Biographies are very much the incumbent emperor of history-writing in this age, with the Mughal dynasty receiving significant attention in this regard from Indian writers. Books on the lives of Dara Shikoh, Nur Jahan, Jahangir, and Aurangzeb have been hitting the shelves with remarkable alacrity. But, surprisingly, new biographies of perhaps the most ubiquitous of Mughal emperors, Akbar, have not been forthcoming.

Akbar: The Great Mughal makes up for this, providing a definitive biography for non-academic consumption. Already celebrated for her work on the royal women of the Mughal household in her earlier book, Daughters of the Sun, Ira Mukhoty delivers yet again, with a text that firmly marries the rigour of research with the skills of telling stories, a book that ought to be read by academics and laypersons alike without compromising the nuances of the early modern South Asian world.

Akbar was the third emperor of the House of Timur following Babur’s conquest of India – a line descended from the legendary Mongol princess Alanqwa. His reign was characterised by a unique processes that planted Mughal roots deeper in the subcontinent than those of his predecessors Babur and Humayun – a court that valued its Timurid and Persianate roots while absorbing the influences of Hindustan at the same time.

Divided into six chronological sections, Mukhoty’s book examines different phases in the emperor’s lifetime, including the events preceding his birth, such as the foundation, and then the temporary defeat, of the Mughal state by Sher Shah. Akbar’s own travails are the centre of the narrative, but constructed in a manner that attempts to reconstruct the milieu in which the emperor lived rather than provide only a simple chronology of political history with markers like the conquests and expansion of the Mughal state or the cosmopolitan nature of the court with members from Transoxiana, Persia, Rajasthan and, gradually, Europe.

Mukhoty pays significant attention to the manner in which the artistic patronage of the court reflected Akbar’s personality, using various illuminated manuscripts commissioned as court histories as well as the architectural marvels of Fatehpur Sikri and Agra to make her point. Beyond the image of the emperor as the exalted provider of refuge of the world, she also delves into the personal relationships of Akbar the man: his love for his mother, Hamida Banu; his soulful companionship with Abu’l Fazl; and his fatherhood vis-à-vis the rebellious Prince Salim, who chafed under the longest reigning emperor of the dynasty till then.

Persian artists, Hindustani idioms

Writing a biography of one of the greatest monarchs to grace the annals of South Asian history is hardly an easy task. One of the key areas in which Mukhoty excels is her diligent effort to include as many different types of sources as possible to create a narrative – one of the prime examples being the engagement with historical art. In a discipline that has often reduced itself to using purely textual sources, Mukhoty’s book stands out for distilling a story that uses the various material remains we have of the early modern period.

While acknowledged as one of the great origins of South Asian painting, Mughal art has not often been used except as illuminations to beautify the pages of traditional historiography. However, Mukhoty engages critically with the research of art historians regarding the visual representations of Akbar’s reign, describing in detail the state of Mughal royal ateliers, for example. She shows the journey of these royal artists as a tale existing in parallel to that of the emperors themselves.

The rise of Mughal painting as a school came with Abd al-Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali, two Persian entrants to Humayun’s court from that of Shah Tahmasp, just as the waning Mughal sun rose from Kabul to once again rule over Hindustan. Reflecting the eclectic nature of Akbar’s court, Mukhoty’s account also details the influence of painters trained in the Indian tradition on the emperor’s tastes, with historical masterpieces such as the Hamzanama, the Anwar-i Suhayli (part of the Panchatantra tradition) and the illustrated Persian translation of the Baburnama.

An emperor often lauded most for his policy of universal peace, sulh-i kul, Akbar is less often remembered for the artistic brilliance if his reign than he should be, a brilliance matched only during the time of his grandson Shah Jahan.

“Hunched over their canvasses, using a magnifying lens for fine detailing, the men would grow old, and would lose their eyesight, from the precision of the tiny works of art they created, worlds within worlds of fluttering movement, emotion, and splendour. Other artists would pay an even higher price for their years of precise and sustained effort. Daswant, untrained genius, and fragile of mind, would eventually commit suicide, perhaps overcome at the end by these dreams of spinning gold.

In a unique turn of narrative, The Great Mughal also questions the possibility of women as artists in their own right at the court of Akbar – certainly these horse-riding matriarchs of Chingizkhanid blood had an equally voracious interest in art. Using the minutest of details such as the signature of artists on painting folios, Mukhoty concludes that female artists indeed flourished at Akbar’s court, and that there was an interest in learning among the women of the imperial household, who were themselves collectors of manuscripts.

The connected early modern world

Another remarkable success that The Great Mughal achieves is its seamless weaving of connected histories across regions, some beyond the Mughal realm, into the biography. For, indeed, the emperor inhabited a world experiencing an age of far greater interregional interaction than ever, a hallmark of early modernity.

One key example of these interactions is the pilgrimage of Gulbadan Begum and Salima Sultan Begum to Mecca to perform the hajj, accompanied by an appropriately large retinue of courtiers. In citing this event, Mukhoty also reveal layers beyond the fulfilling of piety through Akbar’s lavish gifts intended for the inhabitants of the holy cities – a factor that caused significant irritation to the Ottoman sultan, traditionally the superior of the two rulers as the Caliph of Islam.

The crowning success of The Great Mughal lies perhaps in its treatment of emperor Akbar in terms of his own context of the sixteenth century while still establishing the pertinence of his legacy to the India of today. While a debate rages over the nature of the idea of India, Ira Mukhoty questions the notions of what this chapter of the subcontinent’s history, if reclaimed, could yield as learnings for the conflict of the present. Reading the present in terms of the past may be foolhardy, but surely the only ruler to be accorded the title “the Great” in South Asian history can offer some guidance with his ideas of universal peace and tolerance.

Akbar, Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company