A favourite childhood memory of mine revolves around summer holidays when I used to enjoy devouring the hugely popular witty but filled-with-commonsensical tales of Akbar and Birbal. While I used to envy Birbal’s intelligence and quick wit, I was also in awe of his guts and gumption – to speak his mind to a powerful Mughal ruler without fear of ending up headless.

I was convinced that if not all, at least a majority of the stories were true – after all both are well-documented historical figures, right? The image of the duo engaging in banter with the intelligent Birbal always having the last word remained… until I e-met­­ Ira Mukhoty recently.

“Those famous Akbar-Birbal stories many would have grown up listening to or reading,” says the author of Akbar, The Great Muhghal – The Definitive Biography, “well, those stories are entirely fictitious”.

Ira should know. She has been researching extensively on not just the Mughal emperor but on pretty much the entire Mughal dynasty beginning with her first book Daughters of the Sun, which told the story of the women of that empire and the immense support they lent the rulers at all times.

Admitting that she ventured into history writing “entirely by accident” – Ira studied natural sciences at Cambridge University – the scientist by training spent a few years in the pharmaceutical sector in the West before deciding to return to Gurgaon, a suburb of India’s capital Delhi, “to raise my two daughters”.

Actually part of the credit for nudging her into taking a step into the historical non-fiction genre should go to those daughters.

“When my kids were small, I was keen to tell them stories of heroic women in history,” says the author, in an exclusive e-mail interview from India. “I was hoping to find great [stories about] heroic Indian women to inspire them and provide a sort of blueprint of what heroism could be like for women.”

But Ira was disappointed. “All I found were either foreign imports or very bland and outdated versions of Indian ideals of womanhood.”

Ira admits that she ventured into history writing 'entirely by accident'

Necessity may be the mother of invention and in this case, the mother of two decided to research “how great women had been manipulated through the centuries to fit a certain archetypical idea that was acceptable within a patriarchal society”. The result of that study was her first book Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History, published three years ago.

All the women who figure in the book – from Draupadi, Radha, Ambapali and Raziya Sultan to Meerabai, Hazrat Mahal, Jahanara and Laxmibai – are portrayed as strong, courageous and ready to even lay down their lives if it means standing up for their principles.

Tasting success, Ira followed it up with Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire, which explored the role women played in building the mighty Mughal empire.

Her most recent work, Akbar: The Great Mughal (Aleph Book Company), is garnering acclaim for shedding light on the enigmatic 16th century ruler and for attempting to correct some streams of modern narrative that are attempting to paint a dark picture of him. Does she really think he deserves the epithet ‘the great’? I ask her.

“Akbar’s legacy is certainly astounding. There are many areas in which he was an innovator and creator par excellence,” she says.

“To me, his most remarkable legacy was to believe that all religions were equal, and that no one was to be discriminated, or promoted, because of their religion, and that all inhabitants of the country deserved protection,” she says. “In my book, I’ve set out to describe the unfurling of Akbar’s life and achievements; it is up to the reader to decide whether or not he is ‘great’.”

Excerpts from the interview:

What attracted you to the Mughals? And why do you think they have been so vilified in the more popular history books in India?

The Mughals are easiest to access, because they are closest to us in time. The last Mughal was king, if only in name, till 1857, so that is not very long ago. Their influence is palpable all around us – in the buildings they patronised, in the music, dance and art they created, in the very food we eat today. So it is much easier to immerse oneself in that time, as a writer of history than, for example, the lives of ancient Indian kings and queens, of whom very little material remains.

When I started researching the Mughals, even for the women, there is a huge amount of information available, even if sometimes I had to piece it together like a medieval detective! I was astounded by the breadth of the ambition of some of these women, even unmarried ones, like Shah Jahan’s daughters Jahanara and Roshanara. It became apparent that Mughal women enjoyed a great deal of power, influence and even freedom, but somehow their legacy had been forgotten. This scuffing out of women’s voices in history is not surprising. It happens constantly, in almost every society. But in India, the memory of the Mughals was further corrupted by our colonial history, which had taught us to believe that all Muslim rulers were oppressors and tyrants, their women degraded and invisible.

