The Real Umrao Jaan
Courtesan, poet, warrior, politicial player, patron of the arts and promoter of the girl child’s education, Mahlaqa Bai “Chanda” was a uniquely extraordinary woman
Roshan Rakhon jahan mein Maula, misaal mehr
Chanda ke munh se noor ko tum door mut karo
Maula Ali, who is like the sun illuminating the world
Keep the light shining forever on Chanda’s face.
—From Mahlaqa Bai Chanda’s poetry
Mahlaqa Bai “Chanda” was the first woman to get her Diwan or collection of poems, Gulzar-i-Mahlaqa, published in the nascent language of Urdu in 1824. She probably served as the inspiration for Umraon Jaan Ada, the first Urdu novel.
Indian history is full of extraordinary women who achieved much beyond their circumstances should permit. Most are lost to our memory, though mention of them may be found in some dusty forgotten manuscripts mouldering in some obscure collection or some local songs and legends. Some women who left behind buildings or physical memories of their existence are often better remembered and those very few who left behind their writings live on. As Benjamin Franklin said: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” Mahlaqa did both.
Classifying this extraordinary and truly multifaceted woman simply as a great courtesan would not be doing her justice. The Hyderabadi sage Qadrat Ullah Qasim wrote that she was “a unique combination of body and soul”. She was the only woman designated an omrah (noble) of the court, and was considered a sage advisor to the Nizam. She was a warrior who accompanied the Nizam into battle in male attire; an excellent archer and tent pegger.
She had come into prominence, however, as a great beauty and a mesmerizing dancer at the tender age of 15.
She was considered one of the best Urdu poets of her age, and was also an important patron of arts. She had a salon where the poets and performers flocked and whom she supported in various ways. She also possessed an enormous library, with dedicated katibs to copy any book she came across. She commissioned a new history of the Deccan, Mahnama.
She was also a deeply religious Sufi mystic, and a great philanthropist who organized public festivals with donations to all on a large scale, and ran a school for 300 girls. She built a number of buildings including a beautiful tomb complex with a mosque. She finally left her great wealth worth crores to homeless girls.
In a male-dominated world, how did a girl born on the wrong side of the blanket achieve all this?
We know about Mahlaqa from a biography she had commissioned, written by the scholar Jauhar, as also writings by contemporary poets, noblemen, and British residents. While some of the details seem incredible, especially those in her commissioned biography, which we have much reason to be skeptical about, much is actually corroborated by independent observers.
She lived in an age of great change, in a stimulating multicultural environment. The first Nizam was appointed the governor of the Deccan after the Mughal conquest under Aurangzeb, and from 1724, became the de facto independent ruler of Hyderabad. After his death in 1748, for many years, the British and French supported rival succession claims, and there was incessant war, with the temporary victors giving off large territories initially to the French and later to the British. However, by 1762, the Nizam Asaf Jah II was firmly in place and under the British thumb, their loyal ally against the Marathas and Mysore.
The Shia sultans of Hyderabad had created a Ganga Jamni tahzeeb, a syncretic culture, which the Sunni Nizams continued, with Shias and Hindus in high positions along with the Sunnis. This period also saw many Europeans living in Hyderabad, including French and British troops and European adventurers from across the world. There were also many emigres who had fled the Mughal territories in the north which was wracked by disorder—Delhi was being looted every year.
The Nizam ran a lavish court, actually establishing an office known as Dafter-e Arbab Nishat (the Office of the Lords of Pleasure) to oversee dancing and music. There was an explosion of cultural life, and poets and artists flocked from all over the country, attracted by the largesse. The later Delhi poet Zauk, though tempted by the wealth of the Deccan, did not want to leave his tattered but beloved Delhi, and famously said: “In dinon garche Dakan mai hai bari qadr-e-sukhan, Kaun jaye Zauq par Dilli ki galiyan chhor kar.” (Although one observes these days that Hyderabad is increasingly appreciating poetry,/I wouldn’t abandon the lanes of Delhi).
In this world we see the rise of Mahlaqa (“Mooncheek”) Bai Chanda.
