Books

Chronicling the Lives of Two Noblemen-Poets in the Mughal Court

In Attendant Lords, T.C.A. Raghavan chronicles the life of Abdur Rahim and Bairam Khan – two noblemen during a turbulent period in Mughal history. More significantly, the book shed light on the trajectory of Rahim’s poetry and analyses the surprisingly Hindu devotional aspect of a Muslim poet.

A scene from the Mughal court.

A scene from the Mughal court. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, just off one of the city’s busiest main roads, sits a large mausoleum. Its stark rubble dome is in sharp contrast to the impressive proportions of the building itself. Few of the thousands who traverse this stretch of Mathura Road every day would know who is buried there. Some, when told that this is the tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, would probably recognise the name as that of one of the foremost generals and statesmen in Akbar’s court.

But mention that the occupant of this tomb is Rahim, the Rahim of Hindi poetry, and there is likely to be an immediate recall. In Delhi, and across north and central India, in all the places where Hindi is spoken and school textbooks contain the dohas of Rahim, Rahim lives on. Those who have studied his dohas may have forgotten that he was more than a poet, but they remember, in the very least, that Hindi literature counts him among its greatest.

In Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, Courtiers and Poets in Mughal India, T.C.A. Raghavan documents the life of Rahim, as well as that of his father, the equally illustrious Bairam Khan, known primarily as a regent to the young Akbar after the death of Humayun.

T.C.A. Raghavan

T.C.A. Raghavan
Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, Courtiers and Poets in Mughal India
Harper Collins India, 2017

Beginning with a background of the family’s origins – part of a tribal confederation known as the Qara Qoyunlu, with marriage ties to the Timurids and more importantly with Babur – Raghavan traces the life of Bairam, who arrived in Babur’s court at the age of 16.

Well educated, accomplished in the martial arts and with enviable political connections, Bairam could have been expected to shine in Babur’s court, but appears to have come into his element only much later, when Babur’s successor, the ill-fated Humayun, became involved in a protracted struggle with Sher Shah to hold onto the empire Babur had established in India.

Bairam’s role in this book is relatively short. It is his son, Rahim, left fatherless when Bairam was assassinated at Patan in 1561, to whom much of the book is devoted. Rahim served under three emperors – Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan – in what was to be a turbulent period in the Mughal history. The 16th and 17th centuries were a period of expansion, and of wars – in particular, when it comes to Rahim’s involvement, with Gujarat and the Deccan.

It was also a time of shifting rivalries, of political intrigue and of a volatile socio-cultural and religious scenario. Akbar’s liberal leanings – his abolition of the jaziyah tax levied on non Muslims, his openness towards followers of beliefs other than Islam and his propounding of the Din-i-Ilahi – were to draw flak from many quarters. In such a situation, a general – a ‘true Muslim’, as a contemporary referred to Rahim ­–­ who wrote Hindi poetry that often followed the common traditions of Krishna bhakti and Ram bhakti, could be considered an anomaly.

While Raghavan’s book follows a chronological pattern, narrating the main political and martial events of Rahim’s career, every now and then, he shifts focus to the simultaneous literary development of Rahim. The young man, for instance, writing erotic verses in his works, ‘Barvai Nayika Bhed’ and ‘Nagar Shobha’, describing in titillating and sometimes witty detail the sexual preferences and proclivities of women of various castes and professions. Or the more mature man, moving on from barvais to dohas, writing couplets that praise Hindu deities or refer to Hindu scriptures to put across a point:

Chhote kaam bade karein, toh na badaayi hoye,

Jyon Rahim Hanumant ko, Girdhar kahe na koye

(Krishna is called Giridhar

Hanuman’s achievements are wondrous, yet no one calls him Giridhar)

Or, the aging statesman, fallen out of favour, accused of conspiracy and beset by troubles, whose dohas speak of everyday philosophy:

Jo Rahim gati deep ki, kul kapoot gati soye

Baare ujiyaaro lage, badhe andhera hoye

(A bad son when young is the apple of his family’s eye

But as his character becomes known, darkness spreads in the family)

This – the literary side of Rahim – is the most fascinating aspect of Attendant Lords. The historical part of the book, even though narrated from an angle most appropriate to Abdur Rahim, can on occasion be a little too detailed for the impatient lay reader.

Where Raghavan excels is in shedding light on Rahim’s career as a poet. He examines the trajectory of Rahim’s poetry, analyses the surprisingly Hindu devotional aspect of a Muslim poet, and, more importantly, shows how Rahim’s stature came to be what it is in modern India. Till well into the 19th century, Rahim’s work was more or less ignored; he was mentioned, if at all, very briefly in listings of Hindi poets. Today he is widely acclaimed.

How did an eminent poet of the 17th century sink into near-complete obscurity? How did he rise, suddenly and meteorically, in the 1920s, to become one of Hindi literature’s most revered poets, and even an emblem of nationalism?

In Raghavan’s words,

“…Rahim’s reputation as the sage statesman of Hindi literature was wholly formulated by the end of the third decade of the twentieth century and only grew as the national movement progressed. His status was derived in considerable measure from his Hindu devotional verse and this aspect of his work was viewed as indisputable evidence of his Indianness, even as communalism, separatism and the partition took their toll on the national psyche.”

How did the breaking apart of Hindi and Urdu (an interesting story in itself, tied to the British and their bureaucracy) influence the shared literature of these languages? How does the linguistic and religious backdrop of Rahim’s poetry – considering he wrote not just in Hindi, but also in Persian and Sanskrit – affect his standing in Hindi literature? In Persian literature? How does Rahim’s – as well as Bairam’s – legacy live on today, in popular culture, in literature and in built heritage?

Raghavan, on the basis of what is obviously an impressive amount of research, examines each of these topics. In the process, he touches on issues other than just Mughal history and literature; he also discusses subjects that have, in recent years, again become sensitive issues – language and its (perceived) ties with religion, politics and religion, religious fundamentalism.

The end product is a book that, while it offers an insight into Mughal history during the reigns of Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir, is also a means of reflecting upon language and literature. Through his discussion of Rahim and his work, Raghavan highlights much that would be food for thought. This is a book unlike either Abraham Eraly’s several rather more wide-ranging books on the Mughals and their empire, and yet not as intensely personal a biography as, say, Julia Keay’s Farzana, the story of Begum Samru. Attendant Lords, instead, manages to successfully be both a scholarly work as well as an intriguing look at two of Mughal India’s more famous – but still relatively unknown – noblemen.

If there is a flaw, it is in that Attendant Lords provides only one verse (the famous ‘Rahiman paani raakhiye’) in a transliterated form. Others, both Rahim’s barvais as well as his dohas, appear in their translations, but not transliterated. This makes for a sad lack of Rahim’s own words in a book about his poetry.

If a broken pearl necklace must be restrung with each bead found

A good friend must be appeased, even if he gets angry a hundred times

This, for example, lacks the flavour of the original:

Toote sajan manaaiye, jo toote sau baar

Rahiman phiri phiri pohiye, toote muktahaar

But Rahim, philosophical and large-hearted as he appears to have been, might have taken that in his stride.

Madhulika Liddle is a novelist and writer of short stories. She is best known for the Muzaffar Jang series, featuring a 17th century Mughal detective.