A settled attribute of our history textbooks is that they’re insipid – written in a particular way by historians of a particular ilk, designed around events of a particular nature. Succession drives their literature. Wars dominate their thought. Stories of the victors remain, while those of the fallen are lost.
They follow a takht (throne) – over – taboot (coffin) model; a single-story structure that burnishes accounts of the hunter, and burns that of the hunted.
Single stories, however, are a problematic way of dealing with ‘itihas’ (the-way-things-were). For, not only do they moat their audiences into a dull, monolithic narrative, turning them into sounding boards for isolated and cherry-picked details, they simultaneously strengthen stereotypes, breed binaries, and create unmerited cults – a tragedy to the possibilities of human imagination.
It is in this context that filmmaker Karan Johar’s recent interest in the life of Dara Shikoh comes as a refreshing change. It’s a relief not only because many have tried to read modern concepts such as secularism and liberalism into Dara Shikoh – a human alive in the age of empires – but also because it opens a stream of thought into the past, challenging the parochial narrative that views the Mughals as a monolithic entity of bigotry, corroborated largely by the improprieties of emperor Aurangzeb.
Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of emperor Shah Jahan, was much more than a regular prince for he could think beyond the clash of swords and clink of coins. He was fond of calligraphy and poetry. He liked engaging with the saints and philosophers, inviting plurality of thoughts to visit him. He devoted much of his life trying to find a common grammar between Islam and Hinduism. In pursuit of that goal, he translated 50 Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian so that they could be studied by Muslim scholars as well as Persian-reading Hindus. Dara was a man made of love.
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In the struggle for succession, he was defeated in Samugarh by his brother, Aurangzeb. After that defeat, Dara spent his last months as a fugitive, only to be captured later by Aurangzeb’s men. It’s said that when he was captured, Dara tried to defend himself with all he had left – a knife used for sharpening pens.
However, Dara’s story must not succumb to the perils of a single-story. Contrary to popular opinion, he was not a man who completely removed himself from the hurry and strife of politics – he rather viewed himself as a future emperor. He undertook military campaigns, at times even demanding from his father, emperor Shah Jahan, that he be put in charge of such campaigns. He was a governor to Lahore, Allahabad, Malwa, Gujarat, Multan-Kabul and Bihar.
Dara’s life was a fusion of his academic explorations and his political aspirations. He did not pursue knowledge because he thought of himself as someone unfit for the throne, but because he did, one day, see himself on it. He modelled himself, according to historian Supriya Gandhi, on Akbar and Alexander — embodiments of the idea of a philosopher-ruler.
Filmmaker Karan Johar, therefore, sits on a great opportunity. And I look upon a film for this course-correction rather than books — though there are good ones by Avik Chanda and Supriya Gandhi — because films, as a medium, are uniquely placed. They allow us not only to visit events of the past as spectators to a time passed, but to inhabit and dwell in them, even if briefly. They provide not just a space people visit to have fun and share their time with the stars, but one that allows people to meet with their own inner rigidities, conflicts, and even their hidden hopes.
“History wrote this story,” said Johar at a press conference, “I’m only telling it.”
One hopes that in telling this story, Johar looks above and beyond the Takht model of story-telling and makes a feature that introduces diversity in our conversations, our relationships and eventually in us.
Chandan Karmhe is a Chartered Accountant, an alumnus of IIM-Ahmedabad and a Delhi University law graduate.
Featured image credit: YouTube screengrab