(Conversation with William Dalrymple in The Hindu, June 17 2018)
Based in London, Manu S. Pillai authored The Ivory Throne at age 25, a critically acclaimed 700-page history of Kerala focused on the last woman Maharajah of Travancore. It won him the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar last year. Now all set to release his new book Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji this weekend, Pillai, who was once Chief of Staff to MP Shashi Tharoor, talks to noted historian William Dalrymple, who has himself written some fine narrative histories of the subcontinent. Excerpts:
Why is the history of the Deccan so little studied?
It is quite puzzling actually. On the face of it, the Deccan witnessed fascinating events, presided over by even more fascinating people. We have Persian immigrants transform into kings; African warlords marrying their daughters to Sultans; begums who refused purdah (provoking their sons to blot them out of paintings); and a constant religious exchange, whether it was at court where Hindu poets sang of the Mahabharata to Sultans, or on the ground where the saint Eknath could produce a ‘Hindu-Turk Samvad’. I suspect a significant factor in the retreat of these tales from popular imagination is the overwhelming presence of one historical figure, who has also became a political “idea” of great importance.
Often the word ‘Deccan’ evokes an image of Shivaji, the Maratha warrior-king, so that much of what came before him is obscured. He stands tall in regional history, and when we study the Deccan from a national perspective, it is again his war against the Mughals that receives attention. I remember my own school books. We had glimpses of an Adil Shah or a Nizam Shah, but the focus was always on Shivaji and the Mughals, reducing their political predecessors to passing, honorary mentions. Then there is also the factor of the cities of the Deccan. Hyderabad survived in splendour even after its older Qutb Shahi dynasty fell, but was dominated by the Nizams, so the focus shifted to them. Bijapur and Ahmadnagar were reduced to provincial outposts after the Mughal conquest, so what were once brilliant centres of culture, trade, and wealth, lost their storytellers. The result was, as I think you wrote once, that for every book on the Deccan Sultanates, there are a hundred on the Mughals. It is unfortunate, but I’m glad I can say I have made my own modest contribution in trying to change this.
Who are your favourite characters in Deccani history?
Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur ranks high on my list. This late-16th, early-17th century prince was an extraordinary figure. He could get, given the times in which he lived, cruel where matters of power were concerned — an overpowering regent might find himself blinded while rivals to the throne could meet gruesome ends. To some today, this sort of action can be taken out of its historical context and used to paint people as “good” or “bad” when the fact is that across the board, till a few centuries ago, violence and power went hand in hand. Ibrahim, however, was supremely interesting. His patronage of art (including a luckless European painter and the miniaturist Farrukh Beg), his love for music, his interest in literature, his contribution to architecture, all combined in a long reign to establish him as one of the finest historical figures to have shaped early-modern India.
The other figure has to be Malik Ambar. Here was a man born in Africa, snatched as a boy and sold into slavery, who arrives in India and rises to near-princely rank through sheer determination and not a little shrewdness. As the Mughals begin their conquest of the Deccan in the early 17th century, all that stands in their way for decades is this man, and at least two generations of emperors were reduced to barking insults in frustration. Jehangir, especially, hated him to the extent that he commissioned a painting showing himself shooting an arrow at Ambar’s impaled head — something he never succeeded in doing in real life, of course.
Which of the Deccani sultanates did you most enjoy researching and writing about?
Given that these were feudal monarchies, the character of a ruler could make a great difference. The Adil Shahs of Bijapur were descended from a Persian mercenary and his Maratha wife. So we have one of them who cultivates all things Persian — he only speaks Farsi, insists his soldiers dress in Persian uniform, and is most keen on winning the approval of the Shah of Iran. Then there’s Ibrahim II, who firmly emphasises the Indian side of his ancestry, so much so that a Mughal envoy was taken aback to find he preferred Marathi over Persian, the official language of diplomacy in their day. The book focuses first on the Bahmani Sultans and then the three most important splinter states that followed: Bijapur, Golconda, and Ahmadnagar. All of them were equally compelling, frankly.
Should Ibrahim Adil Shah be as celebrated as Akbar?
