Valentine's Day

How the heartless emperor Aurangzeb fell in love at first sight

The Mughal ruler is usually portrayed as a calculating, warring ruler. But that is just part of the story.

This story is not an average Valentine’s Day tale. It is about a love affair of a different kind, of a prince known today only as strong-willed, calculating and devoid of a loving bone in his body. It is about Aurangzeb falling in love at first sight.

In 1636, Aurangzeb was a prince and the Governor of Deccan. En route to Aurangabad, he stopped at Burhanpur to pay his respects to his maternal aunt, who was married to Saif Khan, the Governor of Burhanpur. What followed varies in detail in different tellings. But all of them agree that the austere prince fell in love at first sight with one of the women in his uncle’s harem. Her name was Hirabai.

Ma’asir al-Umara, written by Nawab Shams ud Daula Shah Nawaz Khan and his son Abdul Hai Khan, in the 18th century provides a detailed description of the episode:
“One day the prince went with the ladies of his harem to the garden of Zainabad Burhanpur, named Ahu-khanah [Deer Park], and began to stroll with his chosen beloved ones. Zainabadi, whose musical skill ravished the senses, and who was unique in blandishments, having come in the train of Khan-i-Zaman’s wife (the prince’s maternal aunt), on seeing a fruit-laden mango tree, in mirth and amorous play advanced, leaped up and plucked a fruit, without paying due respect to the prince’s presence. This move of hers robbed the prince of his senses and self-control.”

Despite his extremely religious bent, Aurangzeb was a connoisseur of music and a proficient Veena player. Hirabai’s looks, combined with her musical accomplishments, proved irresistible for the prince. He is said to have been so infatuated with her that he gave in to her demand that he taste wine. But before he could, Hirabai revealed that she was just testing his love for her.

A religious prince ready to taste wine, that shows the extent of his feelings for her.

Akbar, in his bid to regulate the harem, had ordered that all concubines should be named after the place they belonged to. So once Hirabai entered Aurangzeb’s harem she was called Zainabadi.

Grieving in solitude

In Ahkam e Aurangzeb, written in 1640, Aurangzeb’s biographer Hamiduddin Khan Nimchah recounts the Burhanpur encounter differently. According to him, the meeting took place when the prince entered the harem unannounced. He fell into a swoon and, on being asked by his aunt, described the reason for the malady and asked for a remedy. He was given Hirabai in exchange for one of his concubines.

The ensuing passion and infatuation is described the same way in Nimchah’s account.

It is said in Ma’asir al-Umara that Aurangzeb’s love affair proceeded to such lengths as to reach Shah Jahan’s ears. Dara Shikoh, who had no love lost for his brother Aurangzeb, is said to have remarked to their father Shah Jahan, “See the piety and abstinence of this hypocritical knave! He has gone to the dogs for the sake of a wench of his aunt’s household.”

But as destiny would have it, Hirabai did not live for long. Her death affected the prince greatly. She is buried in Aurangabad.

Ma’asir al-Umara records that Aurangzeb was so upset by the death of his beloved that he left the palace to go on a hunt. When reproved by the poet Mir Askari (Aqil Khan) for risking his life in that agitated state, the prince replied:
“‘Lamentation in the house cannot relieve the heart,

In solitude alone you can cry to your heart’s content.”

Aqil Khan then recited this couplet of his own composition:
“How easy did love appear, but alas how hard it is!

How hard was separation, but what repose it gave to the beloved!”

The prince could not check his tears. He committed the verses to memory after vainly trying to learn the modest poet’s name.

Incomplete portraiture

Niccolao Manucci, the Italian traveller and writer (1639–1717), too describes this period in Aurangzeb’s life:
“Aurangzib grew very fond of one of the dancing-women in his harem, and through the great love he bore to her he neglected for some time his prayers and his austerities, filling up his days with music and dances; and going even farther, he enlivened himself with wine, which he drank at the instance of the said dancing-girl. The dancer died, and Aurangzib made a vow never to drink wine again nor to listen to music. In after-days he was accustomed to say that God had been very gracious to him by putting an end to that dancing-girl’s life, by reason of whom he had committed so many iniquities, and had run the risk of never reigning through being occupied in vicious practices.”

On this Valentine’s Day, remember that Aurangzeb’s portraits may depict an austere man reading the Quran, but there once lurked in him a passionate young man who had considered the “world well lost” for the love of his life.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.