Reconstructing Mughal Historiography

Ruby Lal's "The question of the archive: the challenge of a princess's memoir" challenges the canonical view in historiography that documents only "official" administrative and political accounts of the establishment and workings of empires (55). Her challenge is posited through her examination of the memoir of Mughal Emperor Humayun's sister, Gulbadan Banu Begum. Gulbadan's memoir is important in undertaking a reconstruction of Mughal historiography because "her writing points to the history of a subjectivity and a culture, of political power and of social relationships, struggling to be born" (68). She chooses a significant genre of writing for her memoir – Ahval, which means "conditions, state, circumstances, or situations" (58). Gulbadan's memoir does not assume an empire that is already in place, as the Akbarnama (one of the most often cited sources in the canon) does (66). Lal refuses to subscribe to the common notion of privileging the "hard politics" of state, administration, bureaucracy, etc (56), recognizing that "it is necessary for us to ask about the imbrication of the Mughal domestic world in the everyday life of the courts and kings, or equally, the imbrication of courts and kings in the everyday life of the domestic world" (60).

Lal's article challenges fundamental assumptions I have about elite power structures. Often I tend to think that too much focus is placed on the lives and histories of the rulers, and that therefore history ought to document the subjects' lives instead. However, Lal's writing makes me realize that class is not the only sociopolitical axis that is important to consider when undertaking historical research. The western notion of top-down hierarchy oversimplifies or dismisses the intersections and interactions between women and men (as well as the construction of gender itself), peasants and workers and landlords and various strata of rulers, racial and caste politics, etc. It is also important, as Lal notes, to reexamine the received view of Mughal society and politics that is very much rooted in the context of European colonialism. This is evident in Lal's discussion of how Annette Beveridge, the English translator of Gulbadan's memoir, distorts the meanings of words and titles that, in their true Persian/Turkish form, have "complex histories and associations" (62). I am beginning to understand that it is not only a subaltern history that must be constructed, but also a different kind of elite history that is liberated from the biases of Victorianism and other western imperialist structures. The two will necessarily inform each other.

Lal illustrates the problem of Beveridge's translation by analyzing the way in which Beveridge describes women such as Maham, an older woman instructing younger women on their duties to produce heirs, as possessing a uniquely "rarefied and singular position" (63). Such a description ignores the fact that such behavior was not unique, and that Gulbadan described many women in her memoir as having powerful roles in the hierarchy of Mughal empire. Lal's discussion of Beveridge's Victorian biases reminds me of Chandra Talpade Mohanty's article, "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses," and how in constructing the "third world woman" as a monolith, cultural contexts and histories are ignored. Too often western women – feminists as well as Victorians! – rush to appropriate an understanding of the "oppression" that women in third world countries face.

Lal's article is important for the creation of a new kind of historiography that truly tackles the complex nature of historical sources. She does not refuse to "take on the task of looking anew at sources" (56), and in attempting to investigate deeper and further, she illuminates aspects of Mughal history that are often overlooked.

Works Cited:

Lal, Ruby. Chapter 3, "The Question of the Archive: The Challenge of a Princess's Memoir." Lal, Ruby. Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World. 2005. 51-68.

Mohanty, Chandra. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses." Feminist Review 30 (1988): 61-88.

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