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Enacting a Diversity Champion of Medieval India: Mah Laqa Bai aka Chanda Bibi (1768-1824)

April 2, 2018

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A painting (photo) by Rai Venkatchallam, in the collection of the Salar Jung Museum, that shows Mah Laqa Bai’s extraordinary presence – the only female in a landscape of men. She can be seen in her palanquin at the upper right of the painting.

Ratika Sant Keswani (RSK) is an accomplished stage artist. Her exquisite enactment of Mah Laqa Bai or Chanda Bibi (1768-1824), a product of the eighteenth century Deccan, gives her a unique opportunity to explore the remarkable personality. The Q&A brings out Ratika’s passion for diversity and highlights her empathy for this versatile and defiant historical character.

For the last twelve years Ratika has been part of the financial services. She currently works for KPMG, based out of Hyderabad.

PG: Your insights into her and her upbringing?

RSK: Mah Laqa was in the truest sense “woman of substance”. She not only was a poetess, but a courtesan, a philanthropist, a warrior, an exceptional swordsman, a very important and trusted member of the court of the Nizam for the state policy matters and was appointed as Omrah (senior nobility).

Born in 1768 to Nawab Basalat Khan Bhadur and Raj Kuwar, she was given away to her older sister Mehtaab Bibi, who was unable to conceive. Mehtaab Bibi was married to Rukn-ud-Daula, the 10th prime minister of the Nizam. Horse riding, languages (Urdu and Persian), poetry, sword fighting were her favourite subjects. Once she showed interest in poetry and music she was taught and mentored by the greats of the time. She was trained in classical music by Kushal Khan Kalawant – great grandson of Tansen, a master musician. She was a pious woman, a devoted mystic, greatly influenced by the Sufi and Bhakti elements.

She probably entered the court of Nizam as a courtesan but rose to the level of senior Omrah (highest nobility) basis her intelligence and wisdom.

PG: Challenges she faced?

RSK: To survive & excel in man’s world!

To be a warrior – she fought 3 wars, dressed as a man. She was an expert swordsman & archer.

To be accepted in the court of the nizam as a policy advisor.

To excel in her area of interest – poetry, and participate in mushairas, those were restricted to men.

To move beyond the labelling of a “courtesan”.

To be okay being a courtesan so as to enjoy the perks of freedom and out of bounds of any male control.

To remain unmarried, and adopting young girls to give them a quality life and future.

Moving on in life knowing that the love of her life used her love, loyalty and devotion for his personal gain.

PG: How did she break out of the glass ceiling of her times?

RSK: By being Fearless. She used her intelligence and was persistent to achieve her dreams.

PG: What did she choose to write on?

RSK: Her poetry is a reflection of her own experiences at the time. While like most, her ghazals are also about eternal love, faithfulness, pain of abandonment but one can also see references of the state politics through enmity, fidelity, intrigue and her mystical devotion to Hazrat Ali – the saint.

PG: If she were to reborn today, what could be the challenges that she might face?

RSK: To excel in a man’s world!

Challenges are the same – just that now survival is easier for women, the bigger problem is that women want to excel more than ever. So they have to constantly fight – fight stereotypes, fight inequality, fight to balance work & family, fight biases of what she can and cannot do, fight to lead and not trail.

PG: Many thanks & best wishes in all your endeavours!

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