Do you think Akbar deserves to be called the great?

I have called him ‘the Great Mughal’ because this was how the Europeans referred to Akbar. I wanted to remind readers that at one time, it was India which was rich and glorious, and the Europeans were competing with each other to get a share of trade here and to profit from its wealth. It was they who were astounded at Mughal might, who made the word ‘Mughal’ or Mogul synonymous with glory and riches.

There are many areas in which he was an innovator and creator par excellence. He was a commander of great strategic genius and courage on the battlefield; he was an administrator who thought in unexpected ways; he was a patron of paintings and the arts who began to process of the syncretic Mughal culture and a great deal more. His notion of Sulh-e-kul, universal peace, remains a profoundly inspiring idea, even today. [After reading my book] it is up to the reader to decide whether or not he is ‘great’.

At the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, you mentioned about the religious harmony that was evident during his reign based on the miniature paintings of the times. Could you elaborate on that?

Miniature paintings are a silent testimony to some remarkable experiments in cultural synthesis that were taking place during Akbar’s reign. From the earlier period, for example during Humayun’s time, when the influence of Persian painting is strongest, we can see a slow change in the paintings produced under Akbar. The influence of local Hindu painters becomes more and more evident, as Hindustani exuberance of colour and vivacity of figures start to shake up the rather flat, pastel shapes of classical Persian figures. More and more local elements creep in, such as Indian women in brocade blouses and long ghagras working in construction scenes; mango leaves strung up as buntings on auspicious occasions; local flora and fauna… The Mughal court and darbar scenes, too, take in Hindustani elements. The [instruments] used in the naqqaras [the orchestra], the Rajput features of many of the nobles, Akbar performing the surya namaskar [a yogic sun salutation pose].

Daughters of the Sun told the story of the women of that empire and the immense support they lent the rulers at all times

The influence of European paintings and Christian imagery also becomes increasingly present in the paintings from this time onwards. In these many details we see the slow seeping in of the many elements that would eventually create the magnificent composite Mughal culture – Rajput, Gujarati, Parsee, Jain, Christian, Turki, Persian…

Tell us about Akbar’s relationship with Birbal.

The Akbar-Birbal stories we are accustomed to hearing are entirely fictitious. Scholars such as C M Naim have found those tales to have no basis in reality. He [believes] these tales arose as a form of gentle “push-back” against the powerful figure of the emperor. Other scholars have proposed that this was a way to “humanise” Akbar and his courtiers, make them more relatable in a sense.

But like all good myths, these stories have, nonetheless, a basis in reality. An educated and brilliant Brahmin named Mahesh Das joined Akbar’s court very early in his career. The men quickly became good friends, and the Brahmin acquired the nickname Kavi Rai, or King of Poets, because he was so good at extemporising poetry. He was also an extremely quick-witted man, erudite and lively, and a generous friend. These traits made the man an ideal courtier, and he earned a second name, ‘Vir-Var’ or Brave Warrior, which became Birbal.

Akbar remained deeply attached to Birbal all his life, never once having to reprimand him, and visiting his home several times – a mark of enormous favour. The ruler mourned him endlessly when he was killed at the Yusufzai Disaster, the most disastrous campaign of Akbar’s career. However, the rules of etiquette and the personality of Akbar were such that the buffoonery depicted in the Akbar-Birbal stories could never have taken place. Indeed, Akbar had a fiercely incisive and sharp mind, and was in no way the simple, foolish man of the Akbar-Birbal stories.

Harems, lascivious kings, nubile women are elements that frequently figure when Mughal history is mentioned. You have said this is a post-colonial construct. Does this not mean that a lot of Indian history books need to be rewritten?

The colonial filter is most obvious for the period which was juxtaposed with the European inroad into Hindustan, and for that reason Mughal history, which was the one the British then sought to replace, was most affected. But it is true that when looking at any history, it is good to do so with some knowledge of the background and circumstances surrounding the writing of that history. Is there any ‘agenda’ behind the writers? Who are they writing for? What are their ideologies and leanings?

No history is entirely without biases, but one has to be very careful not to blindly accept heavily doctored history.

