The splendour of Mughal India
Set against the backdrop of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India, which subsequently led to the fall of the Mughal dynasty, “The Last Mughal” is, on one hand, an iconic historical document and, on the other, a reflection of William Dalrymple's long-lasting love affair with the city of Delhi. This love for Delhi characterised the celebrated historian's session at the closing session of the first day of Hay Fest 2014.
Simply titled, “The Last Mughal”, the session was a journey to the bygone splendour of the Mughal world as Dalrymple, dressed in a black Punjabi, read out excerpts of stories and poems from his book while Vidya Shah, with her amazing vocals, performed the Urdu ghazals of the Mughal court, transporting the audience back to the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar.
The performance was a break from the usual discussions of the day. Seating cross-legged on the main stage at the Bangla Academy premises, Dalrymple told the story of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny – a defining period in India's colonial history, one that was termed my Karl Marx as the “first independence war in India.” But the story, familiar to every school children through history books, took on a romance of its own, as Dalrymple's story-telling shed new light on the old. Transported back to a Mughal India, on the verges of being colonised, Dalrymple brought to life Bahadur Shah Zafar, as he was compelled to take up the leadership of the mutiny and eventually sent to exile to Myanmar, forced to leave the city of his love, Delhi. The romantic idea of the Mughal aristocracy was weaved into a story that led to the mutiny, which had killed so many, including the family of the British. The Sepoy Mutiny had killed more than Jallianwala Bagh Massacre which has come to define massacres in Indian history, he observed.
The story-telling was well balanced by the performance of folk-poetry and ghazals by Vidya Shah. The prominent musician and social activist was in no way over-shadowed by the great story-teller. Every ghazal and poem, read out in English by Dalrymple, was followed by a sensational performance of its original by Vidya Shah.
From the controversial, almost mythic tales of pig and cow fat used in the cartridges of the Enfield rifle which is said to have sparked the mutiny to the poems of Ghalib, Hali and of course the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah himself, the session was a perfectly weaved performance living up to its promise.