Details of her early life are available from the biography she commissioned, which we need to take with a large pinch of salt, as the tone is set right at the beginning; her biographer Jauhar starts with writing about miraculous occurrences at the time of her birth!
However, as per her biography, her beautiful mother Raj Kunwar was from a noble Sayyad family, who fled Ahmedabad.
She fell in with a group of Bhagvatars—tale tellers from the Ramayana and Bhagvat; where she learnt to sing and dance. She found her way to Aurangabad, the then capital of the Nizam. Her daughter Mehtab became the mistress and perhaps later wife of Nawab Rukn-ud Daula, the prime minister of the Nizam. Raj Kunwar herself had a relationship with the nobleman Bahadur Khan who became Mahlaqa’s father. Mahlaqa was handed over to her stepsister Mehtab to be brought up by the childless couple.
Her education was certainly unusual for a woman of her times. She went hunting with her adoptive father, and became a skilled rider, archer and tent pegger. She had the best of tutors, and learnt many languages, including Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Bhojpuri. She was trained in music and dancing by the best ustads. She was particularly trained in the arts of conversation and poetry; she supposedly composed her first ghazal for the Nizam at the age of eight.
This was all by the age of 15, when she made her public debut as a dancer.
She enjoyed the patronage of two successive prime ministers who essentially helped her rise—Aristu Jah (prime minister, 1778-1804) , and then after his fall from favour, Mir Alam, (prime minister, 1804-1808), who was particularly enamoured of her. To manipulate and control the environment of the court and remain in high favour till she died, becoming increasingly wealthy as she did, would have required a high level of intelligence and political skills.
The Nizam Asaf Jah II was particularly fond of her, and Mahlaqa accompanied the Nizam in three wars, in male attire, and in 1802, was granted jagirdari over large tracts of land; the Osmania University area in present-day Hyderabad was part of it. She was made a part of the omrah (nobility), with a right to have hundreds of soldiers marching before her, beating kettle drums, when she went on official visits. The only noblewoman, she would accompany the all-male hunting expeditions with her own cheetahs. It is said that the Nizam often acted on her advice.
Now a prominent personality, she lived in her beautiful mansion Khasa Mahal with hundreds of khadims at her disposal, and novelties like a swing for her pet elephant.
Her days would pass in supervising her properties, construction projects and charities. Evenings were for literary discussions with poets and philosophers: she was a known patron of the arts who would employ needy poets, and invite them to perform at mushairas and music sessions in her haveli.
These would be followed by mehfils of music and dance which were often held outdoors in the evening in the palaces of the nobility. The gardens would be lit beautifully and laid with carpets, where the omrahs and guests like British officers would sit listening to ghazals and enjoying dance performances.
Mahlaqa Bai would be there, beautifully dressed in her own designs and wearing pieces from her fabulous collection of jewellery. Her dancing was exceptional, and a British officer says that the old Nizam had his first stroke watching her dance.
However, her main claim to fame is her poetry, which she wrote in Persian and the nascent language Urdu. Much of her work, particularly in Persian, is lost. However, a copy of her Diwan, compiled and calligraphed by herself, which had been gifted to a British officer, is preserved in the British Museum. The note says: “The Diwan of Chanda, the celebrated Malaka of Hyderabad. This book was presented as a nazr from this extraordinary woman to Captain Malcolm in the midst of a dance in which she was the chief performer on the 18 October 1799 at the House of Meer Allum Bahadur.”
Incidentally, the party was to celebrate the fall of Tipu Sultan.
A later Diwan, Gulzar-e- Mahlaqa was compiled and published after her death in 1824, by a forlorn lover, Raja Rao Rambha Rao, a Maratha Sardar. He is said to have been the love of her life, though she never married. During a visit to the Maratha Peshwa Nana Phadnavis with the Nizam, she bought six horses for Rs 2,000 each from a French trader which the Nana had found too expensive, and presented them to Raja Rao Rambha Rao.
