Under my byline

Princely portrait

Posted in Art, Books, Living by Rrishi on 5 September 2009

Akbar, ca 1605OVERLEAF 45

If Dara Shikoh was such a wonderful prince, why is he not more warmly remembered? There are some things going for him: he was the eldest son and possibly his father’s favourite, his brother was one of the great baddies of Indian history, his defeat was tragic and precipitated by betrayal and poor advice more than impatience or stupidity, and he was a scholarly fellow with unorthodox religious views — views which place him in line with his great grandfather Akbar, the Great. Yet, unlike Akbar, Dara wins our sympathy, not our affection.

In my own case, I put it down to never having seen a good, intimate portrait of Dara. Of Akbar there is a remarkable sketch, a simple and not at all stylised charcoal drawing, dated about 1605, which shows just his head, inclined forward slightly and with eyes cast down. It is a meditative picture free of hubris or imperial symbology (save a light turban). How not to like as well as respect this man?

No such luck for Dara. Of Dara there are pen portraits, character sketches among which perhaps the best known are by Europeans who were at the Mughal court. The pithiest is that of the Frenchman François Bernier, who was associated with Aurangzeb’s retinue but remained an independent and judicious observer.

Tellingly, he starts, “Dara was not deficient in good qualities:” before continuing, “he was courteous in conversation, quick at repartee, polite, and extremely liberal: but he entertained too exalted an opinion of himself; believed he could accomplish everything by the powers of his own mind, and imagined that there existed no man from whose counsel he could derive benefit. He spoke disdainfully of those who ventured to advise him, and thus deterred his sincerest friends from disclosing the secret machinations of his brothers. [Yet he knew enough to be wary of Aurangzeb.] He was also very irascible; apt to menace; abusive and insulting even to the greatest Omrahs [nobles; but there are contrasting accounts: the sprightly Venetian Niccolao Manucci, in Dara’s service as a gunner, refutes such stories as rumour]; but his anger was seldom more than momentary.” And the behaviour that allowed Aurangzeb to condemn Dara as an apostate: “Born a Mahometan, he continued to join in the exercises of that religion; but although thus publicly professing his adherence to its faith, Dara was in private a Gentile with Gentiles, and a Christian with Christians.”

While Dara spent time on scholarship — among other things, supervising the translation of Sanskrit sacred texts into Persian and composing the arcane Majma al-Bahrain or The Commingling of Two Oceans, the two oceans being Sufism and Upanishadic thought — his brother and rival was busy intriguing in anticipation of the showdown. Aurangzeb, Bernier says, “was devoid of that urbanity and engaging presence, so much admired in Dara… He was reserved, subtle, and a complete master of the art of dissimulation.” This was a master one could be sure of. Even Manucci, whom Dara hired and favoured, does not seem to have loved his master. Judging from such accounts, despite his gifts, Dara did not leave much for his well-wishers to grip him by.

On August 30, 350 years ago, Aurangzeb had Dara murdered by a slave. The anniversary has passed almost unnoticed.

The thing to note is that in judging these princes we benefit incalculably from the literateness, sense of history, diligence and adventurousness of the expatriate memoirists. How impoverished will be our own history in the eyes of our successors, without good firsthand accounts of our rulers! The workings of the present court, save the occasional anecdote, are all but opaque to us — and will remain so. Our rulers gather about themselves illiterate and/or timid dependants; of such material is history not made.

(If you click on the names of Bernier and Manucci above, you can read the full text of their books on India. Also please see Ashok Malik’s article, “The Month We Lost Dara“, in the Pioneer.)

The month we lost Dara
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