Patriarchy, for instance, is another filter that is routinely used to ‘white-wash’ women’s history; that has been another focus of my earlier writing.

So, what are your thoughts on efforts by some sections in India to rewrite history books?

I think we need to remain extremely vigilant about the way in which history can be manipulated. It is very dangerous to twist the events of the past, or maliciously highlight or tamper with certain parts of it in isolation. Almost any event can be made to look a certain way if we take it out of its context with malicious intent [and make it] no longer part of an organic way of life. It is up to us to remain informed, and recognise the manipulation for what it is.

What kind of research goes into your books?

I do a great deal of research in the first phase of writing a book. This involves consulting all the primary material available of the period or person I’m writing about. 

I also read the modern work of scholars, who do such astounding work in analysing different aspects of history and look closely at the work of art historians, among other things.

Research is a laborious exercise, but extremely important to get as balanced a perspective as possible, and as rich in detail too because I like to create a vivid picture for my readers.

Tell us some of the more fascinating pieces of information you discovered during your research… some ‘oh wow’ moments.

Some unexpected findings included the fact that Meerabai, the 16th century mystic, most probably left her elite Rajput home when still a young woman, with a husband still living, because her songs describe an oppressive in-law family. However with time, the narrative changes and she is shown to be an ideal wife, leaving home as an elderly widow, when she has nothing to live for.

Rani Laxmibai, I was amazed to discover, never wanted to fight the British at all. She conducted long diplomatic interactions with them, fighting her cause legally, using a lawyer as intermediary, to convince the English to allow her to rightfully rule her kingdom of Jhansi. She rode into battle only when she was literally left with no other choice. So in these many examples, I was surprised to see that women expressed themselves in many different ways, and negotiated the world with more courage and fierce independence than we give them credit for, because in popular narrative they are always made to conform to the ‘sati-savitri’ [chaste] ideal of Indian womanhood.

Do you think the characteristics and even persona of some women in history are often altered to suit a more modern narrative?

I don’t think the narrative is altered to suit a more modern narrative, but instead a more conventional, ‘Hindutva’ one, which abides only by a very narrow definition of acceptable womanhood. If we look closely at the original epics and stories, Draupadi for example, women have a great deal more agency. They are shown as fierce, angry, intelligent, courageous and complicated. Yet today they are depicted as submissive, soft-spoken, acquiescent and avoiding confrontation.

Who is your favourite female character among the Mughals? 

Jahanara Begum... because she is so easy to relate to in her ambitions and desires, so ‘modern’ in a way. She does not seek the support of a husband or brother, but instead looks for glory in her own name, as a Timurid woman who claims the same agency as her brother Dara Shukoh or her father Shah Jahan.

She writes about her spiritual journey and says that she is ‘lighting the Timurid flame’, which is a very potent symbol that the emperors have used, and it is quite unique for a woman to have used it in this way.

The construction projects that she patronised, in Shahjahanabad, Agra and Lahore, were also unmatched in scale, with only Noor Jahan’s tomb for her parents providing a comparison. Unfortunately all of Jahanara’s buildings in Shahjahanabad were destroyed post 1857, so we cannot study the details of these many commissions, though they were described admiringly by visitors.

Let’s come back to the present for a moment, even if to answer a hypothetical question. How do you think Akbar would have tackled a pandemic of today’s proportions?

Akbar was remarkably sensitive to the plight of the ordinary people. He even once remarked that he had wanted to get rid of all poverty in the land, and had disbursed funds to alleviate poverty, but that corruption got in the way.

There is a well-recorded incident of the way in which he dealt with a terrible famine in 1597, when he was in Srinagar. When he realised how severely the famine was affecting the common person, he set up 12 food kitchens, got rid of 55 onerous taxes which affected the poorer people and set up a huge construction project outside Srinagar at Hari Barbat. For this construction work, he hired local labourers and made sure they were paid a daily wage so that they could buy food. Remember, that until this time, forced labour was often the practice; Akbar made sure that this practice was discontinued.

Ira Mukhoty’s book, Akbar, the Great Muhghal – The definitive biography, is available on Amazon.com.

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