The popular narrative prevalent when presenting the tales of Princely India or prior to that, of the Mughal Royalty, revolved mostly around the male monarch and his glory, reducing the lives of the women of the royal household to the “domestic”. This kind of narrative rests on the assumption that the domestic and the private sphere of the monarch where most women are usually believed to reside is trivial, unimportant and negligible in the larger scheme of things.
This narrative is seldom challenged. Only when Rani Lakshmi Bai takes up arms, dresses like a warrior, and establishes herself in the so-called “public” realm involving darbars, battlegrounds, and the throne, she becomes a figure of paramount significance, noteworthy of academic interest, now studied and glorified historically.
Ruby Lal in her book ‘Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World’ aptly presents this dichotomy of the “public” and “private” spheres. The public camp is usually associated with areas of great significance ranging from politics and policy-making of the monarch to the judicial authority in the courts. The private areas would be the domestic, the banal, and the household. The idea behind this dichotomy is simple, “focus on what actually matters”.
Lal also mentions how biographers, regardless of their gender, mostly gave in or never fought with the private-public debate. They seem to have made peace with the accepted boundaries of family and household, public and private spheres, gender relations and power.
When one talks about women from royal families in India it is elementary to notice how the descriptions mostly pertain to their beauty and grace, intelligence and bravery and everything royal but limited to the household. Royal Women in India from Mughal women to Hindu Ranis, Maharanis and Rajmatas, all are studied vis a vis this popular narrative.
And that is how conveniently the narrative was set, highlighting the roles of the Kings and the Emperors as central and prime while the Queens and the Empresses played their part as beautiful, enigmatic yet nothing more than ornamented showpieces. The usual defence taken by most writers is that there are no sources, or pertinent ones. Lal however locates the problem not in sources but in the ‘politics of history writing’.
What has been understood as the popular or conventional history writing neglects the rich and complex nature of activities and roles performed by royal women in their everyday existence. This is because of the way the dichotomy between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ is presented, giving the appearance that they are coexisting yet contrasting and hierarchical spheres.
There are very few writings dedicated to the private life of the royal households in India as a discursive site. And even most of such accounts are written with stereotypical lenses, often mystifying the domestic but rarely respecting or valuing the same. The case of the Mughal harem is a classic example of such a practice.
Another equally important observation is how almost all historical accounts always notice those royal female members who are close to the Emperor/King. Those members who may be deemed peripheral when one views the Emperor as the centre are rarely given any importance.
Even the readers of such accounts can easily point out that these women are almost always seen “in relation to” a male member, often being referred to as “the mother of” or “the wife of”. It is simply assumed that their raison d’être emerges and ends with the male monarch, while his being the kingdom that is again his to rule and govern.
The cause of feminist history is now being taken seriously after many accomplished and credible writers have joined the table. Accounts like ‘Daughters of the Sun’, ‘The Imperial Harem’, ‘Women and the making of the Mongol Empire’ reveal the complex set of relations in which women of royalty, were engaged in their everyday existence, the public-political affairs that were conducted in the inner quarters as well as in the (outer) courts. They provide nuanced and different ways of understanding royal domesticity and the female members’ contribution to the same.
It is sad to see when historical and political writings that are centred on the theme of “bringing woman to life” are not naturally placed under the category of “mainstream history”. They are made to seem as a separate sphere of political writings that exist on their own.
Notwithstanding this, today there is a growing acknowledgement of the fact that if domesticity and other areas of related vein are addressed in a proper manner, it will only aid to understanding the royal life and its public-political discourse in a more holistic manner. The attempt of history writing or for that matter any writing from the lens of “public and private” instead of “public over private” must continue.
“With time, things and how they are viewed change.” – Today one can see how in the near past and the very present there have been royal (or now formerly royal) characters including female members muddling the lines of what was in history perceived as public and private.
Ranging from Gayatri Devi’s controversial relation with Indira Gandhi as a Member of Parliament to present day politicians like Chandresh Kumari Katoch, Diya Kumari, there is now a direct acceptance of female equivalents in the political domain, specifically in the obvious ones such as electoral and party politics. The central question however remains, would their names even be mentioned if they did not directly involve themselves in the so called “public” domain of electoral politics?
Rupam Das is a B.A.LL.B. (Hons.) candidate, Class of 2018-2023 at Jindal Global Law School, India. He can be reached at email@example.com . He would like to thank Prof. (Dr.) Madhumita Das, JGLS for her valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article authored by him as part of his coursework in 2019. He can be found on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Research Gate and Academia.
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