June 05, 2020
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Forgotten Heroine

A nautch girl who made it big

Forgotten Heroine
Begam Samru
By John Lall
Roli Books Rs 235; Pages: 192
THIS is the story of a Muslim nautch girl Farzana, born in 1760, brought to Delhi from her birthplace some 50 miles away, by her tawaif mother. The mother died on arrival, but the child was saved and brought up and trained in a kotha in Chauri Bazaar. A star pupil, Farzana "grew into a young beauty with flashing eyes, a pearly complexion and lively wit". She performed at a mehfil and a day later was given away in marriage as a concubine to an Austrian adventurer, Walter Joseph Reinhardt of Luxemburg. This occurred in 1765. The association with Reinhardt lasted for 13 years till his death in 1778. Meanwhile, her husband who had assumed the title of Sombre, was granted a jagir in 1776. After his death, the jagir was transferred to Farzana by the Mughal emperor Shah Alam in 1779. Even since Farzana was known as Begam Samru, a slight variation of her husband's name.

Farzana was converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1781. She was baptised Joanna. It seems that an old church existed in Sardhana from Akbar's time and permission was obtained by Reinhardt for it to be rebuilt and enlarged. Farzana completed the job and it has remained a monument to her memory.

Farzana had a fling, including marriage with Le Vasoult, a French cavalier, in 1793. This led to a revolt by her officers and troops. She was captured, tied to a machine gun for several days before she was saved by an old admirer and succeeded in recovering lost ground.

If the reader is looking for a romantic tale like Umrao Jaan with vignettes of dance, music and other goings-on in a kotha, he will be sorely disappointed. None of that. We are told that the Begam was a good administrator. Her staff was paid on time. She was interested in agriculture and under her rule the land revenue went up from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. She dealt severely with rebels; two slave girls were buried alive for intrigues against her.

Was her conversion to Christianity the result of fervent belief? We learn that it made little difference to her behaviour. The court continued to be run in Muslim style with some changes in respect of Christian rituals on special occasions. No one knew, at least we get no glimpse here, of what went on in her heart.

Nonetheless, the book is a commendable effort in re-establishing a long-forgotten heroine. As Lall says: "Begum Samru's name is not found in the history books. Her life and achievement were relegated to obscure records in the archives in India and London. Her kin were scattered to distant lands; even her great wealth became the subject of a famous law suit which gave it away to a scheming English woman by declaring her heir insane. All was lost and gone. A dark and even tragic legacy. But those who stream into the church at Sardhana, and the thousands who gather there as pilgrims to an urs on the second Sunday of November, wonder who the marble figure represents—a ruler of old, a forgotten heroine or just a great lady." I find two omissions in this book.

The first and more serious is the absence of an index. There is a bibliography and a list of important British generals, governor-generals and innumerable references to Indian rulers and petty chieftains. Without an index it is impossible to keep track of these personalities, not to mention the fact that names also change. Farzana becomes Zebun Nissa half way through the book. One realises that this is a serious piece of history about a tangled period in which several local factions are employed in a game to get recognition by the paramount power. While Farzana occupies the central position, John Lall attempts in delicate operations to sift facts from myth.

Secondly, the publishers provide no bio-data of the author. John Lall took his MA in history from Punjab University with a first class first and then went on to Balliol College, Oxford, before joining the Indian Civil Service. He is excellently equipped for the task.

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