The period between the death of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 and the mutiny of 1857 is a fascinating epoch of Indian history in terms of the rapidly changing chain of events. Beyond the official and the academic courtyards, a good number of well-researched works are arriving on the scene for last few years revealing the era and its lesser known people to us. John Lall’s Begam Samru: Fading Portrait in a Gilded Frame narrates the alluring saga of a nautch girl who became a nawab—playing a significant role in the chaotic and violent power struggle that resulted in the extinction of the Great Mughals and the victory of the British.
The book maps the journey of Begam Samru, born as Farzana in Kutana, near Delhi, to a nobleman Asad Khan and his mistress. In 1760, her widowed mother brought the girl to Delhi after being harassed by her husband’s family. But soon after the arrival, the mother succumbed to illness and the orphaned girl was adopted by a woman in Delhi’s Chowri Bazar where her mother was once trained in dance. She grew up into a beautiful charming lady ready to amuse the nobles and earn good money for herself and her employer. One fine day in 1765, General Reinhardt, a feared general of European origin entered the city and visited the kotha. After a day or two, Farzana left the kotha with the general to become his companion. The General, now with the title of Sombre aka Samru, was granted a “jagir” (title) in Sardhana near Meerut in 1776 after spending years in Delhi. After his death in 1778, the Emperor Shah Alam transferred the title to the Begum. She converted to Christianity in 1791 to become Joanna and reigned for some years with much wisdom and administrative skill winning the heart and mind of her subjects. She fell in love with Le Vasoult, a French cavalier under her command, and married him in 1793. This association caused upheavals within her court, her family, and among her soldiers and generals—leading to her losing Sardhana to the East India Company. She died in 1836. During her reign, Begum Samru built many schools and sarais. The Sardhana church stands a witness to her grandeur.
The charm of her story lies in the details of her manoeuvres in continuing her control amidst the tumultuous power struggle among the Mughals, the British, the Marathas, the Jats, the Sikhs, the Rohillas and other such forces. From the diplomatic guile to the warfare, she played her cards very masterly and won patronage from the Mughlas as well as the British. John Lall has explored archival materials spread across the globe. Having read history and having served as the officer in the region help the author in deciphering the saga of the enigmatic Begam. The narrative style of the book makes it thoroughly a good read. John Lall must be commended for bringing the story and the history of Begam Samru, one of the central characters in the later Mughal period, to the mainstream.