The story of the development of Urdu is an interesting one. Deccani Urdu was popularized in the Deccan when Hazrat Sayyad Muhammad Gesu Daraz Bandanawaz fled Delhi in 1398, when it was besieged by Timur, and settled in the Bahmani kingdom. He wrote many tracts in Dakkhani, a language which essentially used Hindavi, the language of Delhi, in which many Arabic, Persian and Turkish words had been introduced. The language became popular, and the first Diwan which was published in Dakkhani Urdu was by the Golconda ruler Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, in the 16th century. This folkish Urdu is quite different from the sophisticated Urdu of the next century: Tuman raushni bin, haman raushni nah/ Tu didar bin, sabhi didar hain kaah (I am in the dark without your light/ All I see is worthless without your sight).
The court language during this period continued to be Persian, but Dakkhani became more and more popular. An early Urdu poet, Wali Dakkhani, visited Delhi in 1700 and recited beautiful Dakkhani Urdu poetry. It is said that the Persian speaking elite of Delhi were so influenced by his poetry that it became a fashion to compose poetry in this hitherto looked-down-upon language, and Urdu poetry began in Delhi in the local dialect called Rekhta, with the earliest poets Mir Taqi Mir and Sauda.
Mahlaqa was prominent enough a poet to be included in the Nukat-us-Shura, the great Delhi poet Mir Taqi Mir’s Persian biography of the lives of Urdu poets.
Mahlaqa was deeply religious, and much of her poetry reflects that. Each ghazal has five verses, symbolizing the Panjatan—the five holy Shia icons—the Prophet, his daughter Fatima, her husband Ali, and their two sons Hassan and Hussain.
The last couplet almost always mentions her pen name Chanda in supplication to Ali. Many of her poems can be interpreted with both sacred and profane meanings.
Cups of crimson wine are circling in rounds of dance
If the beloved is glimpsed, this party abounds in dance
God made this beloved peerless in my view
Everything before my eyes resounds with dance
You captivate beasts and birds along with people low and high
Each in its way obeys your command in bounds of dance
Leave the party of my rivals and come over to mine
I’ll show you a star whose very name sounds like dance
Why shouldn’t Chanda be proud, O Ali, in both worlds?
At home with you she eternally astounds with dance
She also had an extensive library stocked with books on arts and sciences. Whenever she heard of a new or rare book, she would manage to get hold of it and ask the numerous katibs working for her to make a copy for her library. Many indigent poets were also employed by her for her library.
A major part of her life was her philanthropic activity. She ran a school for 300 orphan girls; the building still exists as a school in Nampally. She also built a number of hospices, mosques, wells etc.
She was particularly attached to the shrine of Maula Ali. There is a story about her birth; her pregnant mother was visiting the Maula Ali shrine when she nearly miscarried. Her mother felt that she had been miraculously saved because of the shrine, and thus began a lifelong devotion to the shrine for both mother and daughter.
Mahlaqa used to make elaborate arrangements for the festivals related to the shrine, specially the Khat Darshan Mela, Gyarveen Sharif, Muharram and Jashn-e-Haidari. For example, for the Khat Darshan, a festival that no longer exists, on the first day she would honour the sayyads, on the second day, Sufi fakirs, and on the third day Hindu sadhus. The fourth day was for the common people. For the Urs, a line of lamps would be lit from Charminar in the centre of the city to Koh-i-Sharif, the shrine on the outskirts. Arrangements of free food, stay and entertainment for the pilgrims from all religions would be made by the bountiful along the route. Many courtesans built guesthouses for the pilgrims along the way. At the base of the hill, Mahlaqa built a beautiful garden complex in the Charbagh style, with a mosque, caravanserai, stepwells, and pavilions for performances for the pilgrims. It also included a beautiful tomb for her mother.
Mahlaqa died in 1824 at the age of 57, of a sudden illness, and was buried alongside her mother. She left her enormous wealth to her orphan girls. This renaissance lady is often commemorated in theatrical and dance performances in Hyderabad.
Her tomb has recently been restored by the US Consulate.
On it is the inscription :
Cypress of the garden of grace and rose-tree of the grove of coquetry, an ardent inamorata of Hydar and suppliant of Panjatan.
When the tidings of the advent of death arrived from God, she accepted it with her heart, and heaven became her home.
The voice of the invisible speaker called for her chronogram,
Alas! Mah Laqa of the Deccan departed for heaven 1240 A.H.
This article was published in the August 2015 issue of Swarajya.
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