Akbar and Ibrahim II were contemporaries and they had much in common. So where Akbar founded Fatehpur Sikri, Ibrahim had Nauraspur. Both were unorthodox men interested in the world of ideas — Akbar had Jains and Jesuits, Parsis and Brahmins at his court, while Ibrahim hosted gatherings with Shaivites and yogis.
What is interesting about Ibrahim is that he often describes himself as the “son of Guru Ganapati and Mother Saraswati.” The goddess Saraswati was, in fact, almost an obsession, and at one time he went so far as to rename Bijapur “Vidyapur” in her honour. Like Akbar, he believed each faith had much to bring to the table, and he wrote verses celebrating the wisdom innate in all religions. I suspect he was also aware of some of Akbar’s experiments in the north, with Din-i-Ilahi, for instance — when a Mughal envoy came to Bijapur, Ibrahim took from him a badge that members of the Din-i-Ilahi carried and refused to give it back!
I think if Akbar and Ibrahim had met, they would have liked each other very much indeed. Ibrahim, in fact, went a step or two beyond Akbar — he wore the rudraksh mala, and when he died, almost as if to console all who thought he was a secret “idolater”, whoever had his epitaph made got it to read that he was, in fact, a true Muslim, not a Christian, not a Jew, and not a Hindu. In reality, of course, he represented the best of everything, and that makes him special, and yes, very much equal to Akbar.
Is the story of Vijayanagar the tragedy V.S. Naipaul thought it was?
Naipaul is not the first to succumb to the romanticised idea of Vijayanagar as a Hindu bulwark against Islamic aggression. It was certainly founded by Hindu brothers, whose ideology of state was set in Sanskritic terms. But from the very start, we find that it was not driven by religion. Bukka, one of the empire’s founders, for instance, was hardly a man who despised Muslims — why, then, would he invite the Sultan of Delhi to ally with him and destroy the Bahmani state? In inscriptions, we find that ‘Turks’ are only despised as much as other Hindu kingdoms are, and Muslims are not at the receiving end of any pronounced, unusual hostility.
Besides, Vijayanagar wasn’t sunk in a sea of religious resentments from the past — it was a land of bold innovations that looked enthusiastically to the future. One of the most remarkable things about this empire and its rulers is also that, from the late 1340s, we have them use a particularly revealing title. They called themselves Hinduraya Suratrana, Sultans among Hindu Kings. This is fascinating because on the one hand this appears to be the first time that Indian sovereigns use the word ‘Hindu’ consciously in projecting their self-image. But while they do so, they also lay claim to the title of ‘Sultan’. At once, they were both — Hindu Sultans alongside Muslim Sultans.
Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmadnagar too are interesting from the ‘Hindu-Muslim’ question. They too formally projected themselves as ideal Muslim rulers. The Sultans were out to “destroy infidels”, while Vijayanagar wanted to rid the world of “Turks” and “mlechchas”. But real life was not over-blown rhetoric — we find Hindus at the feet of Muslim saints, and Muslims adopting Hindu customs. Vijayanagar actively sought Muslim cavalrymen for its forces, just as the Sultans needed Brahmins and Marathas to sustain their power. Similarly, in the Qutb Shahi dynasty, we have a Sultan who spent years in Vijayanagar, fell in love with Telugu, Teluguised his name from Ibrahim to Abhirama, patronised poetry on the great epics, and generally embraced all things Hindu. We see from Srinatha’s poetry that the same merchants supplied both Vijayanagar and the Sultans, while the celebrated Kshetrayya not only found patronage in Hindu courts but also under a Sultan for whom he composed 1,500 padams. To be clear, in defining their official world-views, they were different — one sought Hindu ideals, and the other Islamic principles. But then, as now, formal statements did not always match reality. And perhaps they were never meant to.
Why is there so little narrative history written in India? Is that beginning to change?
I think it is slowly. There is exemplary academic work that comes out every year, revealing so much about us and our past. What is often lacking is a method to communicate that to a wider audience. My own effort has been to bridge that gap — to use the best of research, rigorously studied, and to convey it in a style and language that can appeal to a diverse readership. I think narrative history is here to stay, and if people can marry good research with elegant writing, we could really enrich ourselves.