Secret lives of Begums in the harems of princely India

Author Tarana Husain studies forgotten histories through diaries
Mar 19, 2021
Photo: Dolls of India
Photo: Dolls of India

Women living luxurious lives burdened with unfulfilled dreams within regal harems of the long lost princely states have inspired Indian writer Tarana Husain Khan to write The Begum and the Dastan.

“The whole idea of the book came from oral histories that used to be narrated to us when we were young,” said Tarana at a webinar organised on Tuesday by Oxford Bookstore in collaboration with Westland Books. It was moderated by Indian author Kishwar Desai. 

“The basic premise of the story is despotism and patriarchy and how women deal with it," said Tarana, adding that every despot creates a city in his own image and that is what the nawabs did in the princely states. 

'Most histories are male-centric'

There were more than 500 princely states in the India before Partition, which were the hubs of Indian cultures. “A lot of it hasn’t been written about so much,” she said. The author did research for four years on the lives of begums in harems, during which she chanced upon diaries, describing the begums and their lives. “These narratives shaped my imagination, found their way into the book and made it livelier.” 

The Begum and the Dastan has three key characters: Feroza Begum, Kallan Mirza and Ameera. Feroza is a beautiful and headstrong woman in the princely state of Sherpur, who is kidnapped and held captive in Nawab Shams’ lavish harem when she attends the sawani celebrations there. Her husband divorces her and she is disowned by her family. Feroza ends up marrying the Nawab and is forced to live a loveless life in the harem’s glamour and noise. 

“The story of Feroza Begum was inside me for a very long time,” said Tarana. While she was researching Rampur culture, she found that most written histories were male-centric. “It’s so unfortunate that the whole cultural diaspora around women and how they lived their lives has been completely eradicated,” said Tarana. There are a number of authors who have written about the harems out of fascination, but The Begum and the Dastan goes beyond glamorous or ugly lives in lavish confinements. 

'A rebel in the harem'

“Feroza’s name is inspired by a true story,” Tarana revealed. “It is about how she deals with situations thrown in her path and decides to live her life on her own terms when she is trapped in the Nawab’s glittering harem.” Feroza was a fearless woman and her relationship with the Nawab was extremely complex. There was love, hatred, and anger. Tarana remarked people wouldn’t have been reading about Feroza in history books had she not birthed a child, which is the basic question of the book. A woman who birthed a child is remembered in history books, she said, and many others who passed in and out of the harem died without leaving any mark, their lives barely lived. Such  internal achievements of women in close, sequestered places also stimulated Tarana’s research.

The book is not, however, just based on oral histories, but also draws on the works by women who lived in the princely states and wrote poems and stories. “My research was based on written narratives by people who chanced to meet the begums,” said Tarana. When asked by Kishwar if women in these harems learnt things from each other they might not have learnt outside them, Feroza said: “Feroza learns a lot in the harem because she comes from a very conservative background and is exposed to music and poetry.” The harems were lively spaces with a lot of musical performances, food and constant celebrations. The women spent most of their time enjoying dance and singing. In fact, a number of performers in the harems were accomplished performers. 

The princely states had zananas (private chambers for women) and their chief begums, who had the most authority. “Feroza wants to be the chief begum but she was never pliable and amenable to the Nawab as she never let go of her anger,” said Tarana. “She could have been the chief if she had birthed a crown prince, given her good Pathan background.” After Feroza gives birth to a daughter, she doesn’t care about having a son anymore. The only redeeming part of the Nawab’s character is his affection towards his daughter.

Dastangoyi (storytelling)

The second strand of the book revolves around Kallan Mirza, a skilled dastango (storyteller), who spins tales of a despotic sorcerer Tareek Jaan in the bazaar chowk. His tales have an uncanny familiarity to the life of Feroza Begum. Kallan’s opium addiction causes him to vacillate between reality and fantasy.

“It’s all about the power of storytelling because despite all odds, Kallan wants to narrate the story of Feroza Begum,” said Tarana. “He disguises it into his story called Tilism e Azam, which mirrors Feroza Begum's life." Kallan wants to make people feel strongly about the begum's plight and informs them about what's happening in their town.

“Kallan’s character was the last to come onboard,” said Tarana. Old timers told me that dastangoyi would take place every Thursday evening. People were wildly invested in stories, and the cliffhangers would keep them anticipating the next session.

“In the 1930s, when anglicisation was taking place a lot of women stepped out of purdah,” said Tarana. This change prompted a different outlook for Muslim women as the world opened up before them. 

'The veil and zananas are still there'

The third and the last part of the book chronicles Ameera, Feroza Begum’s great-granddaughter. She finds solace in her Dadi’s stories after her parents refuse to pay her school fee and she is confined to her home. “Ameera shows us how she is dealing with patriarchy in other forms of the post-Nawab era.”

Tarana revealed it was most difficult for her to bring in Ameera. “With my experience of teaching young women, I realise they are facing a lot of hurdles at home.” Women are not living the lives they deserve and can’t pursue their aspirations in small towns. Ameera wonders, as her life falls apart, if anything has changed for Sherpur’s women, after all.

Tarana had to rewrite Ameera several times to make her character relatable to women living under restrictions today. 

“They are still carrying the veil and zananas in their heads,” she remarked. "We sitting in big cities don't feel patriarchy but it still very much exists."

Tabool ads will show in this div