Taking its title from T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim: Courtiers & Poets in Mughal India (2017), traces the stories of Bairam Khan (1501–1561) and his son Abdur Rahim (1556–1627), nobles of Persian ancestry who together served under the first four Mughal emperors and rose to high positions (both given the title Khan-i-Khanan or King of Kings, the highest title for nobles) but also fell from grace at different times. The author T. C. A. Raghavan is a former diplomat, having served as India’s High Commissioner to Singapore and Pakistan, and holds a PhD in history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has written on both history and international relations.
Based on the limited record available on Bairam and the more detailed one on Rahim, as well of course as the period they were prominent in court and the duration of their lives, only the first chapter of the book is devoted to Bairam and four to Rahim, while the last traces Rahim’s legacy, and how he and more so his poetry lives on to this day. An epilogue explores what became of their family and depictions in popular culture. While both men were military commanders, with Bairam serving as regent for 5 years for the third Mughal emperor Akbar who had to take the throne at age 13, and Abdur Rahim leading important military campaigns to Gujarat and the Deccan, the eternal thorn in the Mughals’ side, both were also poets, with hundreds of verses attributed to them. Rahim who is best known today for his couplets or dohas which most school students in Hindi speaking regions at least are introduced to at some point or other, wrote in several languages; some of his early works (written as early as age 14) were in three languages—Sanskrit, Hindi, and Persian. He also wrote in Braj and Avadhi, and at one point is noted by a contemporary source as expressing interest in learning or having started to learn Portuguese and Latin as well. As was the case in those days (even now, in fact, though consequences are different), both found favour and rose at court but also saw stormy days, and rather tragic ends.
This is an excellently researched (of particular note is the chapter on Rahim’s legacy which meticulously reviews and analyses Hindi, Urdu and other works from contemporary times to the present to examine how Rahim’s poetry was remembered and received at different points) and very readable volume which takes us into the lives of these two remarkable men but also into the Mughal empire from its initial days under Babur, to the difficulties that Humayun faced when trying to balance things out with his brothers, through the long reign of Akbar which saw rich cultural life alongside matters of empire, and finally that of Jahangir, during whose rule, Rahim faced perhaps the worst period of his life, as Jahangir too had to deal with the rebellion of his son, Shah Jahan, as also one of his generals.
One aspect that stood out to me when reading the book was how cultural and military life went almost hand in hand in the court at this time. While I did know of course that cultural life was rich and there were always court poets, and nobles and royalty were patrons of the arts and literature, what I learnt was how ‘fully cultured’ men at the time (including Emperors themselves) were expected to display their skills at war and in court which meant not only military prowess but also wit and polish, and poetic skills as well for letters were written and responded to in verse, in part of course to flatter, but also as a testament to skill. Court poets too, were not only there to entertain but served as ambassadors when required. Besides writing poetry himself, Rahim was also a great patron of poets and writers and had an enviable library of 24,000 volumes (to build which he spent freely and made much effort).
Rahim’s poetry and indeed the broader literary culture of the time reflects the liberal and syncretic atmosphere of Akbar’s court where different languages and traditions mingled, and religions were discussed and debated. But of course, Akbar’s liberal attitude had its critics too, and those with a more orthodox bent expressed dissent and wrote petitions regularly. But it was a period when people with varying and opposed views and ideologies seemed to coexist.
The court was of course rife with intrigues and politics, and everyone whatever be their position had to always tread carefully, for power equations changed almost constantly. While victory in battle could bring one much glory, equally a defeat could see fingers pointed and treachery alleged. Things got most heated at times when possible heirs battled each other and even the emperor to establish their position.
For a period for which we have a fairly strong contemporary historical record, through official court historians as well as other observers (including travellers), it was somewhat surprising to see that in the case of nobles like Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, there are still periods of their lives about which little is known. And in fact, through the author’s exploration of the record from which he tries to construct a picture of the two men, another interesting point that comes up, especially in Rahim’s case, is of how much a person plays a role in constructing the image of themselves. Rahim for instance, took no side obviously whether in matters of belief or power. While much is known about the positions he occupied, the battles he led and fought (starting rather young), and the abundance of poetry that he wrote, yet even from all this and from contemporary accounts, little can be gauged about his beliefs, feelings, or even motivations. The author examines the record, brings up possible interpretations, points at obvious exaggerations but also highlights how we really can’t answer some questions at the end of the day.
A book which I really enjoyed reading for the picture it gives one not only of its subjects but also of the period and especially the significant role that literature and poetry played in it.
Interesting Fact: If you thought plagiarism checks and accusations were only something that happened in the present, think again. Bairaim Khan in the final months of his regency was accused of buying a verse and passing it off as his own, a charge of which a much-later historian absolved him!
Copy reviewed: Harper Collins India, 2017, pp. 338; own purchase