more about Sita, because she is the epitome of perfect pativrata, perfect wife, perfect daughter. She is someone who can be moulded into perfection. I think we need to re-examine Sita. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forests of Enchantment is a book on Sita, which was a long time in coming. I haven’t read it yet, but I think there has to be something more to her than this bland, perfect woman. To my mind, she is a little self-destructive. She has to go back to the earth, to prove her point. I prefer to look at women, who lived and fought for their principles,” she adds. 

In Indian society, the women from the past have always been presented as examples for the modern females. That inevitably leads to clashes of two worlds. Can we wear their labels the way they did? If not, do we judge these women, with our 21st century standards? 

The Cambridge-educated Mukhoty replies, “I think it is wrong to use our standards to judge things which have happened so far in the past, like our epics. The point is to not bring them into our societies today, but for us to go back into their’s and see what the society was like then. We should find out if these societies accepted transgressions much more openly than we do today. The women of the yore were of a certain way, they spoke their mind, there was more sexual freedom, somehow Amrapali, a courtesan in the sixth century was acceptable then. She was also highly respected. We have made her into a prostitute, we have said that she needs to be saved from her destiny. We became more rigid as a society, with the Victorian attitudes that we internalised during and post- colonialism.” 

But Indian society was colonised for 150 years, we argue. Also, there were other examples like Ahilyabai Holkar who is eulogised because she stood up to a male ruler. Is that how we should look at women?

“I think that would be very limiting. What I have tried to find out is, how the heroines tried to work around social mores. For example, Rani Laxmibai engaged a lawyer to fight her case, she put aside her purdah and talked to foreigner men. I think these attempts go beyond the prescribed behaviour for a Brahmin widow and that is what makes her incredibly brave. Not just the male idea of a lady dying in a battle. Why do we need to apply that? Isn’t there another way to be brave? Another example is Hazrat Mahal. Her husband Nawab WajidAli Shah wasn’t able to stand up to the British, but she could. I think we should focus on the resilience factor in women, because they were able to withstand pressure and could find a way around, offer resistance to Britishers in the 1857 uprising,” Mukhoty offers.  

She then talks about the imagery that we associate these women with. “I am not sure if the image of Rani in the battlefield with an infant strapped to her back is right. Her son was 10-years-old around 1857. There is nothing written about her being a maternal woman, that was later woven into the accepted imagery. I think Laxmibai was doing it for herself, she knew what she was capable of. She was very popular, she was loved and she wanted to do this for herself. And, I think it’s okay to claim ambition for women,” says the author. 

History is written by victors. So far we have had access to Western or British views on Indian history. Now, Indian writers are putting our side of the story which doesn’t match to what was fed to us. Mukhoty says, “There is a big need for history to be reclaimed by Indian writers, who have different point of views, women’s point of view, for instance. At some point, the books will have some areas which will not be clearly understood. There will be clashes with prevailing views. But that’s okay. We need to go beyond colonial, Nehruvian history and move into colloquial history, which everyone can understand.”

In the panel discussion, she said that women in power, or from royal families were not painted in a favourable light by the foreign writers or historians who were in India then. For instance, in the popular domain, there were references of Shah Jehan having incestuous relation with his daughter, Jahanara. Mukhoty, who has written about her and her sister, Roshanara in her book says, “I looked at this particular incident closely, because I had heard the gossip. This was first brought up by a Britisher, Peter Mundy. And, every successive British author would take that earlier writing and write his story based on that. So the earlier rumour got perpetuated. The Britishers couldn’t understand how an unmarried woman could hold so much power, wealth. At that point, in Britain, a single woman couldn’t control wealth. She either belonged to the husband or her father. They were trying to figure out how Begum Jahanara had so much power and wealth and they put it down to incest. There was nothing of this sort in Indian sources. The British writers who were sympathetic to the Mughals said this could have never happened.” 

“In India, we tend to absorb everything as a part of our tapestry. But here’s a cautionary note  — there is a line between historical fiction and non-fiction. Do not confuse it with facts,” says Mukhoty, who is working on her next book, which is on Mughal Badshah Akbar.

We need to go beyond colonial, Nehruvian history and move into colloquial history, which everyone can understand — Ira Mukhoty

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