HISTORY REVISTED

How did the mighty Mughal Empire fall to a bunch of British merchants?

It’s one of the most extraordinary stories, says the historian William Dalrymple who narrates it in his upcoming book ‘The Anarchy’.

In the 1760s, the young, charismatic son of the recently assassinated Mughal emperor, Alamgir II, made a decision that would completely transform India’s fate. Determined to restore his dynasty’s glory, Ali Gauhar, known as Shah Alam II, went to war with the British East India Company.

But the Battle of Buxar ended in a humiliating defeat and the consequences were more damaging than anyone imagined at the time: Shah Alam was captured by the company’s forces and made to sign an order that replaced Mughal revenue officials with British traders selected by the company. From then on, supported by a growing army of tens of thousands of sepoys, the company would be in charge of collecting taxes across the Mughal empire.

It was a decisive turning point that paved the way for the East India Company’s sweeping control over the region, eventually giving way to the British Raj.

On his return to Delhi, Shah Alam II was attacked by an Afghan warlord who reportedly cut out his eyes. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
On his return to Delhi, Shah Alam II was attacked by an Afghan warlord who reportedly cut out his eyes. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is this moment in history that William Dalrymple focuses on in his upcoming book The Anarchy, which analyses how a trading firm completely displaced a once-powerful empire. The historian says while schools continue to teach that the British conquered India, the reality was that it was not the British government at first but a private company. “The Mughals were not an insignificant force,” Dalrymple said. “They were vastly rich, it was a magnificent empire. And yet it fell not to another wave of invaders from the Steppes or the Ottomans or the Persians, it fell to a bunch of merchants. It’s one of the most extraordinary and unlikely stories, and a very contemporary story because it shows how corporations have an extraordinary ability to take over the state.”

For Dalrymple, the story is particularly relevant today given the power enjoyed by businesses and businessmen, not just in India but around the world. At a time when Donald Trump is the president of the United States, he argues, rediscovering the corporate nature of 18th century Indian history is an important thing to do.

While doing research for the book, Dalrymple travelled across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, following in the footsteps of Shah Alam and looking out for vestiges of that tumultuous time. The photographs the author took during his travels are now on display in Mumbai at an exhibition titled The Historian’s Eye, presented by Tasveer and the art platform Dauble.

The melancholic images highlight what little remains to remind the curious traveller of the might of the Mughals or the cunning of the company. But the elegiac approach does remind you of how much of India’s cultural heritage is disappearing. “India has an embarrassment of riches, every little town in this country has the most extraordinary past,” Dalrymple said. “But there’s no realisation of how important these things are, how fragile they are.”

Here’s a selection of the historian’s photographs from the exhibition:

Dawn over Skardu, Pakistan.
Dawn over Skardu, Pakistan.
Shalimar Bagh, Lahore.
Shalimar Bagh, Lahore.
At the Marble Palace, Calcutta.
At the Marble Palace, Calcutta.
Ali Vardi Khan Masjid, Murshidabad.
Ali Vardi Khan Masjid, Murshidabad.
Bahmani tombs, Ashtur.
Bahmani tombs, Ashtur.
After the monsoon in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh.
After the monsoon in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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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.