2ndlook

India: Mangled by Western Historians

Posted in British Raj, European History, Feminist Issues, History, India by Anuraag Sanghi on May 4, 2012

How the myth of courtesans and nautch girls has persisted in Indian history?

Ochterlony, like many Britishers of his age, lived a double life. By night,he lived in Mughal style with his Mughal wives, as seen in his celebrated image on view here, dressed in turban and kurta pajamas watching his dancing girls. By day he promoted the interests of the Company. He also fought in the Anglo-Maratha war of 1803–5, and the 1815 Nepal War of 1815, and was a prominent person in the Company’s political service.

Ochterlony, like many Britishers of his age, lived a double life. By night,he lived in Mughal style with his Mughal wives, as seen in his celebrated image on view here, dressed in turban and kurta pajamas watching his dancing girls. By day he promoted the interests of the Company. He also fought in the Anglo-Maratha war of 1803–5, and the 1815 Nepal War of 1815, and was a prominent person in the Company’s political service.

Patrick French recently claimed in a rather prolix manner that India is xenophobic and gives little place to foreign writers on India.

Aatish Taseer made short work of French by saying that since foreigners have done such a shoddy job on Indian history, a little xenophobia is not bad.

Especially in India.

Foreigners tend to distort India. Some deliberately – like creators of the Aryan Invasion Theory, or the Caste-System Theory.

Some other foreigners were simply ignorant.

A case in point is Fernão Nunes. A Portuguese writer, he created the myth around Indian military and soldiers.

Nunez, the Portuguese chronicler, who was contemporary with Krishna Deva, the Raja of Vijayanagar, in the sixteenth century (1509–30), affirms that that prince led against Raichur an army consisting of 703,000 foot, 32,600 horse, and 551 elephants, besides camp-followers.

Did Fernão Nunes go and count the 551st elephant?

Another Portuguese writer, Faria y Souza mentions 586 elephants. These numbers apart, Fernão Nunes also made a very important contribution to Indian history.

An Indian soldier with the Madras Native Infantry and his wife, circa 1810. Watercolour on Oriental paper, by a EEIC artist, at Tanjore, 1810 (circa)  |  Source - national-army-museum.ac.uk  |  Click for image.

An Indian soldier with the Madras Native Infantry and his wife, circa 1810. Watercolour on Oriental paper, by a EEIC artist, at Tanjore, 1810 (circa) | Source – national-army-museum.ac.uk | Click for image.

Nautch girls of Indian armies

Nunes wrote of courtesans, nautch girls who travelled with Indian armies, soldiers, generals and kings.

Dissolute Indian military that was defeated  by every invader.

Many in modern history think that the Third Battle of Panipat was lost due to the ‘encumbrance’ of women in Maratha forces.

A modern general, Jagjit Singh Arora who obtained the surrender from ‘Tiger’ Niazi in Bangladesh also subscribed to this view.

At one stroke, the equation in the entire game was inverted.

Shop till you drop

What of British ‘traders’ who built harems in India like Ochterloy? See first image.

Islamic trade in Indian women slaves drove the practice of sati and jouhar. Indian women rather than taken captive as slaves, committed self-immolation. For instance after the Third Battle of Panipat, a reported 22,000 Maratha women and boys were captured as slaves by the Islamic army of Durrani.

Wrong turn, Nunez

Now how did Nunes know that these 20,000 were courtesans? A couple of factors that would go against Nunez: –

1. Indian women in 17th century did not wear a top garment – but saree of varying lengths. See image no.2 of the Indian soldier with the Madras Native Infantry and his topless-wife.

2. Compared to near-universal marriage in India, marriage in the Desert Bloc was a upper-class phenomenon till about a few hundred years ago. Stable marriages in the West, that will celebrate shashthipoorthi are still a very low figure – probably single digits. Only the rich could marry their daughters.

3. Remember, Alexander’s Indian wife, Roxanne, from modern Afghanistan, then a part of Bharat-ah travelled with her husband on battles and wars.

4. Is it a simple case of brave Indian wives travelling with their soldier husbands – taking care of injured soldiers?

To a European Nunes,

1. 20,000 of these women (so many married men?)
2. Without a top garment (shameless women!)
3. Accompanying the men to battle (which woman would be stupid to go to battle unless paid handsomely!).

would seem, most likely to be courtesans.

At least, on a per capita basis, modern India has lesser prostitutes than modern Europe. Patronage of courtesans by common soldiers is also not a common practice. Everything, I know about Indians goes against this ‘observation’. However, when you take the context into account, the picture would be different.

But can a foreigner understand this? Unlikely. Many Indians don’t.

And that bring me back to Taseer.

When you don’t study your past, you expose yourself to people distorting it. It was like Churchill said: “India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator.”

Such an offensive thing to say! A near complete dismissal of India’s classical past. And so untrue. I grew up around many such distortions.

But there have been many: old and new, they range from mangoes and slum dogs to apologising histories of the Mutiny; there are the correspondents with their povertarianism and exaggerated fears of Hindu fascist take-overs; and there are the orientalists, who would turn hard gritty India into a fantasy of sweetmeats and fakirs. All problematic, all irritating enough.

Patrick French is right: there is defensiveness these days, there is over-sensitivity and perhaps a degree of xenophobia too. But in a country which has bended so easily to the will of foreigners in the past, and where foreigners are still invisibly able to occupy positions of great power, both politically and intellectually, a little xenophobia is not such a bad thing. (via A vibrant entity – Hindustan Times).


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