Begum Samru: The Queen’s Speech

(Published in Open Magazine, 15 August 2019)

When she died in 1836, Begum Samru was a wizened old woman who till the last enjoyed a social life. She had come a long way, after all, and had every reason to savour each moment. Originally a dancing girl in Delhi, her romance with a much older German mercenary (‘the Butcher of Patna’) led, upon his death, to the inheritance of his army. It was no mean feat—she edged out his son to claim the loyalty of the men, going on to win laurels from the Mughal emperor to whose military rescue she rode more than once. Then, in one of those strange twists when her judgement was briefly clouded, she nearly lost it all: She married an unpopular French employee, and her troops rebelled. In the course of events he died, she bounced back, reclaimed power and went on to become an ally of the East India Company. Along the way she had also converted to Christianity, and so it was that in 1836 ‘Her Highness Joanna Zeb-ul-Nissa’, ex-nautch girl, one-time military commander and princess of Sardhana died one of the richest women in northern India.

For too long popular imagination of Indian history has languished under a distinct but perhaps predictable tedium. It presents a few kings, a handful of battles, half-a-dozen dynasties and the romance of the freedom struggle, claiming to encapsulate a story full of diversity and irony. It is perhaps a consequence of the fact that history was largely written by men who preferred to study the achievements of other men—a Begum Samru, in their calculation, became merely a peripheral figure, or at best, a curiosity. Add to this contempt for her origins as a dancing girl and her obscurity is confirmed. The fact, however, is that she was one of the great figures of Indian politics in the final quarter of the 18th century and first of the 19th. A contemporary of Mahadji Scindia, she was a general in her own right, who breached norms of religion and custom—the Christians thought she was too Islamic in her lifestyle, while the Mughal court wondered why she converted to Christianity at all. Secure in her power, meanwhile, the begum built one of the biggest churches in the north, answerable for her choices to no one.

Low origins by itself is not the reason why her memory for a long time remained a footnote in Indian history. After all, Mahadji Scindia, who cemented a dynasty that still retains much power in our politics, was the son of a man who commenced life as a slipper bearer. His family’s humble beginnings and subsequent rise to prominence are projected as a tale of inspiration—something to be respected. But when it comes to a woman with a similar trajectory, unorthodox origins breed contempt, married to which is suspicion of her unpoliced sexuality. Everything else, in other words, pales in the shadow of gender. Begum Samru owned a formidable army; was styled ‘Pillar of the Empire’ by Shah Alam II; entertained padres and diplomats; built monuments and palaces; and carried herself with the greatest pomp and splendour. And yet the taint of having once been a ‘mere’ dancing girl seemed to have stuck—something that would never perhaps have occurred if she were born into the opposite sex, free from expectations of virtue imposed invariably by men.

A good part of this affliction that clouds Indian history emerged from the Victorian colonisation of the Indian mind—the colonial experience after all wasn’t merely about land and riches but also about society and how the subject race thought. Foreign morality became the standard to aspire to, while for customs within what was reserved was shame. The Victorian wife—chaste, docile, maternal—became the ideal of ‘Indian womanhood’ in this strange time with its unequal dynamics, flying in the face of our moral heterogeneity. The consequences were immediate. In Kerala, where reigned topless queens who exercised power in the matrilineal system, they were told to cover up, while the colonial state diluted their power. This applied even to the dead. In the 17th century, for instance, there was a Malayali queen called Umayamma. She ruled as sovereign till her nephew came of age, but by the 19th century she was transformed into a ‘regent’—the British could not grasp direct rule by a woman when a male heir existed and invented for Kerala the concept of regency. Even as late as the 1920s, when Umayamma’s lineal heir challenged this, the British refused to see—in local documents the lady could rule as ‘maharajah’ in her own right, but to them she was only a placeholder for a man.

Controlling knowledge, vocabulary and the imagination in this fashion has had enduring effects on our cultural memory. Victorian historians looked at the past through a lens of morality, an infection we have not yet fully purged. History was about inspiring heroes, not harlots. But such mulishness led to the eclipsing of many a ‘harlot’ who made extraordinary contributions. Balamani of Kumbakonam, for instance, was a devadasi. But she was also proprietor of a 19th century drama company, a large and successful commercial venture, when most Indian women were still illiterate. Trains, it is said, halted for hours at the local station so passengers could disembark to catch a show. Like kings of yore, she sponsored renovations of temples and funded charities. But unlike kings of yore, because of her sex and the absence of a wedding badge, she was denied respect—this when devadasis earlier enjoyed a place of dignity. Indeed, when in 1903 the Travancore maharajah’s minister honoured her in public by placing a gold chain around her neck, it provoked scandal. Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai—remembered as a towering figure of press freedom—thundered how this was a vulgar moment when ‘a wicked minister was taken in by female charms’. He may have been a champion of the press, but he was no proto-feminist. And the consequences, of course, were suffered by Balamani who for all her artistic contributions is today largely forgotten.

