This is the story of the poet Mah Laqa Chanda Bai.
“Hoping to blossom (one day) into a flower,
Every bud sits, holding its soul in its fist.”
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These two lines from a poem of Mah Laqa Chanda Bai reflect her life. While writing these lines, Mah was a budding woman poet in a patriarchal society. While others tried to put her talent under the veil of customs and traditions, she knew how good she was. These lines draw a painful and frustrating parallel to what she felt inside. After all, poetry is a way to express what cannot be spoken.
Mah Laqa Bai was born as Chanda Bai to a Hindu mother who married a Mughal empire military official. She was born in the city of Aurangabad, a city dedicated to Aurangzeb. Chanda was adopted by her mother’s sister. Her aunt, Mehtaab Ma was a popular courtesan of Nizam of Hyderabad. Hence she was not allowed to bear any child on her own.
Growing up in a palace had its advantages. Mah Laqa Chanda Bai had the royal library to herself. These libraries were full of Urdu and Persian poets and their great works. Her love for poetry caught the eyes of the Nizam. He would spend time with her discussing his favourite poems. He treated her like a daughter and made special arrangements for her. She learned spear-throwing and horse riding from military trainers.
After the death of the Nizam, the second Nizam made her a courtesan and gave her the title Mah Laqa, meaning ‘Visage of the moon’. She was in her prime under the reign of the second Nizam. During this period, she even ventured into battles with the Nizam. She would dress up as a male soldier and remain in the protection group of Nizam.
She witnessed three battles with Nizam together. Impressed by her bravery and loyalty, he gave her a piece of land and named it ‘Chandanagar’.
After these events, she became the next big thing to royalty. Mah Laqa Chanda Bai would tour the market in a palanquin carried by the slaves. She was also given a group of royal guards for protection. In this free time, she started investing time in poetry writing.
The language of Persia had come to India with the Turkic and Arabic invasions. In Northern India, it had taken the form of Urdu, a hybrid of Hindi and Persian. When it came down south it turned into a new form of Urdu, known as Dakkin.
Mah Laqa Chanda Bai started writing poems in Dakkin. And became the first woman to write a complete ‘Diwan’. Diwan is a collection of Urdu poems. These poems must have a social message or a moral. And generally were a part of royal collections of Islamic rulers.
Some people’s greatness is bounded by the limitation of the era they were born in. Mah Laqa Chanda Bai would have been a great icon for her peer females. But she belonged to the era where the sparks of feminism were not allowed to catch fire. But art outlives artists. And her poems became a pillar for feminists all over the Indian subcontinent in future years.