Off the road from Delhi to Saharanpur lies the architectural legacy of one of the most hybrid courts in the remarkably diverse, freebooting twilight years of the Mughal empire. The town of Sardhana is now off the beaten track, but in the late 18th and early 19th century, it was the jagir of Farzana, or Begum Sumru, she of the rags-to-riches rise from a nautch girl in imperial Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar to confidant and protector of Emperor Shah Alam II. On her, at consecutive rescues by her Sardhana Brigade from contenders to the throne from within and outside his court, he bestowed titles such as Zeb-un-Nissa (jewel among women), Farzand-i-Azizi (most beloved daughter) and Umdat-al-Arakin (pillar of the state).
Farzana found unexpected liberation from her impoverished circumstances in 1765 when a fortune-seeking soldier from Alsace, Walter Reinhardt, took her as a concubine and, soon enough, as a partner in running his estates and battles. Reinhardt was 30 years her senior, a mercenary who changed names almost as many times as he did sides in the chaotically warring landscape of northern India. By now in the service of Indian rulers and on the run from the British for his brutality at Patna, he had adopted, or come to be known by, the name Sumru. His fortunes changed dramatically in the years after his alliance with Farzana, and they came truly into their own when the Mughal empire bestowed on them the jagir of Sardhana.
If in Julia Keay’s lively telling, Reinhardt’s career mirrors, if only somewhat more brutally, the free-for-all jostling for supremacy or, at least, better leverage in the years between the decline of Mughal power and the outright assumption of authority by the British, Farzana’s is a life story powered by her own agency.
It was not just that Farzana, as an equal of Reinhardt’s in running Sardhana and the brigade, trumped innumerable gender inhibitions. She also had no role models. Keay, who passed away after writing the first draft of the biography, romanticises the known snatches of Farzana’s life before Sumru by wondering whether, as a little girl, she saw and lingered a while at the grave of Sultana Raziya. But in striking a rapport with the emperor, her relationship with Reinhardt, and then, after Reinhardt’s death, her leadership of Sardhana and rather more humane (given the times) consolidation of her brigade and estate, her initiative in forging new partnerships (including with the British), her conversion to Christianity, her affairs, and her less successful ploys to secure her legatees, Farzana cleared her own trajectory while managing the circumstances of her incremental rise.
It is interesting to see part of the reason for the success of Keay’s attempt to reclaim Farzana from the few and all too hagiographical and overly romantic biographies in her description of how the Begum imposed her personality on the landscape she inhabited. She left an imprint of a uniquely hybrid and progressive self on the grand basilica at Sardhana, her palaces in Delhi (now Bhagirath Palace, long famous as the city’s wholesale market for electrical fittings) and Sardhana (one now a seminary and the other a school), her earlier haveli at Bharatpur — all this is visible today to the interested traveler. But Keay locates these stops on the Begum Sumru circuit in a three-dimensional profile of what is now the NCR region, with its many bases from which Delhi was then threatened or secured, as it was then. A riveting read.