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The story of an ivory chair – Murshidabad’s gift to Hastings

Dr Amin Jaffer, the expert on Indian arts and furniture, currently working at Christie’s holds forth in a conversation below. The chair above is a fine work of craftsmanship and amalgamation of Eastern and Western aesthetics in the eighteenth century India. The chair was presented to the infamous Warren Hastings by the female Rani (ruler) of Murshidabad. Amazing that it survives…

we’re very lucky to have found a group of correspondence relating to Warren Hastings and the ruler of Murshidabad, the old princely capital of the state of Bengal and she was the regent, she was called Mani Begum, who was originally a dancing girl and she married the Nawab and when the Nawab died and there was a sort of power vacuum, Warren Hastings installed her as the regent and she thanks Hastings and his wife Marion by giving them, over a number of years, pieces of very, very high quality ivory furniture.
And when Hastings comes back to England, it’s his agent in Calcutta who’s transacting the shipping of the furniture and Hastings asks him repeatedly to give letters to the Begum to thank her or to tell her how fantastic the furniture looks in the house in Dalesford – Warren Hastings’ great house which he built in the Cotswolds and that’s how we really know that this piece, one of a pair, belonged to this great important commission.

June 5th, 2008|Arts & Culture, History, India-Pakistan History|1 Comment

Why Jodhaa Akbar is a disappointment?

The challenge of translating a historical era into a cinematic endeavour is daunting, especially when it concerns historically contested subjects such as the fabled love between 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar and Jodha Bai, the legendary princess from Rajputana who later ruled India as Empress and symbolised the Hindu-Muslim accord of the times. However, it is not historical accuracy, or lack thereof, which defines the rather exasperating cinematic narrative of an otherwise glorious period of the subcontinent’s history. It is the facile treatment of history, its interpretative variants and its actors that makes the Bollywood film Jodhaa-Akbar a disappointment.

Akbar’s reign symbolised the zenith of the Mughal Empire and also some of its unique attributes. Whether it was the secular, tolerant governance based on the Sulah-i-Kul (peace with all) policy, opening up the frontiers of theological discussion, effective administrative systems or promotion of Indo-Mughal art forms, Akbar was a pioneer in most respects.

Jodhaa-Akbar attempts to capture the essence of that particular moment: the Indianisaton of the Mughal court and most importantly, the royal household. Whether it is to do with the grafting of a temple within the Agra fort or the introduction of vegetarian meals, these were significant markers for centuries to come, enabling a tiny Muslim minority to rule the non-Muslim majority. But the film fails to handle this momentous phase of history appropriately and instead churns out a masala mix that, despite the massive budget, results in mediocre film-making.

This is not to say that the film is without merit. It is visually stunning in places and A R Rehman’s music is outstanding. The two stars Ashwariya Rai and Hrithik Roshan provide glamour and unreal beauty. The settings are competently improvised and yes, the feel of the whole cinematic experience does convey the cliched Mughal aura of splendour, excess and a hybrid aesthetic. Rai and Roshan exude that enigmatic chemistry which makes them an attractive pair on screen.

But it is the treatment of the subject, characters and nuances that disappoints, especially when one remembers director/producer Ashutosh Gowariker’s earthy and under-your-skin rendition in Swades . In the pursuit of commercial success, Ashutosh relies on soft plagiarism. The battle scenes remind one of the Hollywood blockbuster Troy; the inanimate army contingents resemble those in Gladiator; and the sword fighting sequences re-enact the visual tricks of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . But these are all still pardonable. […]

Fate Of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Descendants

I had recently posted a few verses from the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Read this story by Indscribe that spells a heart wrenching denouement to the dazzling Mughal Empire.

Full entry here >>

April 20th, 2007|History, India-Pakistan History|14 Comments

Mughal Princess Zebunnissa – Lady of the age

Mughal history ignores women of the empire, including Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb-un-Nissa: patron of the arts, poet, and a keeper of several lovers – according to rumours. The eldest daughter, she was Aurangzeb’s close companion for several years. She was born in 1638 to Dilras Bano of the Persian Safavid dynasty. Loved by Aurangzeb, she was named carefully to reflect his station.

A favourite, she was exposed to the affairs of the Mughal court. With a sound education in the arts, languages, astronomy and sciences of the day, Zeb-un-Nissa turned into an aware and sensitive princess. She never married and kept herself occupied by poetry and a spiritual Sufi quest.

This is the irony – Aurangzeb’s daughter was an antithesis of her father’s persona and politics. Zeb-un-Nissa was both a Sufi and a gifted poet. The Divan-i-Makhfi – a major divan – is credited to her name. Given her father’s dislike for poetry, she could only be makhfi – the invisible.

There was subversion too – like all rebels she attended and participated in the literary and cultural events of her age, dressed in her veil.

Unlike her puritanical father, Zeb-un-Nissa did not share her father’s orthodox views on religion and society. Steeped in mystic thought, her ghazals sang of love, freedom and inner experience: […]