Ira Mukhoty on her book Akbar, and why the Mughal monarch remains, 'despite the current climate, a beloved figure'
In Akbar: The Great Mughal, writer Ira Mukhoty demystifies the 16th century ruler and sheds light on why he continues to hold sway on the culture and society of the subcontinent.
In her new book, Akbar: The Great Mughal (published by Aleph Book Company), writer Ira Mukhoty sheds light on the various myths surrounding the enigmatic 16th century ruler, attributing his undying relevance to his vision of “a horizon lit up by the light from many different faiths”. The book comes at a time when instances of the current dispensation's erasure of Mughal history abound.
Akbar, as Mukhoty noted in an interview with Firstpost, is "the acceptable face of an Islamic monarch; a ‘good’ Muslim". But, "I wanted to go beyond these infantilising notions to show a more nuanced narrative, in which we see the evolution of Akbar’s ideas, along with the mistakes he made," Mukhoty says.
Speaking to Firstpost, Mukhoty breaks down the journey of the book, from idea to print, and tells us what made Akbar truly 'great'.
To begin with, what would you say is the reason behind no notable biographical work done on Akbar in the past 20 years?
Biographies of historical figures in India is in general a relatively unexplored genre, only recently becoming popular. Where Akbar is concerned, the sheer volume of primary sources, scholarly work, the extent of Akbar’s own achievements over 50 years, makes this a completely foolhardy enterprise, shadowed by hubris.
In terms of scholarship and literature, Akbar's life has been extremely well documented through the ages. However, not much of it has forayed into popular literature. How long back did you locate this lacuna? Was this a primary reason behind taking up this project in the first place, that is, in order to fill the gap, or was the subject compelling enough for you to do so anyway? Did your narrative style evolve at a later stage?
Akbar is a talismanic figure who hovers at the edge of our subconscious. We all believe we know him and we have internalised his myths and legends. Given the current political climate and the vicious nature of so much public discourse, it seemed to me to be an interesting area of research; to bring back some ideas and facts to challenge these preconceived notions. As we know, academic knowledge tends to remain within academia in India, and school-learning is still limited and quite un-engaging. So a biography of a man like Akbar, combining the latest academic knowledge with an engaging narrative style, seemed to me a worthwhile endeavour, and also a personally demanding and rewarding one.
After Heroines (2017) and Daughters of the Sun (2018), how did you come to take interest in the emperors of the Mughal dynasty, especially Akbar? Was it a natural progression?
It was quite a natural progression. In fact, because ever since I discovered Jahanara Begum in Heroines, I started to wonder about this empire, that had given so much power and wealth to an unmarried princess, all of which had been lost to destruction and neglect. Then with Daughters of the Sun, it was impossible to avoid the figure of Akbar, a colossus. A fascinating aspect of the women of the Mughal empire was that it was exactly around the time of Akbar that they became invisible, hidden behind titles and stone walls, whereas earlier, they had been visibly caught up in the territorial wandering of their men, active ambassadors, and participants in empire formation. At the same time, it was known that Akbar had clear and progressive views about women. So I was drawn to this dichotomy in Akbar’s life, and wanted to discover the many textures and layers that led him to becoming this towering figure in Indian history.
What I find extremely interesting about Akbar is the way in which it weaves together several vastly different accounts (in terms of insight and perspective) and testimonies about the man — from the Jesuits, to Badauni and Abu'l Fazl. How difficult in terms of scope was this process, and whose works or which sources did you fall back on repeatedly through it?
The many sources for Akbar were both a blessing and a curse! And yet, all the sources are valuable in different ways. Abu’l Fazl is most reliable about chronology and events, for example, whereas Badauni is much more cavalier with his dates. But Badauni is more truthful about Akbar’s religious experimentation, and the disquiet it sometimes caused, whereas Abu’l Fazl was always laudatory. The Jesuits added details of Akbar’s life which an Indian writer would not have thought relevant, such as the description of cities and villages, of landscape, of rituals, of animals. The have also left us detailed and moving descriptions of Akbar himself, his presence, personality and habits.
But there are also additional sources that I used in specific places, such as Gulbadan’s Humayunama, and the writings of other sects and groups who encountered Akbar, like the Jain accounts, the Sikh writings, and the Brajbhasha texts of some Rajput courts. These give us a fascinating picture of how these groups negotiated momentous, changing times, and a new Mughal reality. And lastly, and most excitingly I think, I have been able to use Mughal miniature paintings as a primary source. Art historians have done amazing work in recent times to bring to to life previously unknown aspects of the Mughal empire through the analysis of paintings, and I have used this research extensively wherever possible.
In terms of Akbar's belief in human dignity, it's evident from how he practiced what he preached — whether it's through sending his son Murad to the Jesuits for education; not forcing his wives into converting to Islam; encouraging widow remarriage under his reign; or even recruiting officials in his court based on merit. However, over the past couple of years, his legacy, besides that of other Muslim rulers, has been under constant attack, with history being rewritten in India. Is this damage to Akbar's legacy already visible in popular imagination, according to you? If yes, to what extent?
