Akbar, the man behind the persona

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on July 24, 2020

Centre stage: Akbar’s power was undisputed in his court, which was a hub of scholarly discussions   -  WIKIPEDIA

The16th-century Mughal ruler still occupies a rich part of the public imagination. In her latest book, author Ira Mukhoty attempts to decode the emperor’s legacy

*Mukhoty’s protagonist was a complex man; Akbar could be as brutal, power-hungry and implacable as any other ruler of the time

*The author captures Akbar’s enduring fascination with writing, record-keeping and paintings

The textbooks present him as Akbar the Great, the emperor who ruled over the largest swathe of India after the Mauryan era. In lavish Bollywood extravaganzas, he is either the ruthless Shahenshah (Mughal-e-Azam), or the light-eyed, fleet-footed Sufi emperor(Jodhaa Akbar). In the delightful children’s stories of Akbar and his plucky minister Birbal, he is the other half of a formidable duo.

Akbar: The Great Mughal / Ira Mukhoty /Aleph / Non-fiction /₹799


But who really was Akbar? Why is the 16th-century Mughal ruler still a rich part of the public imagination — 400 years after his death? Ira Mukhoty’s scholarly Akbar: The Great Mughal attempts an answer. Over 624 pages packed with facts and details, notes and bibliographies, Mukhoty paints a fascinating portrait of a remarkable man.

She writes lucidly about the Mughals — the complex sequence of events that brought them from Central Asia to India, and how they evolved from rulers in search of a kingdom to settling down in the subcontinent. There’s rich drama and intrigue and Mukhoty’s storytelling skills are evident, right from the beginning.

In the dead of winter in 1544, two children — Mirak and Baca — make their way from Kandahar to Kabul. The brother-sister duo, when they grow up, come to be known as Akbar and Bakshi Begum. If this fits well as the opening scene of a magnum opus, the rest doesn’t disappoint either. Mukhoty weaves a complex tapestry, dwelling on the changing notions of kingship, community and family, dark plots, romantic entanglements and tragic deaths to present a comprehensive picture of the Mughal life and mind. And at the centre of this storyline is Akbar. Mukhoty patiently and unhurriedly traces his journey from a boy born while his father Humayun was in exile, to his anointment as emperor at the age of 13. She faithfully records his growth as a ruler, administrator, war strategist, thinker and parent.

Unlike Mukhoty’s previous book Daughters of the Sun, which dealt with the lives of Mughal women, Akbar demands time and commitment. Mukhoty is dealing with one of the greatest Mughal rulers here and she delves deep into his complex life. The author’s sound research helps her flesh out the subject well and she traces his evolution over a long life and reign.

Mukhoty’s protagonist was a complex man; Akbar could be as brutal, power-hungry and implacable as any other ruler of the time. He secured his throne by ruthlessly putting down challenges and conquering land with a lofty ambition. He could be capricious, adamant and cold, and his power was undisputed in his court. Though illiterate, he possessed a deeply curious and philosophical mind. And Akbar made earnest attempts to understand the land he ruled. The scholarly discussions at his court were not only about various Islamic views, but also Hinduism, Jainism and the Jesuits, and Mukhoty describes them in detail. Akbar was the first Mughal king to marry a Hindu woman. She did not convert to Islam; instead the presence of Harkha Bai, recorded in the Mughal accounts as Mariam-uz-Zamani, paved way for the coming together of Rajput and Mughal traditions within both the ruling classes.

The author captures Akbar’s enduring fascination with writing, record-keeping and paintings. The Mughals, starting with Babur, were enthusiastic record-keepers. Akbar not only built on this, but enriched it infinitely. He commissioned translations of Hindu religious texts into Persian, studied the works of Jesuit preachers, and, quite wonderfully, commissioned his aunt Gulbadan to write her memoir. “In Gulbadan’s account we see these same emperors, but they are backlit by the familial and the domestic, their edges are scuffed by the elucidation of family dramas, loves, hierarchies, and power structures. And Gulbadan is the only chronicler to write candidly and unselfconsciously of the unexpected and influential roles of women,” Mukhoty notes about the Humayun-nama.

Akbar’s atelier was a place of immense creativity, which evolved with the influx of a Hindustani aesthetic. Interestingly, when his son Salim rebelled against him later, he pointedly set up a rival court with an art workshop where artists were encouraged to move away from styles propagated by his father’s men.

Mukhoty describes Akbar the father and grandfather poignantly. He set the bar high for his sons and they found themselves falling short. All three — Salim, Murad and Daniyal — fell into alcoholism. It is his relationship with his daughters that stands out. “As his daughters and granddaughters grew up around him Akbar became increasingly concerned about the plight of girls when they got married and left their families,” Mukhoty writes. He brought in laws safeguarding a woman’s rights of inheritance and against child marriage. He also disapproved of the practice of Sati among his Hindu subjects.

Mukhoty’s book is alive to Akbar’s legacy. She succinctly sums up his vision, gently pointing the reader to why an adjective inevitable follows his name: His legacy remains in the supreme courage he displayed, far greater than on any battlefield, in believing that the vast multitudes of India could be brought together through active efforts of tolerance and understanding. That through reason, empathy, and good faith, misunderstandings between different religious groups and ethnicities could be resolved, and a new horizon unveiled. A horizon that could be lit up by the light from many different faiths, the best of each, to guide India’s path to a more luminous and resplendent future.

The search for that elusive horizon lit by multiple faiths may be what makes the life story of a medieval Mughal emperor relevant even today.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

Published on July 24, 2020

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