Begam Samru: Fading Portrait in a Gilded Frame by John Lall, New Edition
The Lotus Collection/ Roli Books/2012, pp.145 (PB)
The period between the death of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 and the mutiny of 1857 is most fascinating epoch of Indian history in terms of enthralling characters and rapidly changing chain of events. The formal historiography obsessed with generalization has paid little attention to the details of the characters and events that are so vital to understand the nuances of our most recent history. However, beyond the official and the academic courtyards, a good number of well-researched works are arriving on the scene for last few years revealing the era to us. John Lall’s Begam Samru: Fading Portrait in a Gilded Frame is one such book that narrates the alluring saga of a nautch girl that became a nawab playing a significant role in the chaotic and violent power struggle that resulted in the extinction of the Great Mughals and the victory of the British.
The book maps the journey of Begam Samru, born as Farzana in Kutana, a qasba near Delhi, to a nobleman Asad Khan and his mistress. In 1760, her widowed mother brought the girl to Delhi after being harassed by her husband’s family. But soon after the arrival the mother succumbed to illness and the orphaned girl was adopted by a woman who ran the kotha at Chowri Bazar where her mother was once trained. After some years, she was a beautiful charming lady ready to amuse the nobles and earn good money for herself and the lady.
One fine day in 1765, General Reinhardt, a feared general of European origin entered the city and visited the kotha. After a day or two, Farzana left the kotha with the general to become his companion. The General, now with the title of Sombre aka Samru, was granted a jagir in Sardhana near Meerut in 1776 after spending years in Delhi. After his death in 1778, the Emperor Shah Alam transferred the jagir to the Begum. She converted to Christianity in 1791 to become Joanna and controlled the jagir for some years to come with much wisdom and administrative skill winning the heart and mind of her subjects. She fell in love with Le Vasoult, a French cavalier under her command, and married him in 1793.
This association caused upheavals within her court and her family, and among her soldiers and generals leading to her losing the jagirdari to the East India Company. She died in 1836. During her reign, she built many schools and sarais. The Sardhana church still stands a witness to her grandeur.
The charm of her story lies in the details of her maneuvers in continuing her control amidst the tumultuous power struggle among the Mughals, the British, the Marathas, the Jats, the Sikhs, the Rohillas and other such forces. From the diplomatic guile to the warfare, she played her cards very masterly and won patronage from the Mughlas as well as the British.
John Lall has explored myriad amount of archival materials spread across the globe in different archives and collections to unearth numerous details about the lady. Being trained in history and having served as the officer in the region have given a wider canvas to the author in deciphering the saga of the enigmatic Begam. The narrative style of the book makes it thoroughly a good read. John Lall must be commended for bringing the story and the history of Begam Samru, one of the central characters in the later Mughal period, to the mainstream.
A version of this article has appeared in The New Indian Express (March 3, 2013)