Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s The Mirror of Beauty is based on, but is not a direct translation of, his Urdu masterpiece Ka’i Chand the Sar-e Asman. Set in the early and mid-19th century, when the Mughal empire was at the zenith of its cultural achievements but when its political star was receding into oblivion due to the ascendancy of the East India Company, it follows the life of Wazir Khanam, a well-born woman of rare beauty. In a sense, Wazir’s uncertain life, buffeted by the strong winds of unforeseen events, is the mirror Faruqi uses to reflect the beauty and tumult of her times, of Delhi in the decades leading to the uprising of 1857.
The book begins with Wasim Jafar, a descendant of Wazir Khanam, based in modern London. Then it veers off into a fascinating account of Wazir’s forebear, Mian Makhsusullah, a master painter from Kishangarh in Rajasthan who, expelled from his village for doing an imaginary portrait which eerily turns out to be all too real, settles in Kashmir and becomes an expert carpet designer. It follows the fortunes of his descendants, leading us to the family of a jewellery maker in Delhi with three comely daughters, the youngest being Wazir Khanum, known as Chhoti Begum.
An unusual incident, coupled with youthful impetuosity, sees the beautiful Wazir deviating from the path of married domesticity normal to girls of her background. Instead, she sets up home in Jaipur as the bibi of Marston Blake, a ‘firangee’ in the employ of the Company. Even as Chhoti Begum strives to make peace with all that she can have and not have as the kept, albeit much-loved, woman of a firang sahib, Blake meets with an untimely death.
The Mirror of Beauty is a paean to Indo-Islamic culture. Faruqi brings to it both love and deep erudition, as he uncovers myriad different arts, attainments and accomplishments. The writing shines at its brightest when describing the performance of a raga or the delicacy of a fabric, the intricacy of a cure or particulars of a practice. Connoisseurs of beauty will find many occasions to stop and marvel at Faruqi’s detailing of the era.
The author deftly brings together two distinct styles of writing to create the texture and feel of the times. Much of the novel is written in measured and masterly English. Into this is interwoven dialogue which is elaborately stylised and follows the rhythms of formal Urdu and Farsi, especially when detailing matters of court or courtship.
Poetry lovers will also find much to hold their interest once they overcome the initial disquiet caused by encountering fine Urdu and Persian verses rendered in English. The poets Ghalib, Zauq and Daagh walk through the pages, as fully fleshed out and believable characters; the poetry of Hafiz, Momin, Mir Taqi Mir and scores of other 17th and 18th century luminaries flows liberally through the pages; the soirees, rivalries, and poetry-charged atmosphere of the times are all compellingly recreated.
A word of warning here—in a world that routinely uses the phrase ‘time is money’, this book is for the truly wealthy. It is not only the matter of its near-1,000 pages, it is also that the narrative is deliberately structured to capture the graceful pace of the period. A generation raised to regard love-making as a fast and furious activity might find itself completely flummoxed with the prolonged poetic exchanges and the serious amount of robing and subsequent disrobing involved in affairs amorous. All in all, an unhurried and very absorbing read.
Do not understand the term "Indo-Islamic". Does it mean that "Islamic" culture is foreign to India?
@ Ashok Patel - "Does it mean that "Islamic" culture is foreign to India?"
No, it does not.
Indian culture encompasses sub-several cultures based on geography, caste, tribe, language and religion. Just as a necklace can be studded with gems of different kinds, so it is with India. The diversity of our culture is breathtakingly beautiful and everything is uniquely Indian be it the "Portuguese" culture of Goa or the Moplah culture of Malabar.
The composite culture which resulted from the introduction of Islam is called "Indo-Islamic" or "Indo-Saracenic" culture. It also has several sub-cultures based on region like the Deccani culture of Hyderabad and the Awadhi culture of Lucknow. It can also be associated to the historic period like the Moghal era or the Sultanate era and so on. Kathak is an ancient dance form which got a new lease of life from Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh. Likewise with Hindustani classical music. Then there is the sublimely beautiful Urdu language, a blend of Khari Boli, Persian, Turkish and Arabic,
In the UK, you have Gothic architecture. Is it not British? In fact, the Gothic has nothing to do with the Goths. The mulligatawny soup too is more British than Indian. Cultures cannot be hermetically sealed into water-tight compartments.
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