Listening to Emperors Babur and Jahangir

August 16, 2020

An overview of the recent online talks conducted by the LLF with historians Stephen Frederic Dale and Lisa Balabanlilar

In a virtual veneer amid a global pandemic, the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) among scores of literary talks, recently conducted discussions with a couple of historians. There was one with Stephen Frederic Dale who is an Islamic historian and academic, also the author of books of history pertaining to Muslim empires, namely, The Muslim Empires of Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals and the latest, Babur: Timurid Prince and Mughal Emperor: 1483-1530. Another online session was conducted with academic and historian Professor Lisa Balabanlilar, also the author of books titled The Emperor Jahangir: Power and Kingship in Mughal India. She is also the author of Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern South and Central Asia.

Speaking with art historian Mehreen Chida-Razvi, Professor Lisa shared tidbits from her new book, The Emperor Jahangir, as well as from the autobiography of the fourth Mughal emperor, titled Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, also known as the Jahangirnameh. Going by the dismissive and discrediting discourse the historical scholarship has drawn for Jahangir is “probably because he was surrounded by very powerful personalities like his father Emperor Akbar, his son Emperor Shah Jahan,” both of whom were adversaries to Jahangir as far as the matters of the throne were concerned, “and Empress Nur Jehan, his wife,” says Professor Lisa discussing the course of her book which connects Jahangir to those around him and how they affected his personal and political decisions.

Professor Stephen F Dale faces the laptop while behind him is hung, a twinkly wall-hanging made of fabric in shades of burnt sienna, adorned with traditional mirror work; a form of embroidery that was brought from Iran to the subcontinent during the Mughal period; and a miniature painting, while he speaks with Eman Omar, digital director for LLF, about his biography based on the life and times of the first Mughal emperor, Babur.

Professor Balabanlilar indulges primarily in the original script of the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri which she insists is the “voice Jahangir has left behind.” Professor Dale, too, has premised his book on original texts and the manuscript of the Baburnaama – the autobiography that is based more on poetic forms such as couplets and rubaiyat than blocks of prose.

Professor Dale relates interesting incidents from a candidly written Baburnaama, such as one wherein Babur admits to having shown little to no interest in his first wife. He had to be chided by his mother before he finally visited her. While Professor Dale talks about Baburnaama, one is mentally transported to the text of the Humayunnama, written by Princess Gul Badan, one of the prime matriarchs of the Mughal dynasty and the first woman from that time to be credited the status of a biographer. Humayunnama was a project commissioned by Emperor Akbar. Gul Badan Begum, Babur’s daughter, recounts the lonelier moments of her father who sat on a seat of stone in a garden he had had built for himself. That was where he wrote out his heart in his biography, while Gul Badan peeked from behind a wall.

The emphasis both historians lay is on gathering information from primary sources rather than secondary, which makes the process of objective data collection surpass that of literature review for writers of historical narrative.

Historical discourse is replete with Babur, the Timurid being homesick in India. “His poetry reflects his homesickness and desperation to return home, but not just return, rather take his throne to Kabul and rule over the subcontinent from there,” suggests Professor Dale.

The idea a listener takes home, proverbially, after attending both of these sessions online, is a comparison between a foreigner’s personality, who came to an alien land being an expansionist – Babur, and the first Mughal prince who was connected to the land more than any of his predecessors since his mother was a local Rajput noblewoman. Jahangir’s endeavours are expansionist and ambitious, but at the same time, he travels and takes his time to walk through his empire, especially when his excursions are not limited to attending to the call of the battleground. Again, in reference to Jahangir’s excursions, the listener might relate to the hunting expeditions of Nur Jehan and Jahangir, their interest in designing and commissioning architecture, a way to leave behind footprints, most of which are still traceable, even if not in ideal condition.

The emphasis both historians lay is on gathering information from primary sources rather than secondary. This makes the process of objective data collection surpass that of literature review for writers of historical narrative. Prof Balabanlilar puts it like this: “original sources are preferable to interpreted sources, since every script has an agenda, and they are not written always to put out the truth, whatever that may be.” Both Babur and Jahangir document their lives and times as well as lay down their cases for their shortcomings, in an attempt of self-defence, as well.

Both Baburnaama and Jahangirnaameh have missing chunks of narration. The fact that both have made usage of poetry to tell their stories, express their feelings and at times found a soulful connection with God in verse, Aristotle’s comparison between poetry and history could be relevant: poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.

The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)

Listening to Emperors Babur and Jahangir