Book review

Audrey Truschke’s ‘Aurangzeb’ engages with (and demolishes) WhatsApp history

Her book on the Mughal emperor is thorough, readable and engages with popular narratives, a welcome change from inkhorn history written by academics.

Indian English uses the word “politics” in a curiously pejorative way. One such popular usage is in the phrase “politicisation of history”. Of course, as Mani Shankar Aiyer once snapped in a television debate, “If not in history, where else will politics be? Biology?”

Aiyer’s peevishness here is well placed. History is joined at the hip with politics. It, for example, shapes modern political identities. Can one even begin to imagine nationalism without the discipline of history? A shared – if imagined – past is more important to the creation of a nation-state than an army. History then is, truly a public discipline.

Yet, in the recent past, academic history has withdrawn from its role of informing the public, retreating into a university echo chamber. The fact that academics are terrible writers isn’t a coincidence – in many cases, academic work simply isn’t written to be read. A system that Harvard historian Jill Lepore memorably described as having “produced a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose”.

History in the social media age

Of course, people still have a need for history. And in the age of the internet, the lack of readable academic history is easily overcome. In India, specifically, the past few years have seen an explosion of what I like to call Oakist history, after the prolific writer PN Oak. Oak has written about how almost everything one can imagine – from the Taj Mahal, to the Kaaba to the Vatican – has Hindu roots. Pseudo-history such as this has spread like wildfire on social media, pushed by that most powerful of mediums: the WhatsApp group.

In this, Audrey Truschke’s history of Aurangzeb, titled, well, Aurangzeb, comes as a welcome change, a work written explicitly for the popular sphere. Truschke teaches South Asian history at Rutgers University in the US. In this book, she takes on the incredible amount of pseudo history on the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb floating about on the internet. So effective has this demonisation been that an “Aurangzeb Road” in New Delhi – named by the British Raj – was renamed in 2015.

Aurangzeb wasn’t a bigot?

Truschke is quite clear that hers is not a simple history of the emperor. It is a rebuttal of this pseudo history around Aurangzeb. The subtitle of the book itself – “The man and the myth”– makes that clear. She does what she sets out to do rather successfully, writing a remarkably lucid book that takes Hindutva history head on. And as one might imagine, when faced with the full onslaught of a trained historian, these myths crumble rather easily.

Reaching into a rich range of Persian language sources, Trushke produces this gem of a quote. Faced with a petition to put in a religious test for Mughal service, Aurangzeb replies thus:

“What connection have earthly affairs with religion? And what right have administrative works to meddle with bigotry? For you is your religion and for me is mine. If this rule [suggested by you] were established, it would be my duty to extirpate all the (Hindu) Rajahs and their followers. Wise men disapprove of the removal from office of able officers.”

While it is unfair – and in fact a bit silly – to expect any cogent concept of secularism in the seventeenth century, Aurangzeb’s letter quoted above, it might be noted, would hold up even in modern India.

A fleshed-out emperor

Truschke also produces a range of sources to show how simply reducing Aurangzeb to his religion is inaccurate. Why was the Mughal state under Aurangzeb unable to absorb the rising Maratha power under Shivaji? Pop history focuses on faith, ignoring the fact that Hindu employment in the Mughal state rose to its highest ever level under Aurangzeb.

Truschke points to more banal reasons: Shivaji was singled out not for his religion but for his lack of courtly Persian culture, then shared by much of the Mughal elite, Hindu and Muslim. Rajputs serving in the Deccan also had many unkind things to say about the local Deccani population, Truschke points out. Moreover, Aurangzeb’s general in the Maratha wars was a Hindu Rajput: Jai Singh. A Hindu-Muslim binary, so common to contemporary India, is therefore difficult to draw.

Was Aurangzeb a fanatic, a seventeenth century version of a modern communalist? Truschke, in fact, shows that he conducted intellectual discussions with Bairagi Hindus and showered them with gifts. “[Ellora] is one of the finely crafted marvels of the real, transcendent Artisan [i.e God],” remarked Aurangzeb. The Mughal state under him would donate land to Hindu and Jain temples and protect religious leaders, leading to one Jain work praising Aurangzeb as a “brave and powerful king”.

Temple destruction is one of the most popular ways to attack Aurangzeb (and any other Muslim ruler). Truschke builds on the scholarship of Richard Eaton to show how misleading the charge is. Temples under Mughal dominion were rarely touched and the few that were attacked were done so for political not religious reasons.

