Re-discovering Akbar in saffron India

The Mughals continue to dominate popular imagination.

Re-discovering Akbar in saffron India

Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, was the third Mughal emperor, who reigned from 1556 to 1605 Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

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Priyatosh Sharma

The Mughals continue to dominate popular imagination. They evoke childlike adulation or all-out hatred in sharply polarised general scholarship. Peter Hardy’s valuable advice not to handle Indo-Persian histories through ‘scissor and paste’ methods still has a few takers on the ground. Afzar Moin’s Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (2012), Rajeev Kinra’s Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandar Bhan Brahman and Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary (2015), Audrey Trushcke’s Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (2016) and Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth (2017) and Parvati Sharma’s Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal (2018) have opened new dimensions in the study of Mughal emperors and their court etiquettes. 

Manimugdha S Sharma’s Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India is one such work which has endeavoured to study Akbar through modern lenses. Divided into eight chapters, the author owes the work to his ‘friendship’ with Akbar during his course of study and how the ‘idea of Akbar happened at a time when horrifying communal riots broke out in Gujarat’ (p. xxii-xxiii). Sharma has chalked out Akbar’s relevance and course of action in saffron India. However, his allegiance ‘to the friendship’ leaves his readers perplexed at many places. Daring raid by Akbar on Gujarat in 1572 has its deja vu in India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who once dashed to Chandni Chowk to overpower the rioting mobs (p. xvii). Similarly ‘closest any Indian political leader of today comes to this unconventional behaviour of Akbar,’ evoking informal rapport with his audience, ‘is Rahul Gandhi’ .   

Sharma employs many parallels from the world history creating diversions at many places. The first six chapters create a linear information regarding Akbar until his maturing in politics in 1562. He equates insults faced by Humayun in the Persian court with tensions which brewed in Modi-Tudour and Trump-Kim Jong diplomacy. Initial denial of Humayun’s advances towards young Hamida reminded the author about the power of Mughal women and ‘lecherous professors and middle-aged bosses having a glad eye for younger women’ . 

Elimination of Bairam Khan, Adham Khan and Maham Anga are studied with stoic justification as political necessities, whereas the author feels some remorse in Akbar’s killing of Hemu and his old father.

The author has covered a vast expanse in chapters four, five and six where lot of information is crammed. The author highlights upliftment of hijras/khwajasara who were bestowed high Mughal mansabs. Hunting expeditions are constructed as talent hunts. During one such hunt, Akbar even remitted pilgrim tax imposed on non-Muslims. Heavy dose of military exploits finds place in subsequent narrative. It is, however, in chapter seven that Sharma has finally managed to tied up the loose threads. Ibadat Khana constructed ‘from a room of Sufi who became a follower of Shiva’ is considered a significant aspect in Akbar’s quest for rationality. Akbar’s challenge to orthodoxy is eulogised and ambiguity surrounding his own divinity termed a diplomatic success. For Sharma, Akbar’s Sulh i kul succeeded in giving dignity and equality to all ‘his subjects cutting across faiths’. 

In the last chapter, he explores Akbar in electronic media where public attention seems drifting away from Anarkali in K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) to Akbar-Jodha relations in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008). Summarising the work, the author wished to regain a common ground through the progressive approach of Akbar ‘for all people to stand together’.

Sharma’s work is unconventional in nature employing movies songs, political events from distant or near memory across the globe. The writing style remains candid and jargons like ‘WhatsApp University’ and ‘trolls’ may create rapport with younger audience. One still longs for some awakening on Akbar’s polity deciphering its contours across medieval and modern India. 

On the whole, the work has challenged the traditional Indian scholarship revolving around two poles of Mughal polity  —  progressive and secular Akbar and orthodox Aurangzeb. Sharma, in his zeal, stretches the pole replacing Aurangzeb with Narendra Modi. According to him, Aurangzeb, observing Islamic rituals and keeping away from wine and ‘other perceived vices, made him heartthrob of ulema, the conservative Muslims and the fanatics. Narendra Modi’s austere way….as observing Navratra fasts while meeting President Barack Obama….were endorsed and celebrated by the orthodox and fanatical Hindus’.

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