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Lakshmibai, Hazrat and the Revolt of 1857

Two women, one war. What sets them apart? Professor Lakshmi Subramanian explores Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s ‘A Begum and A Rani’

Lakshmi Subramanian | Published 03.12.21, 07:49 PM

The focus of this work, as evident in the title, is two women who fought the same war in 1857 but who never met, whose lives were strangely similar and yet were recalled very differently. Why this was so, what made for a particular telling of their afterlives and how in course of the retrospective retelling, one became a legend and the other a mere trace, forms the core of Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s narrative.

It departs from his earlier work on the Revolt of 1857, where he placed emphasis initially on the diverse structural elements that made up the popular uprising in Awadh and subsequently on explaining the violence that characterised the actions of both the insurgents and their suppressors. Here, in contrast, Mukherjee prefers to focus on the individual as the actor of history and on the politics that animated the reconstruction of individual lives. He does so with elegance, ever attentive to the dictates of Clio, in unravelling the complexity of the context in which the two protagonists found themselves as they were sucked into the vortex of real politics and popular expectations.



(A Begum and A Rani was published by Penguin Allen Lane in July 2021. Buy it here.)


The first two chapters of the book give the reader a taste of the Revolt in its early stages, when a series of military mutinies collapsed into agrarian rebellion, bringing myriad elements into the fray, ranging from the aggrieved taluqdar to the oppressed peasant, from the disenfranchised ruler to the urban dweller. Amidst the clamour of the rebels for a return to Mughal rule and for an end to the unholy power of the hated firang, emerged a slow political front to embark on campaigns against the British forces and coordinate military activity. 

Two parallel centres of authority

In Lucknow, the discarded wife of Wajid Ali Shah found herself at the epicentre of protest, whereas in Jhansi, Lakshmibai was urged by the rebels to take up their cause. While the latter was found in active combat, Hazrat seems to have attended to the day-to-day requirements of the troops, making sure that they were provisioned and supported. Hazrat seems to have also been pitted against one of the most charismatic leaders, Maulvi Amir Ali, who insisted on Hazrat becoming his disciple — which Hazrat herself resisted. 

That these two individuals represented two parallel centres of authority is clear but what this implied in terms of differing conceptions of freedom is not readily apparent. However, in the analysis of the ishtahars or proclamations that were issued, Mukherjee makes the important point that religion was the integral and unifying idiom in the Mutiny.

The Afterlife

It is in the chapter titled Afterlife that the book really comes into its own. Here, Mukherjee tracks the moments in the emergence of a nationalist historical consciousness in Maharashtra, Bengal, and subsequently in North India, in which the status of the martyr queen gained traction. Analysing poetry, local memories, eulogies and early historical work on the Rani of Jhansi, Mukherjee tracks the making of a very particular historical memory and its amnesiac other, thereby engaging with the complex relationship between myth and history. 

He suggests that these categories were not necessarily oppositional. Rather, both were exercises in remembering and forgetting and reconstructing. It is to his credit as a practitioner of history that he reconstructs as well as he does the lives of two women — one of whom was subsequently pushed on to the centre-stage while the other was relegated to the margins.

Lakshmi Subramanian is professor of History in BITS Pilani, Goa. She is the author of several works on music and nationalism as well as on India’s maritime history. Her latest book is Singing Gandhi’s India: Music and Sonic Nationalism. When she is not steeped in teaching and research, she likes to travel to the hills.

Last updated on 03.12.21, 07:57 PM

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