'The Mughal court was considered an extraordinarily cosmopolitan and polyphonous world': Ira Mukhoty

Ambika Shaligram
Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Ira Mukhoty explains why Akbar interested her and how the book, Akbar - The Great Mughal came about.

Terming Ira Mukhoty's Akbar - The Great Mughal, a fun read, could invite ire of some since it trivialises a piece of history.

But the definitive biography published by Aleph Book Company is fun. It engages you from the word go and takes you into the world of Akbar which was shaped by the histories of his grandfather Babur, his father Humayun, his many uncles and aunts, his progeny, and the many wars they fought.

All of us know a smattering of the Mughal history, mostly apocryphal. In Akbar - The Great Mughal, Mukhoty has researched various sources, from the imperial court to his aunt's account, thus giving us a full account of the man who became Akbar. Here's more from the author:

You have previously written Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire. It gives a very different view of the zenana life. Is that when you also thought of exploring the life of Akbar?

A: That's right. While researching on the lives of the Mughal women, I found that while the women of the earlier rulers - Babur and Humayun - had considerable visibility and mobility, somehow during the reign of Akbar, this changed, and the women became pardeh-giyan - hidden behind the veil. At the same time, Akbar was acknowledged as being very sensitive to the plight of women, and progressive in the laws he brought in, such as the law allowing widows to remarry. So there was some sort of dichotomy there that I wanted to explore further and understand how it came about that these irrepressible early Mughal women became slowly constrained within the zenana walls.

You have studied Akbar's aunt Gulbadan's writings on Babur and Humayun, which were personal and revealing. And then there were the chronicles of Badauni and Abu'l Fazl. As an author, how did you see Akbar, the human being? Why did he appeal to you?

A: By reading all these sources, including also sources in sub-imperial courts such as the Brajbhasha writings of Raja Man Singh's court and Bir Singh Deo's court, I wanted to create a textured and layered understanding of who Akbar was. We all have a preconceived notion of the great man we believe him to have been.

Our subconscious mind is crowded with the myths that encircle him - Jodha-Akbar, Akbar-Birbal amidst others. I wanted readers to walk the journey along with Akbar, to understand the influences he was subject to, and discover the shaping of his personality with all its idiosyncrasies, vulnerabilities, fallibilities and warmth. This very human Akbar, sometimes volatile and angry, and at other times melancholic and uncertain, was something that attracted me and that I wanted to present to the readers within the vibrant and chaotic world of 16th century Mughal India.

You also chose to write about Birbal, which is a different story from the usual Akbar-Birbal caricature-ish stories that we have grown up reading. Was that because you wanted to give the youngsters something new to think about?

A: Naturally, legends grow around extraordinary figures like Akbar. But when writing historical non-fiction, the job of the writer is to remove some of these filters that the passing centuries obscure the stories with. I wanted to challenge the notion that a reader might have of already 'knowing' Akbar because of these myths. There is usually a core of truth, to some of these legends. So I wanted to show the relationship of Birbal and Akbar organically within the 16th-century setting, as an evolving friendship, so that readers could ascertain for themselves the texture of this very special bond. 

There were inter-faith mingling and sexual relationships; food was celebrated; it was probably a livelier world than what is made out to be now. Did the colonial rule make us forget this world? How different were the Spanish, French and British views of the Indians/Hindustanis?

A: The English began the nefarious process of dividing Indian history into 'phases', and so they called ancient history 'Hindu', medieval history 'Muslim' and modern history 'European'. In this way, they emphasised that the predominant characteristic of each period was religion, over and above all other influences. But as we know, identity in a country like India was always a very complicated business, with regional, clan, culinary, linguistic, community, trade and other relationships being equally important factors.

The Mughal court, from the time of Akbar, was considered an extraordinarily cosmopolitan and polyphonous world where Persian, Sanskrit, Brajbhasha, and Turkish were patronised. Mughal culture gradually became an exquisite blend of all these influences, but the English did not choose to recognise and promote this. For their purposes, it was much more convenient to speak of a despotic Muslim rule, which it was their duty to overthrow.

The French, at least in the initial phase, approached India with a greater degree of awareness of its rich cultural past, and once they had lost the war with the British over control of Indian trade, grew more interested in Indian philosophy, art and culture.

Your views on what Akbar did right and where Aurangzeb went wrong. Are you planning a book on Aurangzeb?

A: I am less interested in assigning blame and validation, than in creating the past in such a way that the reader will understand the various riptides at work in the current of history. Akbar's legacy was a complicated product of his times, and his life was an unfolding of a multitude of factors - his illiteracy, his doubts, his self-belief, his charisma, his marriages, the people he encountered and so much more. His legacy, in turn, created shockwaves of reaction, such as the ulema's fury and desire to rectify what they saw as his 'excesses', which people like Aurangzeb then had to contend with. I was interested in studying Akbar because he occupies such a colossal space in our collective memory and because he laid the foundation for a culture whose fragrance still surrounds us. I wanted to better understand the processes that allowed for such a luminous destiny. Aurangzeb doesn't interest me in the same way, and so I have no plans to write a book on him. 

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