Here lies Bairam Khan

A richly detailed reconstruction of the lives of two Mughal nobles illuminates much about the empire and the cultural milieu.

Written by Irfan Habib | Updated: March 11, 2017 12:04 am
Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, Courtiers and Poets in Mughal India, T.C.A. Raghavan, Harper Collins, books review, indian express books review The assassination of Bairam Khan, painted by Tulsi and Triyya (from the V& A Museum); Abdur Rahim as an old man, a portrait by Hashim (circa 1626)

Book-Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, Courtiers and Poets in Mughal India
Author-T.C.A. Raghavan
Publishers-Harper Collins
Pages 388
Price- Rs 699

This book consists of the biographies of two Mughal nobles, father and son, who played prominent roles over a period of almost nine decades during the lifetimes of three Mughal rulers, Humayun (reigned 1530-56), Akbar (1556-1605) and Jahangir (1605-27). Bairam Khan (died 1561) was crucial in protecting Akbar during the period of his regency (1556-60), the story of his great power and then fall being a staple of textbook history of the Mughal empire. Abdur Rahim, brought up under the great Akbar’s eyes, is now known mainly for the Hindi (or rather ‘Bhasha’) poetry ascribed to him and for his patronage of poets and painters during a long career as a courtier and commander that ended only with his death in 1627.

The story of the lives of these two men tells us much about not only how the Mughal empire functioned as a political and administrative machine, but also about what the cultural milieu was like at the time, at least at elite levels. It can be said without reservation that Raghavan has provided as detailed and critical a narrative of the careers of the father and son as one could wish for.

Naturally, the book in its bulk concerns Abdur Rahim, for our knowledge of Bairam Khan’s early life remains limited. The author disclaims any knowledge of Persian, the main language of his sources, yet he has explored practically every relevant text that has been translated into English or Hindi and has read almost everything that has been written to date on the themes of his concern.

Indeed, Raghavan displays a very accurate understanding of the political and cultural currents of the time, and he is able to extend a scrupulously careful enquiry into the process of recovery of Abdur Rahim’s “Hindi” verses, which seemingly began to obtain much attention only during the 19th century. The only significant translation of a relevant Persian work he seems to have missed is Arif Qandahari’s Tarikh-i-Akbari, essential reading for the last phase of Bairam Khan’s life, the translation being that of Tasneem Ahmad, published in 1993.

The regret still remains that so careful and conscientious a scholar should have had no direct personal access to Persian texts, which has meant that Abd’ul Baqu Nahavandi’s “authorised” biography of Abdur Rahim Khankhanan, the massive but untranslated Ma’asir-i-Rahimi, has remained largely a closed book to him, and so also the recently discovered record of Jahangir’s conversations (November 1608-December 1611), published under the title Majalis-i-Jahangiri, which he does not refer to though it sheds interesting light on Jahangir’s relations with Abdur Rahim. On 8 April 1611, for example, we find Jahangir calling for his own spectacles to help Abdur Rahim (‘Khan Khanan’) scrutinise for him the contents of the seal of Shah Abbas I of Iran. This and other references to Abdur Rahim in the Majalis show that Abdur Rahim’s earlier lack of success in the Deccan did not yet affect his high status at the court or his proximity to Jahangir.

Raghavan makes a laudable effort to assign Abdur Rahim’s ‘Hindi’ compositions to different phases of his life. That he wrote verses in that language is beyond dispute, but whether individual compositions ascribed to him are really his is difficult to establish. But Raghavan has presented us with such evidence as exists as conscientiously as possible; and for this, as indeed for his whole work, he deserves our gratitude.

The tomb in Nizamuddin, Delhi, where Abdur Rahim is buried.

Throughout the book, but especially in his chapter ‘Afterlife’ and ‘Epilogue’, the author added much to this reviewer’s knowledge. It is satisfying to know that though there seems to be no road named after Bairam Khan in Delhi or Agra, he is an officially recognised national icon in post-Soviet Turkmenistan.

Not to be overlooked are the illustrations (Mughal period paintings and photographs of buildings associated with Abdur Rahim) that the author provides us in the middle of the book. The portrait of Abdur Rahim Khankhanan by Hashim that forms Plate VI and also appears on the back cover, has an endorsement in the characteristic hand of Jahangir (who abstained from marking dots). This endorsement reads: ‘Excellent likeness of Khankhanan, Sipahsalar — painted by Hashim’. Curiously, the author misses the significance of this certificate of accuracy furnished by Jahangir himself.

One feels certain that the book would soon need to be issued in a new edition. It would be best if the misspellings and occasional misrenderings of Persian words and, in one case, of a Turkish verse, are corrected by a competent linguist. However, these misprints do not detract from the value of the present work, which both the general reader and the specialist can read with much profit.

The writer is a historian based in Aligarh

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  1. Z
    Zaman Khan
    Mar 11, 2017 at 11:21 am
    Would like to read this book
    Reply