For the Victorians even Queen Victoria back home was palatable because she was a devoted wife and a mother to many (though of course, personally she hated each and every one of her pregnancies). When she meddled in affairs of state and foreign policy, they grew restless and even censored her mail—what they sought was a regal figure, infusing their violence with a maternal legitimacy. But the emphasis on females as mothers, predisposed to domesticity, is also not fully historical. India offers refreshing examples of women who understood power, manifested ambition and cunning, and could be as ruthless as any man who sat on the throne. The Maratha queen Tarabai, for example, did not commit sati when her husband died—instead, even as the state struggled under Mughal assault, this daughter-in-law of Shivaji seized its mantle. Another royal wife threatened her place, so she had her imprisoned; a rival heir in Mughal custody could topple her, so she cast aspersions on his provenance. Bold and daring, she didn’t wait for the invader, sending instead her troops into imperial territory to plunder. A miscalculation saw her fade, but when she beheld opportunity again—a full three and a half decades later—she made yet another swing at power. In the end, she didn’t quite win the Marathas’ game of thrones, but nobody could say she didn’t know how to play.

In the realm of ideas too, Indian women made their name. Bhakti literature is full of those who flouted norms set by men and expressed ideas of startling originality, long before the British and Westernised reformers appointed themselves to ‘save’ the subcontinent’s females. Mirabai, for instance, is celebrated as a great bhakta of Krishna. But what is muted is her challenge to Rajput society, which prescribed for widows like her a life of unobtrusive self-denial. “I will not be a sati,” she declared despite every pressure, facing slander and even death threats. Her ideas she certainly expressed in the vocabulary of god and devotion, but to see only religiosity and to ignore their radical potency is to be wilfully blind: she had no use for conventional modesty, nor the shackles of family. And she was not alone. ‘God my darling,’ wrote Janabai a few centuries before the Rajput princess, ‘do me a favour and kill my mother-in-law.’ This particular poet was a kitchen maid in the house of a male bhakti saint, and her verses convey her frustration with the domestic drudgery of which she was forever a slave. Though she never set off and broke with her past as Mirabai did, she did express a desire for precisely that: ‘Cast off your shame, and sell yourself in the marketplace… My Lord, I have become a slut to reach your home,’ wrote Janabai.

The roster of names, in fact, is surprisingly long. In the realm of myth there is Meenakshi, who in her legends appears as an androgynous warrior princess who conquers every territory till she reaches Shiva’s abode in Kailasa. Here, of course, she drops her weapons and becomes a coy wife, but to this day Shiva remains in her shadow in the great temple in Madurai. Among the Mughals, there are women who were diplomats, makers of peace, managers of great trading enterprises, keepers of the royal seal, owners of ports and their vast revenues, builders of monuments and chroniclers of history. The so-called JodhabaI, Akbar’s Rajput wife, owned one of the world’s biggest ships of the time and flared up when European traders interfered in her commercial activities. Nur Jahan’s power is, of course, well known, but here again patriarchy left a sour aftertaste—her stepson and the next emperor Shah Jahan had a role in casting his own father as an opium addict who relinquished all his power to this once-married widow, when in fact this was merely an excuse to justify his own botched rebellions and his less than cordial relations with Jahangir. As late as the 1920s when the Maharani of Travancore took advice from her husband, the British thought it was natural; when in neighbouring Cochin the rajah governed through his wife, however, it was decried as a scandal.

In that sense, patriarchy is as old as any Indian tradition, but it was not as if Indian women did not resist. In the memoirs of Devaki Nilayamgode she writes about her constraints as a female born in an orthodox Namboodiri Brahmin household. They were denied a proper education, and they were denied fulfilling marriages. They lived essentially in purdah and envied those of lower castes who moved around with so much freedom. But they too breached custom when they could—every month during their periods, remembers Nilayamgode, they were confined to a specific room in the house. And here, untroubled by men and free from their constant gaze, is where they read: newspapers, books and all other varieties of ‘subversive’ literature smuggled in by lowborn maids, with which traditionally Brahmin women had no business. They also drew a strange inspiration from Kuriyedathu Tatri, that fellow Namboodiri sister, who when accused of adultery, drew up 66 names, argued ‘like a barrister’ (to quote from a 1905 newspaper) and ensured that if she was censured, these men too were not spared. It was not a military battle featuring public heroics that these women fought—but the battles they did fight also have value, and they too shaped the history of our land.

What we need, at the end of the day, is freedom from the colonisation of the mind: both by Victorian morality and by the older, equally insidious power of patriarchy. What we need is freedom from men writing history only for men. We must revise the way we look at the past and highlight not only men and kings who fought and ruled, but also women who thought and questioned. For the women are there—we have just not been looking for them.