Arts

Emory Professor Publishes Biography Of India’s Only Empress

Historian Ruby Lal chats about her book "Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan."
Historian Ruby Lal chats about her book "Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan."
Credit Courtesy of WW Norton and Company

There are many stories of women in positions of power and leadership — a new documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes to mind, as well as the dramatization of the life of Queen Elizabeth the second in the Netflix series “The Crown.” A new book offers the story of one powerful woman from four centuries ago.

“Empress” is the biography of Nur Jahan, a Muslim woman who became the ruler of the vast Mughal Empire. She was the only woman in Indian history to ascend to the position of empress.

The book was written by Ruby Lal, professor of history and south Asian studies at Emory University. She tells City Lights host Lois Reitzes that she was inspired to write Jahan’s story by stories that her mother used to tell her about the ruler.

“My mother called her ‘maharani’ in Hindi,” Lal says, “which means ‘queens of queens.’ So I knew about queens, I knew about empresses, but queens of queens! I think that would tickle any girl and it certainly tickled me.”

Jahan became the favorite wife of the Emperor Jahangir, ruler of the Mughal Empire, in 1611. She was 34 years old. In the book, Lal paints a picture of Jahan as an astute politician, a talented dress designer, and an innovative architect whose work inspired the Taj Mahal.

Lal has written extensively about Indian history. Her previous books include “Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World,” and “Coming of Age in Nineteenth Century India: The Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness.” With “Empress,” she hopes to illuminate a side of the country’s history that people may not be aware of.

“The extraordinary rise and the creativity of women and the extraordinary endeavors, against all odds, I think that is really the point of the book,” she says. “But it’s also very precisely about an India that people don’t imagine. Here’s an extraordinary icon of India. I think this is the history of India.”

Lal points to one of the dedications in the book: “To the ancestors of India’s women and to a plural heritage.”

“In other words, she is my ancestor, and that’s the story I want to tell.”

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