The nineteenth century and the early twentieth century saw many such acts of historical retrieval in different parts of the country – all intellectual exercises to write an Indian history of India.

For the purposes of this book, none was more important than a short essay on the Rani of Jhansi published in 1877 by a sixteen-year-old Rabindranath Tagore, who was already making a name for himself in the literary world of Calcutta. Tagore began the essay, simply titled “Jhansir Rani” (Rani of Jhansi), by recalling the bravery of the Rajputs and the patriotism of the Marathas, which many believed had been extinguished under 1000 years of slavery.

The history of the revolt of 1857 (Tagore called it Sipahi Yuddha or Sepoy War) had shown that such a conclusion was unwarranted. He wrote that the special virtues of these people had been asleep and subsequently woken up during the revolution. He drew attention especially to the courage and military achievements of Tantia Tope, Kunwar Singh and Rana Beni Madho of Sankarpur.

If these and other heroes (vira) had been born in Europe, Tagore wrote, they would have been immortal in the pages of history, in the songs of poets, in sculptures and in monuments and memorials. However, in India, in the hands of British historians, the stories of these heroes were written in the most ungracious manner. Tagore added that these versions, too, would be washed away in time, and their lives would be unknown to future generations.

Of the all the Indian heroes of 1857, Tagore drew special attention to one individual: “the woman of valour (virangana), Rani Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi, before whom we must bow our heads in reverence.” Tagore went on to depict her as the epitome of virtue: she was young, a few years over twenty, beautiful, strong in body and determined in her mind. She was endowed with a sharp intelligence and comprehended very well the complex issues of ruling and administration.

British administrators, as was their wont, Tagore noted, had spread many canards about her character but historians had conceded that not a word of them was true. Tagore described how badly Lakshmibai had been treated by Lord Dalhousie. She had nurtured these grievances and when she heard that the sipahis had mutinied, she prepared for vengeance.

But Tagore was careful to point out that she had no hand in the massacre of the white population of Jhansi. There followed a description of Lakshmibai’s defence of Jhansi against the British counter-insurgency onslaught, her escape from the city, her bravery in the battles at Kalpi and Gwalior, and her death while fighting.

Tagore admitted that his piece on the Rani of Jhansi was entirely based on British accounts. He had probably read John Kaye, whose three volumes were published between 1864 and 1876; in fact, his use of the phrase “sipahi yuddha” is suggestive of his familiarity with Kaye’s work, since “Sepoy War” was how Kaye had described the events of 1857-58.

Tagore may have also read Charles Ball’s book The History of the Indian Mutiny, which was published in the 1860s – the first of the British narrative histories of the rebellion. Tagore’s essay is among the first – if not the first account of Lakshmibai, as well as of any aspect of the 1857 uprising, by an Indian in any Indian language.

The first history of the revolt in Bengali was to appear between 1879 and 1901; the first volume was published two years after Tagore’s essay. At the very end of his piece, Tagore wrote that his sketch of the life of the rani had been gleaned from the writings of British historians. He hoped to present in the future the history that he himself had gathered. There was thus a promise to write an autonomous – free of the contamination of British biases – history of the rani of Jhansi. That promise or agenda was not fulfilled.

That Tagore was the first to write about and to note that Lakshmibai deserved reverence and devotion (bhakti) is of some consequence for the argument that this book tries to make. The young Tagore unwittingly initiated a trend that has stayed on – to regard Lakshmibai as an object of devotion. Tagore was beginning the process of creating a national icon.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, without knowing what Tagore had written, looked at Lakshmibai in the same vein. Similarly, in the 1920s, the famous poet and nationalist Subhadra Kumari Chauhan wrote a hymn to Lakshmibai in which she apotheosised the rani as an avatar of Durga. Her poem drew on the folklore of Bundelkhand and the songs of the harbolas of that region.

In 1943, in South East Asia, Subhas Chandra Bose formed the Rani of Jhansi regiment and recruited young Indian women from Malaya and Burma (mostly but not exclusively Tamil) to join it. Bose, according to his biographer, cited Lakshmibai “as a shining example of female heroism in India, comparable to France’s Joan of Arc.”

Three years later, incarcerated at the Ahmednagar Fort, Jawaharlal Nehru sought emotional solace by recalling India’s past. He wrote, with adulation, about Lakshmibai, who was to him “the young heroine of the Indian Mutiny”, and whose stories, like those of Akbar and Birbal, King Arthur and his knights, “crowded into my mind”. It was the name of Lakshmibai that stood out above all the others who had fought in 1857 – “it is still revered in popular memory”, Nehru wrote. India, the unhappy land, had created its heroine from the annals of the great rebellion.

As a kind of culmination of this iconisation/lionisation of Lakshmibai, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the revolt of 1857, Shubha Mudgal rendered Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem as a song in the Indian parliament to a packed house. Lakshmibai has thus become part of the nation’s memory, a virangana in the national consciousness.

She had always been a part of history but in the contest between Clio and Mnemosyne, the latter prevailed. How she was or is remembered has acquired greater importance than what actually happened in history. History is lost to memory and myth. She has been memorialised as national heritage. It is the duty of Indians to remember Lakshmibai over all the others who resisted and fought the British in 1857-58.

The act of remembering inevitably summons up its opposite or the Other – forgetting. The making of Lakshmibai into an iconic figure relegated, without anyone quite intending it, another woman rebel leader into relative oblivion. Hazrat Mahal, unlike Lakshmibai, was not a late entrant into the rebellion but had been a leader of the rebels in Awadh from the very beginning of the uprising. She continued in that role until late 1858, when, pursued by British troops, she was forced to flee to Nepal, where she died in obscurity.

Hazrat Mahal made a brief and fleeting appearance in Tagore’s essay on Lakshmibai. Describing the bravery of Rana Beni Madho, Tagore emphasised how Beni Madho had pledged his loyalty to the Begum of Awadh and Birjis Qadr and noted that Beni Madho had lived and died by that pledge. Exit Hazrat Mahal from Tagore’s script.

Savarkar, too, wrote of Hazrat Mahal’s love of liberty and commitment to freedom but maintained that she was not quite up there with Lakshmibai. No poet wrote a song in praise of her. There is no evidence that Subhas Bose thought of raising a regiment in her name. And Nehru, when he discovered India, did not discover Hazrat Mahal.

In his case, however, the forgetting of Hazrat Mahal takes on a different dimension. His baptism and subsequent radicalisation in politics had occurred through his “wanderings among the kisans” of Awadh in the early 1920s.12 She stood forgotten in his recollections of many of the villages that he tramped around, addressing meetings and spending nights in locations where she had drawn popular support.

Either the villagers who spoke to Nehru did not remember Hazrat Mahal, or what they said did not stick in Nehru’s memory. Hazrat Mahal, it will not be unfair to assume, was not evoked by the peasants of Awadh in the way Lakshmibai was by the kisans and artisans of Jhansi and Bundelkhand. For the 150th anniversary of the uprising, Hazrat Mahal was scarcely commemorated. There was perhaps only a passing mention. Forgotten and unsung, Hazrat Mahal has travelled unclaimed in the luggage van of 1857.

One of the themes of this book is the important roles of Lakshmibai and Hazrat Mahal in leading the revolt in two different theatres of resistance.

Excerpted with permission from A Begum and a Rani: Hazrat Mahal and Lakshmibai in 1857, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Allen Lane.