In 1644, in Agra, a solitary event changed the life of Shahzadi Jahanara Begam, eldest and favourite daughter to the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. On a quiet, moonlit night, in the silvery shadows of a luminous tomb being built in the memory of her dead mother, the princess in a cloud of perfumed silk was accidentally set ablaze by a row of flickering oil diyas lining her palace quarters. At the behest of a distraught emperor, all the fakirs of the land rushed to the royal infirmary with their potions and cures. Eighteen painful months later, the princess survived to tell the tale, but not before a paradigm shift had taken place in her world — both within and without.
An exceptionally gifted woman, Jahanara was a writer, painter, poet and a patron of literature. But these accomplishments aside, there was a turmoil raging in her heart. Apart from the accident, there was much going on in her life in that period: her father’s failing health, a succession war among her brothers to wrest the throne from the emperor, and a lover she could not bring to light because of an archaic mandate that prevented Mughal princesses from marrying. But adversity, purposeful as it always is, led her to discover spirituality; and when her many attempts to broker peace between the emperor and his militant sons failed, she found solace in embracing Sufism. With that, she underwent a complete transformation.
It is at this point in history that I take the artistic liberty, to imagine that this internal change may have manifested itself in a regal simplicity in Jahanara’s demeanour – and maybe even in her sartorial choices. Perhaps she eschewed the opulence of heavy embroidery, dripping with diamonds, rubies and emeralds; perhaps she said no to the bolts of lace which English traders brought to her father’s court. And perhaps the rich silks from Thailand no longer held her interest. Were the kharkhanas of Benares – the imperial ateliers- abuzz with her orders? Did the famous creators of silken brocades now weave masterpieces in cotton muslin, which rested on her petite frame with the tenderness of a mountain mist? Which colours did she ask for? Was it pale cardamom and soft sandalwood that soothed her soul? Did scented ash and sandstone pink calm her spirit? Or was it marble white that enrobed the humble piety of a singed princess? In an august Mughal palace, where the norm core was ostentation, it wouldn’t be amiss to consider minimalism as a companionless concept. But perhaps, just perhaps, it may have entered the Padshah Begam’s wardrobe while Sufism took possession of her heart…
* This is a concept note for a collection of garments titled ‘Jahanara’ which will be presented at the Amazon India Fashion Week SS’17 on October 15th 2016. The collection was inspired by a read of Indu Sundaresan’s book, ‘Shadow Princess’.