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'Heroines': story of India's great women, from Draupadi to Raziya Sultan

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on: 4 February 2017, 17:24 IST

We have often adorned our bookshelves with tomes eulogising towering figures from history. Mostly these have been men. In a first, Ira Mukhoty unravels the stories of eight great Indian women.

Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth & History (Aleph Books) by first-time author Mukhoty is a treat for anyone who has been craving to know more about women we grew up hearing about in bedtime stories, and later when we dug into our history books.

Our history books, though, hardly quenched our thirst - most of it was reserved for the heroes. The glimpses we got of the heroines were fragmentary, but teasing, enough to want us to know them better.

Mukhoty decided to fill in these gaps with this much required book of history. Ironically, she was never a student of history, but science. Nevertheless, she took the plunge.

"Rather unusually for a writer of history, I am a scientist by training, a microbiologist. But I have found those habits of research, discipline, and intellectual rigour actually very useful in writing historical works."

She says that what we remember of our heroines is mostly a patriarchal construct, or through the oral tradition - folktales, ballads and stories. It was time to question that. To demolish that.

As she writes in the book, "Rani Laxmibai, that most faultless of modern heroines, a Hindu widow, a martyr and a patriot, has been called an 'Indian Joan of Arc'. And yet, as Joyce Chapman Lebra has pointed out, 'Joan of Arc has inspired over twelve thousand volumes in French alone, not to mention a long list in English, and is said to be the most written-about individual of the fifteenth century', whereas for Laxmibai there are only 'a few novels, plays and biographies'."

In her book, Mukhoty has documented the stories of Draupadi, Radha, Ambapali, Raziya bint Iltutmish, Meerabai, Jahanara Begum, Rani Laxmibai and Hazrat Mahal.

While many may find the inclusion of mythological women surprising, Mukhoty thinks it was important "...because mythological women are so pervasive in our sense of identity and 'Indian-ness.'"

"They have always been used by a primarily patriarchal society to instruct women, sometimes very subtly and sometimes in a more brutal way, about what they should aspire to become. This is why I chose Draupadi, who is such a transgressive, dangerous heroine, rather than the more muted, subservient Sita," Mukhoty tells Catch.

In Heroines, Mukhoty argues that when men take over the narrative, the distortion is immense.

Citing the case of Laxmibai, she says the colonial masters transformed her into "an object of libidinous curiosity, whereas to her own armies she was that most holy of Indian women - a mother and a widow"; and the Indian nationalists appropriated her story to "integrate her in the lore of freedom fighters".

Mukhoty talks at length about the personality of these heroines getting buried in these lopsided versions of history.

"So there is Draupadi's celebrated dark beauty, as a bulwark against the Bollywood queens of today and the arsenal of skin-lightening creams that would seek to make the daughters of India ashamed of their dusky complexion. There is Meerabai's elegiac song against a stifling patriarchy to remind us that women have long struggled against the forces that would restrict and suppress their creativity and desires."

The book covers the lives of eight women, "real or imagined", across three thousand years of India's stories.

Mukhoty's next book is on the life of the women of the Great Mughals, how they evolved from the time of Babur to that of Aurangzeb.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

LH: What was the criteria for selecting the women that you have?

IM: I wanted a mix of well-known women, and more obscure ones, to compare the way in which women were remembered. For the women who were already very much a part of our collective consciousness, I wanted to understand what their appeal was, and how much their legend had been altered over the years to suit changing norms of what was acceptable behavior in women.

As for the forgotten women, the challenge was to evaluate the causes of that amnesia, and to provoke a discussion around the reasons for that loss.

LH: Why women in mythology?

IM: Because mythological women are so pervasive in our sense of identity and 'Indian-ness.' They have always been used by a primarily patriarchal society to instruct women, sometimes very subtly and sometimes in a more brutal way, about what they should aspire to become. This is why I chose Draupadi, who is such a transgressive, dangerous heroine, rather than the more muted, subservient Sita.

A certain version of Sita has been held up as an ideal for so many generations of Indian women, and I just wanted to move away from that a little bit and offer an alternative heroine.

At a very basic and fundamental level, Draupadi is dark and beautiful, and I wanted to offer that as ballast against the legion of 'fair and lovely' images that are offered up to us daily.

LH: How difficult was it to research the book? How long did you take to write it?

IM: It was very difficult indeed. If history in general in India has been treated with cavalier indifference, then the history of women is almost obliterated. Apart from primary sources, wherever they exist, I used other forms of evidence - poetry, songs, architecture, miniature paintings etc.

It took me 18 months to complete the book. Half that time was spent in research, half in the actual writing.

LH: Are these women's stories now a retelling from a feminist perspective?

IM: What I hope I have done, is restore some of the lustre from these women's stories. That has meant removing the filters which warped their narrative wherever they existed-British ones, post-colonial ones, Muslim ones, nationalist ones etc. So I hesitate to replace all that by yet another categorisation.

LH: Which is your most favourite heroine here?

IM: As a Delhi woman myself, I do have an especial fondness for Jahanara, the 17th century Mughal princess and daughter of Shah Jahan. This complicated and much loved princess is fascinating because she is difficult to categorise. On one hand a Sufi fakir, on the other hand the wealthiest woman on earth.

Along with her father, she single-handedly shaped the architecture of Shahjahanabad and wished 'never to be forgotten.' For a woman to have such vaulting ambition, a Muslim woman in purdah, moreover, is astounding. After the 1857 uprising, almost all of her buildings were destroyed by the British, which is why she is almost forgotten now.

LH: Which story was the most difficult to tell?

IM: The most difficult story to tell was that of Ambapali, the 6th century BC courtesan of Vaishali. The only records we have of this extraordinarily accomplished woman who became a Buddhist nun, exist only because she crossed the paths of two of the first historically recorded men in Indian history - Buddha and Bimbisara, King of Magadha. I find it fascinating that her story survives, through 2600 years, because of such a random and ephemeral bit of chance. I had to spin her story almost out of thin air, from just a few lines of documented history.

First published: 4 February 2017, 17:24 IST
 
Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub

Bats for the four-legged, can't stand most on two. Forced to venture into the world of homo sapiens to manage uninterrupted companionship of 16 cats, 2 dogs and counting... Can read books and paint pots and pay bills by being journalist.

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