Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Bidding farewell to the Mughals

1857 is the most important year in Indian history. Many remember it for Mangal Pandey, the Sepoy Mutiny and some even call it the First War of Indian Independence, but the fact is that, above all this history captured of that period beautifully establishes how a dynasty ends, how a nation evolves and how a country beautifully adapts all these changes, through much warfare and bloodshed to the India that is today. In many ways you understand, that this is the period during which the British actually go on to completely conquer India.

If anything had changed during that pivotal year, the India we see today, would surely have been different, whether it would have been better or worse is left to the analysts and astrologers, but surely for an historian, capturing the essence of that period is the best exercise in terms of sheer scale and possibilities. In that sense William Dalrymple has done a wonderful job of travelling across the country and dissecting the Mutiny papers and letters of that period in such a meticulous and detailed manner, that he captures the stories of almost every kind of common man, Hindu, muslim or the british, taking slices from their lifetime to construct a very objective and very unopinionated view of the entire period. Khushwant Singh tells about the book, "This is how history should be written", and you simply cannot help but agree, because it is not a lecture and in many ways a collection of stories, which can effectively draw you into that era so captivatingly, that you relate to all the main characters and learn to appreciate history, culture, art and yet at the same time, the deprivation, poverty, lack of administration, of planning, all make William Dalrymple`s "The Last Mughal" a must read, especially for aspiring historians.

Having said that about the book, I must admit my initial interest in reading it, wasn`t so much in the political history, but in getting an insight into Mughal culture. I must say I was not disappointed. The Mughal Empire and it`s successive Emperors have always been an object of fascination, because though essentially foreign to Ancient India, like the British, their culture of Art, poetry and architecture is unfailingly impressive. There is abundance of historical texts which detail the life and times of Emperors, like Akbar, Shah Jahan etc. But 1857 is also best remembered for the great urdu poets Zauq and Ghalib. and their rivalry. The book provides beautiful anecdotes from their lives, how they were affected by the Mutiny and the Emperor`s closeness to Zauq and Ghalib`s representations to the Emperor to accept him in equal light. The Emperor, himself being a wonderful poet himself. That poetry, art and tradition was held in such high esteem makes us truly wonder at the lack of the poetic culture as we see today.


It is another surprising fact that Bahadur Shah Zafar was the only Mughal emperor to have been photographed. The painting above of the same frail emperor, which is also on the cover of the book, serving testimony to the fact that many of the paintings of that era were often amazingly glorified and exaggerated versions of reality comes to the fore. It has to be admitted therefore that the emperors and artists of that generation really understood the importance of history and it`s documentation, whether they were opinionated and with neutral outlook is another matter.


Also the photograph is an evidence to the emergence of technology that the advent of British empire brought about. Photography replacing Art, can very much be perceived as a result of the British conquest of India. It is not that technology is not advantageous, but the fact remains that as technology brought about comfortable changes, it also failed to keep aloft beautiful traditions of Art and paintings, poetry recitals and both persian and vedic style of architecture. In that sense 1857 was also a period of great change, when the British stopped adopting the existing culture, and turned to enforcing their culture and beliefs upon a groups of faithless infidels as they understood, mainly as revenge to the severe rage and outburst of the natives. Because otherwise it is greatly interesting how the britishers before this period had learned to assimilate and absorb the Indian customs and some had even revelled in Urdu poetry, art and tradition. So in that regard 1857 brought to an end not only a great dynasty but also several aspects of art and culture that today seem so unique and unearthly.

As we learn about the inefficiency of the Mughal generals in leading the war and collating the strengths of several armies of the Indian subcontinent and finally succumbing to the lack of administration and planning, we get the picture of a great and huge, but clumsy elephant brought to it`s knees by a sharp and agile lion. We feel sad that the great Mughal empire in it`s last attempt at glory could not find good leadership and also effectively realize that the general Indian public too could not get beyond their differences and reconciled rather weakly to the onslaught of the British, but even more sadder is that fact that even as they got ready to bid farewell to the Mughals, they also failed to keep back strong pillars of the finer aspects of their culture and tradition. Every time a dynasty changes, every time an invasion happens and a new ruler emerges there was a loser in Art, architecture, culture and traditional riches that makes delving into history and rediscovering their glory ever so interesting.

8 comments:

vishesh said...

lol...read about half the book...lost track of the whole thing...thanks for reminding abt the bk :)

priya said...

Your review about the book is quite interesting. Will peek into it when I finish my other books. History is a must read which we often fail due to laziness or lack of thought.

Vinod said...

First time seeing the photograph of Bahadur Shah Zafar

chitra said...

I had loved his bok city of djins. Being a Delhite, i could relate to that book .

Now ur review has motivated me to buy the book.

Keshi said...

wow very interesting info here Srijith, tnxx!

Keshi.

Sreejith Kumar said...

Belated happy vishu...

Jac said...

Eloquently done unni.

Vineet Kumar said...

hmmm, seems quite intresting book