Friday, January 21, 2005

"History is full of intriguing complexities"

He lies wasted and capitulated in front of the camera. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, a poet and a calligrapher, comes across as inert and helpless, in a photograph believed to have been shot in Rangoon. William Dalrymple, who shared his forthcoming book project in a talk on Saturday as part of the Jaipur Heritage International Festival (JHIF), is putting together the monarch’s decline with the decay of Delhi and the polarisation of a once pluralistic society.

After The White Mughals that explored syncretism between the British and the Indians in the 18th century, Dalrymple’s next book looks at how this world fell apart, especially with the “rise of Wahabi Islam and militant evangelical Christianity”. The latter of which, combined with British military victories, led them to an “assumption of racial superiority”. “This broke the link and the closeness that had existed, when one in three British in India cohabited with Indians and wrote Urdu poetry,” he says.

But not before the “last flickering renaissance” of the Mughal Empire with Bahadur Shah Zafar at its helm, a period that Dalrymple describes with “political powerlessness and cultural effervescence”. This period saw the Urdu language and poetry prosper and the Company School of Painting flourish with British and Mughal patronage, which, Dalrymple says, remains “underrated” even today.

But Zafar, because of his lack of interest in political matters and pluralism, was cornered from two sides. “He was seen by the British as a relic of the past to be swept away and the Wahabis started issuing fatwas against him because of his belief in Sufism,” he says. Then came the attack on Delhi with the Revolt of 1857 till the British finally took it over and ended the Mughal rule.

“Zafar was the perfect monarch for this period but as he grew older, he got out of the frame of time,” Dalrymple adds. Till he lived through the “slow dismemberment of one of the most sophisticated courtly civilisations”. The last Mughal emperor was tried and later exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862. Now, Dalrymple is recreating the period in Delhi with the help of two vital documents, the Palace Intelligence and Mutiny Papers, both of which are with the National Archives.

But history is not without its intricacies. Contrary to the BJP’s portrayal of the Marathas as a Hindu force set out to defeat the Muslims, Dalrymple says they had regular contact with the Mughals. “In fact, the Peshwas sent their emissary to the Mughal court for ratification. This is unlike the slight rewriting of history today that always sees Muslims and Hindus on a collision course,” he adds. For its easy to see history in a straightjacket fashion. “Bahadur Shah Zafar was not a patriot, neither was he a traitor. It is easy for us to view history in black and white but it really is full of intriguing complexities,” he says.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home