Zeb-un-nisa, Jani, Lal Kunwar and Muhammad Shah Rangeela by Swapna Dutta
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Zeb-un-nisa, Jani, Lal Kunwar
and Muhammad Shah Rangeela
by Swapna Dutta

I shall digress from the main story for a moment to write a few words about three women within the Red Fort who contributed especially to the history of the Seventh City. Two of them were Mughal princesses who deserve to be remembered. One was Jani Begum, the daughter of Dara Shikoh, later married to Aurangzeb's son Azam. The second was Zeb-un-nisa, Aurangzeb's daughter. The third was Lal Kanwar, a dancing girl destined to be a queen.

Zeb-un-nisa, like her uncle Dara Shikoh, was devoted to studies from her childhood. Being the daughter of the reigning Emperor, she was given Tees Hazari, the imposing garden house that had once belonged to Jahan Ara, as her jagir (property). Here she built an excellent library. It was better than any other private collections of the time. She employed many scholars to write literary work. Others were employed to copy manuscripts. She paid the scholars handsomely. She loved poetry and was a special patron of the poets. In fact she was a poet herself  and wrote in Persian under the pen name of Makhvi (the concealed one). After her death Zeb-un-nisa was buried in Tees Hazari. But when the British took over, they ruined the garden completely. Later with the advent of the railways Zeb-un-nisa's tomb was pulled down and the  railway tracks laid over it.

Jani, the darling of grandfather Shah Jahan and adored by father Dara Shikoh, was brought up by Jahan Ara when Aurangzeb demolished the rest of her family. She stands out as an incredible character in the gory history of the Red Fort. Jani was totally void of bitterness and hatred despite her tragic life. She did not believe in the doctrine of 'eye for an eye'.  She constantly upheld Babar's example, who had laid down his own life for his son Humayun, rather than remember those who had butchered and tortured their own brothers and kinsmen. She was so sweet, and so free from hatred and any resentment, that even Aurangzeb eventually came under her spell and could not help loving her. He went to Jahan Ara himself and formally asked for her hand in marriage to Azam, his second and most favorite son. The wedding was celebrated with great pomp and show.

Azam was a brave soldier. Jani Begum always accompanied him to the battlefield. Once when fighting in Deccan Azam’s life was in real danger and Aurangzeb himself ordered him to come back. But Azam sent word, Saying, “Moharnrnad Azam, his two sons and Begum will not retreat from this post of danger so long as he is alive. After my death His Majesty may have my corpse removed for burial. My followers may stay or go as they please.”

On hearing this, Aurangzeb sent a relief force. But it was Jani who saved his life by following him on elephant with Anirudh Singh, whom she called her son. The battle was won as a result of their combined effort. The entire city rejoiced when Azam returned to the Red Fort  with Jani.

After Aurangzeb's death Azam became the next Emperor, succeeding the throne on March 14, 1707. But his reign lasted a bare three months. He was succeeded by Bahadur Shah I who hardly set his foot inside the Red Fort because he had to be on the move all the time, pacifying his troubled kingdom to the best of his ability. Many historians have called him an able king and administrator. Percival writes: “The gallery of the great Mughals is completed by Aurangzeb's son Bahadur Shah, commonly neglected because his reign lasted barely five years. He waged the usual war of succession with resolution, skill and unusual humanity. He made a settlement with the implacable Marathas, tranquilized the Rajputs, decisively defeated the Sikhs in Punjab and  took their last Guru into his service. He travelled throughout his reign and only came to rest at Lahore during the last few months of his life.”

His son Jahandar Shah succeeded him on March 29, 1712. Jahandar was fond of dance and music and beautiful women. He was no good as a king or as an administrator. Delhi was plunged into utter chaos and misrule during his reign. A lot of it was due to Lal Kunwar, a dancing-girl whom he married later, giving her the supreme position of Empress. She had him under her thumb and soon became the real power behind the throne. Her hold over the Emperor is aptly brought out in the Son-et-Lumiere . We hear Jahandar Shah addressing her as “the form of an angel and the voice of a nightingale.” when Lal Kunwar protests, saying that she is only a slave, he announces that henceforth she would be known as Begum Imtiaz Mahal. Lal Kunwar says, “But I shall have to live in the palace then. ..How will I see Zohra ?” The king enquires who Zohra is.  Lal Kunwar replies, “Zohra ? She is my best friend. She sells water-melons... the sweetest water-melons in Delhi.” The king appoints Zohra as her chief lady-in-waiting, so that she might live in the palace with her. Then Lal Kunwar asks, “But what about Niyamat? He is my brother and plays the Sarangi.” The king appoints Niyamat the Governor of Multan!