I think Akbar remains, despite the current climate, a beloved figure.
He is what we may describe as the acceptable face of an Islamic monarch; a ‘good’ Muslim. I wanted to go beyond these infantilising notions to show a more nuanced narrative, in which we see the evolution of Akbar’s ideas, along with the mistakes he made. I believe this will allow us a more robust dialogue with our past, if we are able to understand fully the complicated landscape Akbar negotiated, the many different clans and tribes of people he had to accommodate.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while working on this book?
Unlike the challenge I faced while writing my previous books, which focused on the histories of women, in the case of Akbar it was trying to assess what information to leave out. There is so much material available on Akbar, that there is a danger that a biography could become a bewildering listing of achievements. My target was to find patterns, such as his changing attitudes towards women, the evolving Rajput-Mughal interaction, the Padshah’s own spiritual search, and weave these into a story which would hold the reader’s attention. Another lacuna with Akbar is that he did not leave a biography behind, unlike Babur and Jahangir, for example. So the challenge was negotiating this material with its absences, to understand a complicated man.
Akbar's judicious approach to running a kingdom is evident in how figures like Man Singh, Todar Mal and Tansen held as much sway over him and the kingdom as Muslim figures like Shirazi or Bairam Khan did. Besides, his group of mansabdars was also fairly and uniformly constituted of the various religious communities in his empire. However, not much of this makes its way into books at primary education levels. Do you see that as a problem?
Yes, certainly. Here we have one of the greatest leaders in the world, who negotiated the creation of an enormous empire made of a multitude of peoples and faith. How he managed to do that while ensuring a place of safety and dignity for every person should be something that is absolutely understood and discussed, because we are beset with the same problems even today. If Akbar was able to say that for a ruler, ‘The best prayer is service to humanity’, and that ‘The Truth was the inhabitant of everyplace’, then surely these are intensely relevant issues in today’s troubled times, and therefore worth studying.
Through the length of your book, you bring to the fore the pivotal role Akbar's harem played in his life and politics. Why did you choose to do that? What about Akbar's relationship with his harem intrigued and surprised you the most?
I have always been interested in rediscovering the forgotten voices of women. And I wouldn’t want their histories to be separate from that of men, like a lesser genre, in a way. So when I began working on Akbar, I was actively looking for evidence of the influence of the women in his life — women I had already encountered while writing Daughters of the Sun. I wanted to place these women geographically and temporally within Akbar’s life, so that we could discover the texture of these influences. There is the influence of the Timurid matriarchs, the milk mothers and their families, and Akbar’s Rajput wives. Where Akbar’s wives are concerned, I wanted to explore more thoroughly how the system of the Rajput zenana may have filtered into the Mughal harem. Because the extraordinary and contradictory evidence we have suggests that while Akbar grew increasingly sensitive and vociferous about the vulnerability of women under both Islam and Hinduism, he nonetheless, along with Abu’l Fazl, completely wrote these women out of the records, rendered them voiceless, invisible and ‘chaste’.
Even though your book is anecdotal in nature, your eye for detail as a historian seems extremely methodical and precise, considering how Akbar touches upon most aspects and perspectives on his life and personality. Have you consciously, or unconsciously, incorporated your learnings in the sciences into your research process?
I suppose that is inevitable. I was trained for five years in the natural sciences, with its emphasis on academic rigour, research and analysis. I think it then becomes an innate part of your thought process, how to see patterns and trends, so as to present a progressive unfolding of some ideas, instead of a chaotic jumble of information.
What about history captures your imagination? How important is academic training in the discipline, in order to become a successful and empathetic historian, or can one learn purely through interest and will? (In other words, have you ever felt disadvantaged as a 'historian' for not holding a formal degree in the subject?)
I think what attracts me to history, particularly in India, is that it helps to make sense of so much of the material and cultural world around us. The different threads that make up the tapestry of Indian life begin to make sense when we understand where they came from, who brought them, how they interacted with one another to create a new, chimeric creation. History is not a technical field per se, unlike physics or mathematics, for example, in which the very language is unfathomable for a layperson. In a sense, it can even be an advantage to arrive at some of these histories from outside the field, perhaps bringing a different nuance and filter to the evocation of these stories. Where I feel at a disadvantage is in not having access to certain academic resources, like the libraries and scholarly community.
What message do you hope for your readers to carry home after reading Akbar?
I think if there was one message I would hope readers would keep in their hearts, above all else, is the spirit of 'sulh-e-kul' — of active compassion and peace with all. If a monarch in the 16th century, in the midst of the churn of empire formation, could develop and live by such a luminous idea, encompassing all of humanity over a single tribe or peoples, then surely we should be able to as well.
Are you planning your next book already? If yes, could you tell us a little about it?
I am, yes. But I have several ideas that I am working on in parallel at the moment.
All images courtesy Aleph Book Company
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