Academia versus social media

Truschke makes no bones about the fact that her book is responding to popular demonisation of Aurangzeb – an admirable endeavour in today’s rather vitiated climate. “The Aurangzeb of popular memory bears only a faint resemblance to the historical emperor,” the book remarks understatedly. “Be sceptical of communal visions of Aurangzeb that flood the popular sphere,” Truschke warns going on to point out – with, one imagines, a bit of her tongue in cheek – that India’s social media historians have no training in reading premodern Persian.

In the interest of readability, Truschke’s book even does away with footnotes, preferring to include 24 pages of notes for the more intrepid reader.

Aurangzeb isn’t Truschke’s only foray into shaping debate around Mughal India. She has a regular presence on social media, where she patiently rebuts the trolls, making her somewhat of a hate figure for India’s Hindutva wing on social media.

Between her book and her social media presence, Truschke’s model of engagement is something that other academics and, especially, historians would do well to emulate. There’s too much going on in the world to be cooped up in an ivory tower. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, professors, and wade into the muck.

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, Audrey Truschke, Viking, Penguin Random House India.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Not just for experts: How videography is poised for a disruption

Digital solutions are making sure it’s easier than ever to express your creativity in moving images.

Where was the last time you saw art? Chances are on a screen, either on your phone or your computer. Stunning photography and intricate doodles are a frequent occurrence in the social feeds of many. That’s the defining feature of art in the 21st century - it fits in your pocket, pretty much everyone’s pocket. It is no more dictated by just a few elite players - renowned artists, museum curators, art critics, art fair promoters and powerful gallery owners. The digital age is spawning creators who choose to be defined by their creativity more than their skills. The negligible incubation time of digital art has enabled experimentation at staggering levels. Just a few minutes of browsing on the online art community, DeviantArt, is enough to gauge the scope of what digital art can achieve.

Sure enough, in the 21st century, entire creative industries are getting democratised like never before. Take photography, for example. Digital photography enabled everyone to capture a memory, and then convert it into personalised artwork with a plethora of editing options. Apps like Instagram reduced the learning curve even further with its set of filters that could lend character to even unremarkable snaps. Prisma further helped to make photos look like paintings, shaving off several more steps in the editing process. Now, yet another industry is showing similar signs of disruption – videography.

Once burdened by unreliable film, bulky cameras and prohibitive production costs, videography is now accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a decent Internet bandwidth. A lay person casually using social media today has so many video types and platforms to choose from - looping Vine videos, staccato Musical.lys, GIFs, Instagram stories, YouTube channels and many more. Videos are indeed fast emerging as the next front of expression online, and so are the digital solutions to support video creation.

One such example is Vizmato, an app which enables anyone with a smartphone to create professional-looking videos minus the learning curve required to master heavy, desktop software. It makes it easy to shoot 720p or 1080p HD videos with a choice of more than 40 visual effects. This fuss- free app is essentially like three apps built into one - a camcorder with live effects, a feature-rich video editor and a video sharing platform.

With Vizmato, the creative process starts at the shooting stage itself as it enables live application of themes and effects. Choose from hip hop, noir, haunted, vintage and many more.

The variety of filters available on Vizmato
The variety of filters available on Vizmato

Or you can simply choose to unleash your creativity at the editing stage; the possibilities are endless. Vizmato simplifies the core editing process by making it easier to apply cuts and join and reverse clips so your video can flow exactly the way you envisioned. Once the video is edited, you can use a variety of interesting effects to give your video that extra edge.

The RGB split, Inset and Fluidic effects.
The RGB split, Inset and Fluidic effects.

You can even choose music and sound effects to go with your clip; there’s nothing like applause at the right moment, or a laugh track at the crack of the worst joke.

Or just annotated GIFs customised for each moment.

Vizmato is the latest offering from Global Delight, which builds cross-platform audio, video and photography applications. It is the Indian developer that created award-winning iPhone apps such as Camera Plus, Camera Plus Pro and the Boom series. Vizmato is an upgrade of its hugely popular app Game Your Video, one of the winners of the Macworld Best of Show 2012. The overhauled Vizmato, in essence, brings the Instagram functionality to videos. With instant themes, filters and effects at your disposal, you can feel like the director of a sci-fi film, horror movie or a romance drama, all within a single video clip. It even provides an in-built video-sharing platform, Popular, to which you can upload your creations and gain visibility and feedback.

Play

So, whether you’re into making the most interesting Vines or shooting your take on Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, experience for yourself how Vizmato has made video creation addictively simple. Android users can download the app here and iOS users will have their version in January.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Vizmato and not by the Scroll editorial team.