There is an interesting story according to which Zulfikar Khan, the Emperor's wazir, is said to have demanded 1,000 sarangis as bribe from the brother of Lal Kunwar. When the Emperor asked him what he was going to do with so many sarangis, the wazir told him that since sarangi  players were being made Governors, he wanted to present a sarangi to each of the nobles in the Empire, so that they too might qualify themselves for the service of the Emperor!

In the words of another historian : “Lal Kunwar's brothers and relations swaggered through the streets, committing every kind of outrage while the Emperor gave himself to drinking and other vices.” Jahandar Shah came to be known as the “Lord of Misrule”. The once glorious Diwan-i-Khas was reduced to a farcical emblem from where one foolish decree followed another.

Incredible as it might seem, Lal Kunwar belonged to the family of Tansen, the famous singer at Akbar's court, revered to this day. Lal Kunwar, though beautiful and skilled in singing, was prone to crazy whims, many of them brutal and heartless. And Jahandar Shah gave in to all of them. When she remarked one day that she had never seen a boat sink with people drowning Jahandar Shah immediately ordered a boat to be taken to the Yamuna and made to sink. So that Lal Kunwar might watch the agony of the drowning people! When she said that she was curious to know what the Faiz canal would look like without the trees on both sides, the Emperor ordered the trees to be felled down immediately.

Of course it is not quite fair to blame just Lal Kunwar for these follies. The besotted Emperor who gave these crazy orders should be blamed even more. The only thing that may be said in Lal Kanwar’s favor was that she was truly devoted to Jahandar all her life and had once saved his life in the battlefield when he was badly wounded. She rushed to the field on her own elephant and carried him to safety, looking after him until he was able to resume fighting once again.

Jahandar Shah's reign was short-lived. His nephew Farrukhsiyar who entered Delhi in a procession on February 12, 1713 strangled him to death. He ordered that the head of Jahandar Shah should be carried on the point of a long bamboo pole and paraded all over the city. The severed body was laid across another elephant. The new king, an otherwise cowardly, contemptible and good-for-nothing man, reveled in gruesome deeds.

It was during his reign that the Sikh Guru Banda Bahadur was executed.  The captive Guru and his 740 followers were brought to Delhi and paraded through the city in a most humiliating manner before they were killed. But they maintained their dignity and showed no signs of  dejection. Nor did any of them offer to change their religion in order to save their heads!

Farrukhsiyar, in his turn, was assassinated in the Nakkar Khana of the Red Fort in 1718 by the Sayyid Brothers. After a quick succession of two rulers, whose reigns lasted for just a few months, Mohammad Shah, the grandson of Bahadur Shah I, took over as the new king. He was the last Mughal Emperor to sit on the Peacock Throne. People called him Mohammed Shah Rangeela (the Merry Monarch) because the only thing he cared for was merry-making! He loved wine, music and dancing-girls - three things that dominated his life.

His favorite pastimes were watching animal and bird fights, mimics, jokers, play actors, puppeteers, acrobats, and conjurers. As a result all these crafts were developed and patronized during his reign. The Bhagat Baz or play-actors performed plays based on epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Bahuropees (actors who dressed up as different characters) were patronized too, and so were the dancers, known as nats and natnis.

But Muhammad Shah Rangeela's reign is considered important for a special reason. It is because some important cultural developments took place during the time. It was during his reign that Wali Deccani, said to be the first Urdu poet, came to Delhi with his collection of Urdu poetry. The new language was developed and recognized as never before and provided a new meeting ground for the Hindus and the Muslims. Rangeela was the Emperor who made Urdu a court language. From a mere dialect it was given the status of a full-fledged language. Khayal, a new style of classical singing, was also developed to perfection during this period. In fact it grew so popular that the old style of Dhrupad was virtually pushed aside. Both Qawwali and the dance form of kathak made great strides during this period. Nawab Salar Jung in his Muraqqa-i-Delhi mentions many famous musicians in the court of Rangeela Shah, such as Naimat Khan, a great veena player, and Feroz Khan. The Emperor gave them the titles of Sadarang and Adarang.

But every single thing Rangeela did was accompanied by bouts of drinking. During one such carousal, the Persians, led by Emperor Nadir Shah, invaded India. But the merry monarch was too busy to take the messenger's warning seriously. “Hanooz Dilli Door Ast” (it’s a long way to Delhi) said he, pouring more and yet more wine from the goblet. By the time he really woke up to the seriousness of the situation it was too late. Nadir Shah and his men were already at the threshold of the seventh city of Delhi.  
 
Image under license with Gettyimages.com 

Previous: Giving Life to the New City 
Next: The Fort Story ... 

8-Nov-2009
 
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