Farzana: The Woman who Saved an Empire

Arif Akbar in The Independent:

TajFarzana began life as an impoverished, powerless girl in Mughal-era India, where social hierarchies were prescribed and inescapable. Penniless and orphaned by teen age, she earned her keep by servicing the priapic needs of the East India Company in the dance halls of Delhi. So how, by the end of her life, had she become not only the leader of a formidable army but a revered adventurer who sat on an immense personal fortune in one the most illustrious estates of 18th-century India?

Her story is as large as any multiplex-worthy biopic and in Julia Keay’s hands, it is brought alive both in its sensational biographic detail – the stormy love life and marriages, the conversion from Islam to Catholicism, the rag-to-riches ascendancy of a “nautch” girl (dancer-cum-prostitute) – and in the power-play between the East India Company’s imperial expansion across India and a tottering Mughal Court struggling to maintain its footing as a ruling power. In almost every aspect of her life, Farzana managed to defy the social conventions that would have written her off as victim of her social class, her gender, her illegitimate birth. She was sold to the “nautch” trade by her destitute mother when her father died and his wife – not Farzana’s mother –inherited his wealth. Farzana’s beauty gave her a natural advantage in this environment but the trade also seemed to finesse her powers of beguilement in other, far more powerful ways. It was her ability to gain the trust of the men she entertained and to soothe but also to become their companion and confidante, which gave her the knee-up.

More here.